Welcome to 12 Days of Deadwood, in which Matt Zoller Seitz, author of the upcoming A Lie Agreed Upon: The Deadwood Chronicles, revisits the first season of the landmark HBO drama one episode at a time. Up today: “Deep Water,” written by Malcolm MacRury and directed by Davis Guggenheim, which originally aired on March 28, 2004.
“Deep Water” starts with E.B. Farnum calling on Mr. Wu in Chinatown, delivering the corpse of Tim Driscoll. Whitney Ellsworth’s yapping dog, sniffing Driscoll’s just-turned flesh, might’ve tipped off onlookers, were any paying attention. Wu sneers at the racism embedded in Farnum’s mockery of his native tongue, but Farnum is oblivious. Yesterday’s other corpse, that of Ned Mason, will be buried this same day in a plain wood coffin, prepared by Reverend Smith at the request of Seth Bullock, who drew on Ned at dawn, standing beside Wild Bill.
Directed by Davis Guggenheim, with a script credited to Malcolm MacRury (and heavily rewritten by David Milch, like all of Deadwood’s scripts), “Deep Water” continues the story lines introduced in the pilot episode and further establishes the constant threat of lethal danger that’s innate to camp life. Before the hour is through, Al Swearengen will have dispatched his right-hand man, Dan Dority, to kill the Spearfish Road massacre’s only survivor, Sofia, before she can verify that the killings were committed by Ned and Tom Mason (Nick Offerman) and their partner in crime, Persimmon Phil (Joe Chrest), the white so-called “road agent” associates of Al’s, rather than the Sioux blamed by Ned. Dan, a killer with a code, is soul-sick at being asked; he escapes his fate by making common cause with Sofia’s caretaker, Doc Cochran, who joins him in a lie: The maniac Bullock spirited the girl from camp. Tom Mason goes to Tom Nuttall’s with Persimmon Phil hoping to revenge-kill Bill, but Bill sizes them up as threats, enlists Bullock to keep an eye on Phil, and blasts Tom before he can pull his gun. Bullock verifies Bill’s account to the shocked crowd. Weasel Phil slinks back to the Gem; Al, knocked out of his mental rut by Dan and Doc’s fresh thinking and persuaded that the “squarehead” girl poses no threat because she doesn’t speak English, cuts the last link between the road agents and himself by stabbing Phil to death.
Earlier in the episode, there was a joke about the bad breakfasts at Farnum’s hotel that felt like a throwaway but wasn’t: Bill, Nuttall, and A.W. Merrick joked about yesterday’s biscuits and their attendant roaches making a repeat appearance, and Bill described one as “stuck to his position.” That’s Al at the beginning of the day but not at the end.
There are three main narrative strands in this episode, and we start to see them converge near the end. The first and most important is the matter of Sofia’s safety, resolved by Doc and Dan’s common cause and Al’s dagger. It’s significant that Al, who has been portrayed up until now as a selfish beast (albeit an entertaining one), initially pushes Dan to kill the girl but relents — and presents the relenting as a practical choice. The same goal is achieved by different means.
MacRury, Milch, and their collaborators don’t pass judgment on Al one way or the other — he’s just protecting what he has amassed. “This camp could be up for grabs!” Al warns Phil, looming over him. The line expresses Al’s anxiety not just at the Spearfish Road clusterfuck but regarding an impending (imagined) political alliance between Bullock and Wild Bill Hickok, possibly emboldened by letting Bullock and Sol Star set down permanent roots on the plot they rented. When Al pours whiskey into Tom Mason’s glass and anti-Bill invective into his ear, he is outwardly expressing fellow feeling for a man whose brother was murdered, but his true intent is tactical: weaponizing grief. (Even as Al fulminates at the prospect of Bill teaming with Seth, he remains unaware that Brom Garret, who is starting to catch on that he was bilked, aims to enlist Bill to get his $20,000 back.)
Al’s solution to the Spearfish Road problem spares a child’s life instead of taking it. It’s worth asking if this was just a lucky break for the girl or the outcome that Al would’ve preferred had he been able to imagine an alternative to killing her. From minute one, Deadwood established itself as a series about the idea of community, and it’s in the second episode that we start to see how the writers will articulate that over the long haul: by showing multiple characters acting independently (though pushed by their own pathologies or drives) while at the same time appearing to be guided by forces larger than any single person.
The camp itself seems to be pushing characters into configurations that will cause subplots to intertwine or collide to produce a specific outcome. Notice Bullock’s sincere inquiry about Sofia (“Has she spoken?”), followed by Jane’s insistence that Doc trust Bullock, then Doc’s rebuff (“I see as much misery outta them movin’ to justify themselves as those set out to do harm”). Cosmic forces move through these characters in ways that are palpable but that have no apparent moral scheme or motive. By the end of “Deep Water,” a bunch of characters moving to justify themselves do good instead of harm. Al hasn’t done the cosmic math yet, but if he ever does, he might realize the central irony of this episode: Every choice Al made with regard to Spearfish Road — from terrorizing Jane in Doc’s office, to insulting and intimidating Doc at the Gem, to dispatching Tom to kill Bill — caused the girl to live instead of die. According to Phil, Ned balked at having to murder so many “squareheads” and told them he was fleeing to Cheyenne, then rode the other way, to Deadwood, where Bill and Seth shot him dead, setting the stage for Tom and Phil’s deaths the next day.
“Your ways are not our ways, O Lord,” Smith says during Ned’s service, summing up the mysteriousness of this season’s chain reaction of events, each decision or accident or coincidence causing another decision or accident or coincidence. There is right and wrong in this universe, but in the greater scheme, the movements of Milch’s collective organism can seem as value neutral as the movements of wind or water.
“We abide the just and the unjust alike under your tearless eye,” Smith says over Ned’s grave. “Tearless, not because you do not see us but because you see what we are so well.” Then he asks Jesus to “taketh away the sins of the world” and “grant this soul eternal rest.” Sol remarks, “That’s a real generous perspective, Reverend,” and Smith looks straight at Bullock, unnerving him as he asks Sol, “And don’t we need all the generosity we can get?”
Smith’s perspective is mirrored, in a less smilingly benevolent way, by Doc Cochran, who is coming into focus as the conscience of the camp (though one doubts that he’d see himself that way). Doc cautions Jane to beware the invisible movements of the universe, which might put good information given to good people to evil use; but this same episode shows Doc tending to the Gem whores’ health in an attentive, non-prurient, nonjudgmental way, telling Alma that he’ll keep refilling her laudanum if she’ll stop asking him to go through the motions of pretending she has “symptoms” of any ailment besides addiction, the better to allow him to take care of “people in this camp who have genuine need of my attention.” Doc ministers to the just and the unjust, asking only that they take their medicine and his advice.
Baked into the intrigue is a moving subplot about Calamity Jane, gender-nonconforming alcoholic gunfighter, affirming a gift for caretaking while confirming (in a roundabout way) that she’s a sexual-abuse survivor. (When Jane sobs furiously to Al about all the men who have “fucked” her, it seems clear that she’s not speaking figuratively — and that the fucking was not consensual.) That experience, or something like it, explains the otherwise fearless Jane’s reaction to Al barging into Doc’s cabin. Jane’s panic suggests a person experiencing sleep paralysis while hallucinating a monster in her bedroom.
The stories of Jane, Charlie Utter, and Alma are intertwined through their addictions. Charlie is seen pissing in an alley, barely coherent, after several scenes spread out over two episodes mainly having to do with his frustration at his friend Bill’s failure to take charge of his life. Charlie’s not the type to talk head-on about his problems and seek sympathy, but it seems clear that a big part of this binge is rooted in his frustration with Bill. Charlie hopes that a bit of Seth’s purposeful dynamism will rub off on him and inspire him to get started making money and bring his new wife to Deadwood instead of burning off his hours at Tom Nuttall’s poker table.
Jane, a damaged soul who weeps in Charlie’s arms in the thoroughfare, is using booze to numb her humiliation at having been paralyzed by Al’s monstrousness, a moment that triggered deeper memories of the other times she was “fucked.” Alma’s laudanum addiction, too, seems to be medicating for something personal — even as Doc chastises her for making him go through the motions of a house call, he never suggests her drugs aren’t medicinal — and even though we don’t know the particulars, we don’t have to because this is Deadwood, where nearly everyone is addicted to something, whether it’s a substance or a feeling, including Al (booze and control) and Seth (righteousness and rage), Dan and Trixie (Al’s attention), and Bill (booze and gambling). A marvelous shot in the breakfast scene at the Grand Central Hotel links two addicts who haven’t been introduced yet: As Alma, jonesing for laudanum, reaches for the handle of a coffeepot, the camera rack-focuses to reveal Bill seated at a nearby table, noticing her shaky hand.