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: “Here Was a Man,” written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and directed by Alan Taylor, which originally aired on April 11, 2004.
The community of Deadwood started gestating off-camera long before the series premiered and started to crown at the end of episode three. It’s born in the final five minutes of “Here Was a Man” when Jack McCall shoots Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head then races through the streets, a once-cocky piece of shit scared by the thought of the punishment awaiting a man that murdered an icon.
As written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and directed by Alan Taylor, the sequence has an almost supernatural eeriness, cutting between various characters in different parts of the camp being drawn toward the mayhem in the street either because they saw it, heard it, or (it seems) felt a tremor in their soul that meant that something terrible had happened. The camera is often either tracking laterally across groups of people or standing still as people fill up the frame. The effect is that of iron filings being pulled toward a magnet. Bill’s murder is not just a public tragedy, it’s a trauma inflicted on Deadwood. The final close-up of Seth Bullock’s tearful face expresses the horror of the town’s loss. Bill stood for something larger than himself, and now he’s dead, killed by a man not fit to shine his boots.
What did he stand for? Truth be told, not much of anything — not anymore. He was drifting downstream on a raft of prior accomplishments and not much interested in bragging on those except to put the fear of God into whelps like Jack. The final few days of Bill’s life were spent playing cards, getting drunk, eating bad food, sleeping (sometimes on the floor), killing two men dumb enough to step to him, turning down a job offer to get Brom Garret’s money back from Al Swearengen, and making two new acquaintances: Seth and his business partner Sol. But the loss is still incalculable because so many people — Seth, Sol, Jane, Charlie, and Alma especially — invested pieces of themselves in Bill’s image.
The crucified Christ is an image that’s always present in the mind-field of Deadwood. It makes its presence known through scripture (via the Reverend Smith), jokes (remember Trixie helping Al get dressed to visit the Bella Union), and a generalized feeling, nurtured from the first episode onward, that we’re watching a story about the end of one era and the beginning of another, one whose emerging self-image will be at least partly formed by the execution of a public figure who had more followers than friends.
Jack shoots. Bill slumps over the table. Jack runs away, falls in the mud, and is caught and dragged off. The crowd grows in size and ire, and by the time Bill’s killer is spirited off toward what everyone hopes will be a reckoning, they’re so swept up in the awful hugeness of what just happened that when a rider randomly gallops into camp swinging a brave’s severed head around (presumably to instill fear and unite the whites in solidarity), it makes about as much impression as Soapy Smith hawking his wares. The moment is so huge that Al, who has spent the last four episodes bitterly griping about Wild Bill’s presence in camp and plotting to neutralize or kill him, isn’t even given a close-up that reveals if he understands what’s going on. We just see him glancing down from his bedroom window after having sex with Trixie, at people running to see something.
Death with a capital D had already arrived in camp by way of the plague. Scenes before and after Bill’s death personalize the reaper’s presence for several major characters. Right before the shooting, we see Alma — stunned by grief over her husband’s murder — confess that she moved to Deadwood to escape her grotesquely jealous fuckup scoundrel father and that when her father learned of her intention, he expressed anger at the thought of Alma with Brom, and Alma remarked, “Maybe he’ll die.”
The music that kicks in when Jack shoots Bill is “Iguazu,” by Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla. This piece was used at least twice before Deadwood (in the film The Insider and the Fox action drama 24) and would be used many times after (notably in the global ensemble drama Babel), often to convey how a single event or feelings connects disparate individuals. As Jack flees the mob, the camera travels through camp, taking stock. There’s a brief shot of plague-infected Gem-gang associate Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), a con man, shivering in bed, eyes glazed over. Seth and Sol, who just last night had worked with Bill on the store they’ve nearly completed, halt their efforts when they see people racing along the thoroughfare in one direction, presumably to see something important occurring on the other end. We return to Alma’s room to find her and Jane standing shoulder to shoulder at the window, observing the camp’s paroxysm. Then Jane moves backward out of the frame, and the camera follows her as she exits, compelled to witness something horrible. “They shot Wild Bill,” Tom Nuttall tells her. Jane downs a bottle of whiskey when she sees Bill’s body on the floor.
The show has signaled Bill’s demise and prepared us for it since Bill first appeared onscreen. The moment has arrived. We felt it coming. So did Bill. In a parting conversation with Seth, he talks about his wife, a circus owner in Cincinnati. He asks to be called “Bill” because “Mr. Hickok makes me look for the warrant in your hand” and verifies that it’s all right to address Seth as “Montana.” (Seth’s lack of objection affirms his assent.) “Here Was a Man” lingers on Bill near the end of the hour as he dons a variation of his usual outfit as if it were a priest’s vestments and writes what will turn out to be his last letter to his wife. Bill’s final conversation with Charlie, who is about to go to Montana to jump-start his delivery business, is awkward and sad, with Charlie expressing frustration at Bill’s refusal to start panning for gold as he’d promised and Bill confirming he’s a man with a death wish. “I don’t want to fight it no more,” he tells Charlie. “Can’t you let me go to hell the way I want to?” Later, Bill warns Alma to “listen to the thunder” of Al’s impending aggression but bows out of reconnoitering the claim to figure out why Al would want it, urging her to retain Seth instead.
“Here Was a Man” signals where it’s headed in its first scene, which finds Bill playing poker at the Bella Union opposite his regular opponent and pipsqueak tormentor Jack. When Bill beats him with a bad hand, amplifying the humiliation he already felt, he calls Bill a “son of a bitch,” and Cy Tolliver ducks into the frame to tell him, “You’ve been warned about that talk.” In an unexpectedly conciliatory gesture for a famous man upon whom many project their psychic turmoil, Bill slides a chip across the table and tells Jack to get something to eat. “I thank you for that kindness,” Jack says. “You just bought yourself something with that.” More time? Was Jack planning on killing Bill right there?
“Some boys can’t get near a cliff without jumpin’ off,” Cy mutters to Eddie.
The episode returns to Jack playing cards at Nutall’s place, awkwardly plagiarizing the same insults Bill used on him yesterday, and then to Jack in Chinatown, where he’s seen complaining about the non-Americanness of the food and pulling back an eye to make it slanty.
As this is Bill’s hour, Al necessarily recedes a bit, but he’s still a powerful presence, much more so than in “Reconnoitering the Rim,” where he’s intimidated by the Gem’s opening and not thinking clearly. Today he seems as formidable as ever. An early-morning scene finds Al having coffee with E.B. in his office overlooking the thoroughfare just as Dan arrives with Brom’s body tied to his horse. The timing is fortuitous to the point of seeming suspicious, as if Al asked E.B. there to witness Dan’s arrival. Al has just finished telling E.B. that he intends to make an offer on Brom’s supposedly “worthless” but actually rich find, feigns surprise at Brom’s body pulling into town, and instructs E.B. to “make the offer to the wife.” E.B. tells Doc Cochran that Al “wants the widow leaving with the least sour taste in her mouth as possible” by way of influencing Doc to declare Brom’s death an accident. Doc seems to know what happened but doesn’t speak up because he can’t prove it, and even if he could, he doesn’t want to go out like Brom. So he ducks and weaves when Alma asks if her husband’s wounds imply murder and chastises him for having no opinion on Brom when he seemed “so full of opinion” filling her laudanum order. Doc stays neutral but signals his position by urging her to get out of town and then giving her more laudanum. She’s gonna need it.
“A wife inevitably feels she’s had some part in what befalls her husband,” Alma tells Bill, entreating him to talk to Al and assess his complicity in Brom’s demise. “I’ve got a healthy operation here, and I didn’t build it by brooding on the right or wrong of things,” Al tells Bill, finally witnessing the legendary gunfighter in the context he’d always feared: a criminal investigation. Al sticks to his story: Brom was a pampered, incompetent Easterner whose claim pinched out but didn’t have the stones to accept his bad break “like a man” and instead blamed Al and threatened Pinkerton intervention. Bill implies that he’ll present Al’s offer more favorably if there’s money in it for him. Back in Alma’s room, Jane tells her that she believes Sofia’s family was murdered at the orders of the same man who had Brom killed (this, of course, being one of the only sins Al isn’t guilty of). The expansive web of Al’s evil is answered by the benevolence of the folks surrounding Bill, and by Bill himself, a lost soul who finds himself again, right when his life’s about to end.