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: “The Trial of Jack McCall,” written by John Belluso and directed by Ed Bianchi, which originally aired on April 18, 2004.
If the death of Wild Bill Hickok was the camp’s first spasm of communal feeling, however horrific, the aftermath disperses that emotion and pulls the audience away from community and toward self-interest.
There is no resolution at the end, just a feeling of loss (Bill and Brom) and missed opportunity (for a more “official” version of Deadwood’s slapped-together society). There’s hope for the future in the form of the Reverend Smith’s sermon, his last lucid act before collapsing from seizure in the plague tent, and Seth’s decision to chase Jack, seemingly the culmination of the Reverend’s constantly quoting Scripture at him and other characters asking him to take on responsibilities he didn’t ask for. From befriending Bill to signing as Alma’s proxy, Seth accepts any assignment he’s given. The camp’s creeping case of law and order seems to be settling around him.
But as Seth’s murderous temper affirms, there’s a difference between justice and law, peace and order. The episode ends with the letter of justice being satisfied, but we also understand the corrupt ideals that led to the verdict; and while the camp (arguably) finds order merely by expelling Jack McCall, Seth’s bereft eyes and rage eruptions and Jane’s inconsolable sobs tell us that there’s no real peace.
The trial and the legalities surrounding it highlight that Deadwood is part satire and part farce, on top of all the other things it is. The goings-on at the Gem are a sick joke on American jurisprudence, which has become more entrenched and powerful in the centuries since but no less ridiculous. A.W. Merrick, supervising jury and court-officer selection, has to warn applicants not to attempt to bribe him. The murder victim is laid out in public so that people can pay their respects; Seth fumes about it, but Nuttall (whose saloon was the murder site, and who paid for the coffin and the tent) says he had originally put the corpse around the corner, discreetly out of sight, but was compelled to move it to satisfy public demand. Al’s acerbic play-by-play is heard by all (“We’ll be here ’til fuckin’ Christmas”) but no one worries that it might influence the court or the jurors. The jury includes the same fellow who, two days prior, had drunkenly told Bill he hoped he’d “get gut-shot and die slow” in the camp. The jurors retire to the whores’ rooms for deliberations; one is subsequently advised mid-coitus to hurry up and nut so that the court can reconvene.
Beaten and incarcerated, McCall is more vile than ever. He drives Seth (who shouldn’t be visiting him in Chinatown in the first place, given his friendship with the deceased and his own track record as a killer) into a murderous rage with homophobic taunts, then happily accepts his lawyer’s suggestion that he invent a nonexistent brother slain by Bill in Abilene, Kansas, the better to present Bill’s death as a deferred act of revenge (a tactic used in the real-life case, leading to McCall’s initial acquittal before a second trial found him guilty).
It’s a shitshow, but to Deadwood’s credit, one that’s always accurately presented as a white man’s shitshow. Women are allowed no voice in the proceedings, and it never occurs to men coded as “the good ones” (such as Sol Star and A.W. Merrick) to inquire on their behalf. Deadwood’s Chinatown is used to display Bill’s body and hold his killer, but there are no Asian faces in the courtroom, as lawyers, jurors, or spectators. The most cutting line in the whole thing is a throwaway by Sol after the funeral for Bill: Seth snarls, “Can you believe they let the son of a bitch go?” and his partner says, “Yes, I can” — the proper response of a Jew born in Austria.
Al’s refusenik behavior oddly mirrors Seth’s, though of course he’s more verbose in expressing his psychic entanglements. Al keeps saying he only wants to protect his investments, but there’s more going on than profiteering. Remember the image, described by Al as he dressed Sunday-proper to visit the Bella Union, of him and Dan clearing trees before most white men knew where Deadwood was? (One of the show’s many timeline tinkerings: Season one is set in 1876, but the Gem didn’t open until a year later.) Despite framing his actions in terms of criminal cunning, Al has a visionary streak. Much of his behavior in this hour is that of a bad man unconsciously suppressing decent or at least constructive tendencies. He gives (self-interested) gifts to the camp with one hand and takes them away with the other. He rants to Cy Tolliver about how trying Jack McCall will bring federal scrutiny that might lead to the government revoking existing gold and property claims (since Deadwood is, after all, an illegal settlement, founded on Lakota land) and then concludes, “But if we’re gonna have the fucking thing, we might as well have it in my joint, huh?”
Later, Al sabotages the verdict by reminding the trial judge, Magistrate Claggett (Marshall Bell), of the camp’s fragility, ensuring his deliberation instructions to the jury and their subsequent verdict of “innocent.” Then Al flips again and orders Jack to get out of town before somebody (possibly Al) goes the vigilante route. (This is Al’s mirror-world version of Seth killing a prisoner to prevent a mob from doing it.)
An exchange between Al and Cy is presented as a cynical joke between rival gangster pimps, but it comes close to summing up the episode’s dual consciousness: “Sometimes I wish we could just hit ’em over the head, rob ’em, and throw their bodies in the creek.” “But that would be wrong.”
As Cy accumulates screen time on Deadwood, he increasingly seems like the worst-case-scenario version of Al: a much colder and crueler sort, uninterested in even pretending to be decent. It mirrors Jack’s release as a symptom of the camp’s rejection of collective responsibility to affirm constructive and merciful values through actions. No sooner has Cy welcomed his old friend Andy Cramed into town than he orders an underling to strap his plague-riddled body to a sled and dump him in the woods, where he’s found by Jane — sort of a shadow-Seth, likewise accepting the dirty jobs nobody else will do and executing them brilliantly. She keeps trying to evade civic responsibility (and deny the inner strength that prompts others to assign her onerous tasks), but that responsibility always crosses her path anyway (literally, in Andy’s case) in a different guise. Jane took care of Sofia and then fled grief-stricken into the hills after Bill’s murder, but when she randomly stumbles upon Andy, delirious and endlessly repeating, “I apologize” (for what? everything?), she stops to take care of him, and of course she’s superb at it. Jane’s unexplained absence from Sofia’s life is what leads Al to assign Trixie to fill in for her. He wants a spy in Alma’s camp, and wants Trixie to swap heroin in for the laudanum she’s just stopped using in hopes of degrading Alma’s judgment, but wouldn’t you know it: Trixie’s as good a caretaker to Sofia as Jane was.
A sisterhood of trauma takes shape. Jane, Trixie, Alma, and Sofia have all endured subjugation and violence. The way they glide into, out of, and through each other’s orbits aligns them with the invisible energy field that brought Sofia into camp to begin with. Al acting the part of a homicidal demon tying up loose ends by killing the last living member of the Spearfish Road trio sets the stage for the sisterhood of Jane-Trixie-Alma-Sofia. Al could’ve just demanded that Dan go back to Doc’s place and kill the girl, but he didn’t. Maybe it wasn’t just a practical choice on Al’s part, made after weighing other options. Maybe Al didn’t make Dan finish the job because … well, that would be wrong.
Though Doc’s gender prevents official membership in the sisterhood of caretakers, his name should be mentioned here as well. Although he failed Alma yesterday by refusing to call a murder a murder, he comes roaring back to full-throated righteousness in this episode, threatening to expose Cy if he fails to procure a vaccine to treat what Doc knows to be a plague outbreak.
Floating above the scene in spirit is the Reverend, who is losing his mind (though from the plague or something else, we don’t yet know). His last lucid act of this hour is to deliver the sermon at Wild Bill’s grave site, quoting Corinthians 12:12. It’s achingly sincere, and of course Seth feels singled out by it, because the Reverend is still after him, still treating him as a special project. Seth mocks the sermon, asking Sol, “What part of my part is your part?” But that’s a real question, perhaps the most important of all.
And by mounting up to chase after Jack, Seth answers it. The final montage is a light-magic mirror of the tragic-operatic ending of “Here Was a Man” — Jane sings “How Firm a Foundation” a cappella, the soundtrack picks it up, and the instrumental version plays beneath images of Trixie giving Alma the home remedy provided by Doc (in lieu of narcotics), then sitting on the floor and playing with Sofia. Cut to Seth accepting the bag packed by Sol (his platonic workplace wife) and heading out into the wilderness.