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: “Plague,” written by Malcolm MacRury and directed by Davis Guggenheim, which originally aired on April 25, 2004.
Early in the bluntly titled “Plague,” A.W. Merrick asks Doc Cochran, who’s passing through the Gem, if he wants a “libation,” adding, “I wonder if he thought I said ‘Live patient’?”
That malaprop-driven joke sums up a brutal and exhausting hour: Live patients (and dead bodies) keep getting in the way of libations. A plague is upon the camp. Cy Tolliver tries to deny it, but the truth is as plain as smallpox scars. Al called Doc to the Gem to see after a client who was unable to perform due to lung trouble and back pain. (Al paid the attendant worker a dollar to wait.)
Already a rare spiritually focused American TV series, Deadwood doubles down by setting much of the inaugural season’s action against a biblically inflected plague that torments the just and unjust alike. Al name-checks Sodom and Gomorrah and says he was raised to call this type of event “plague” from the get-go, though he has agreed to the Doc’s request to “keep that in reserve in case our luck holds and the rats descend on us too.” The body politic is infected and inflamed. The illness must be treated, managed, and passed through the system.
Had metafictional commentary been called for, someone would’ve noted the timing. In “Here Was a Man,” the plague starts visibly infecting people on the same day bad mojo rises around Wild Bill. The montage of grief and outrage that follows Bill’s murder includes a shot of Andy Cramed, Cy’s soon-to-be-abandoned friend, shivering in a bed at the Bella Union. The plague spreads further in the next episode, “The Trial of Jack McCall,” which sees multiple new infections, Andy getting dumped, the “boy” who never sampled Nebraska pussy dying short of heaven, and the Reverend seizing on the Gem floor after a meeting called to plan a civic response to the outbreak.
“Used to have a fuckin’ brother given to that,” Al says, after the Reverend’s seizure passes and the dagger sheath is taken from his teeth, incidentally explaining why he knows what to do. “We’d make pennies off it when it’d come over him in the street.” Al’s citation of his (historically nonexistent) brother has a metaphoric resonance. For the camp to survive, all must act as their brother’s keeper.
As was the case in “The Trial of Jack McCall,” there sometimes seem to be two Als in Deadwood. One is obsessed with wresting a supposedly played-out but actually rich find from a forcibly dope-addled widow whose husband he had killed and whose adopted daughter nearly suffered the same fate. Al is smart to doubt Trixie’s commitment to getting the widow hooked on dope in lieu of laudanum. Trixie is in cahoots with the widow, helping her dry out. “This passes,” she tells Alma, perhaps alluding to personal experience. Trixie advises Alma to playact highness to flummox E.B. “You can do it, Alma,” Trixie says. “Look at all the practice you’ve had.” Alma succeeds beyond Trixie’s imaginings, rising up in bed all damp and breathy during E.B.’s supposed laundry visit and sending him scurrying from the room. “The dope has made the widow randy,” he tells Al, buying her some time at least.
The other Al, the impulsively constructive one, again volunteers his joint for a milestone in the camp’s development. He keeps the meeting on point and even commands Johnny to procure fruit for the occasion. The latter is, judging from Johnny’s bewilderment, a request Al has never made before. Saloons deal in fermented sugar, not fresh off the vine. Deadwood doesn’t offer the latter, but the consumption of canned peaches and pears seems another bellwether of incipient civilization. It’s easy for 21st-century tenderfoots to forget that in 1875, canned fruit was a technological wonder, their equivalent of boxed soup or microwavable rice packs. And feeding people has a different energy than supplying them with alcohol and dope. The latter entices people to stay up all night and part with their money. Food makes them more inclined to work through the day, complete the task at hand, and think about the future.
Al gets all of this even if he never thinks of himself as getting it. Of Deadwood’s two saloon big shots, Cy’s the one who publicly playacts the role of civic leader, and at the end of the day, Al cites his Chinaman’s Alley real estate as proof that Cy’s got “brass fucking balls and a long-term vision for the future.” But it’s really Al who fits that profile, because his vision encompasses the welfare of others. That he officially considers the welfare of others mainly in relation to himself and his ledger’s bottom line, and redefines kind acts (like keeping the palsied and disabled Jewel on staff) in terms of self-interest, doesn’t mitigate against the idea that Al’s as constructive as he is malevolent. Cy chastises young Joey, the Nebraska pussy enthusiast, for showing around a list that included pandemic-management items and sends him straight upstairs to keep him from dampening the mood of drinks and craps players (a group that includes Ellsworth, celebrating his “workin’ fuckin’ gold claim” with Joanie Stubbs); but it’s Al, standing side by side with Cy, who spots Joey seizing on a mattress and says, “Why don’t we do something together? Us and several others?”
Al’s the one who pushes the idea that the Deadwood Pioneer should get ahead of the crisis and run a story about proactive pandemic management to “get a jump on them fuckin’ panic-mongers.” He proves to be a masterful public-relations man and unofficial editor-publisher to A.W., insisting on rewrites to make the story comprehensible to a community packed with nonreaders and nonthinkers. Free and gratis mean the same thing, after all. “Is the idea to inform your reader or make him feel like a fuckin’ dunce, huh?” Al asks Dan, rhetorically as usual.
Cy, in contrast, instigates a cover-up to keep money flowing into his joint and alienates his people. Joanie is already starting to withdraw from her malevolent lover-boss. She initiated a bathtub make-out near the end of the last episode to save herself from having to talk to Cy. A scene in this episode finds Cy warning an obviously depressed Joanie to quit acting sad lest her “free ride” come to “a quick fuckin’ halt.” Eddie Sawyer keeps seeming as if he’s about to read Cy the riot act over his pandemic mismanagement only to bite his tongue instead. Still he radiates disdain. Cy’s face and words confirm he’s noticed the card sharp’s rebuke. Cy does participate in the civic meeting, offers up a plot in the Chinese section for holding triage tents, and thanks Al for “not putting the stink on me” by telling the other members of the governing body he’d been trying to cover up the pandemic mere hours earlier. It’s enough to make you wonder if he’s coming around to the whole 1 Corinthians 12 thing.
There’s a lot more going on in this episode, but it feels intertwined with the plague story because it’s about commonality, interdependence, collective responsibility, coincidence/fate, and the notion that two heads are better than one when it comes to solving problems and such.
The episode starts with the most shocking scene of violence since Bill’s killing, the mano a mano to the death between Seth Bullock and a Lakota brave (Juddson Keith Linn) that feels like it goes on for days. Seth admits he survived the ordeal through sheer luck. He might’ve died himself had Charlie Utter, returning home from a parcel pickup, not randomly stumbled upon his knocked-out body. Seth can’t hate the man who nearly killed him because, thanks to Charlie, he knows their fight was rooted in cultural misunderstanding — one he posthumously tries to rectify by giving him a proper Lakota burial rather than a Christian one. This is only the sixth episode in the series, but it’s the fourth one in which Seth becomes a key participant in a memorial service. The Reverend’s not there to nudge his conscience, but Charlie makes a fine stand-in.
Recalling that Jane happened across Andy in much the same way, you may ask how accidental anything is on Deadwood. Jane seems meant to find and care for Andy, her lack of symptoms indicating immunity to Doc and thus the invitation to work with him in the plague tents. Charlie seems meant to find and minister to Seth and help him give his fallen foe a proper burial. Ned Mason seemed meant to enter Deadwood rather than Cheyenne after fleeing the site of the massacre in exactly the wrong direction. Seth speculates that his happening upon that burial ground and triggering the brave’s attack interrupted his mission of vengeance and saved Jack McCall’s life. Charlie notes that the warrior’s “buddy” is “headless,” which suggests he was once the owner of the noggin now residing in a box in Al’s saloon, the very place where Al offered $50 per native head in the pilot. If E.B. hadn’t been so rattled by Alma’s pantomime of doped-up lust, he might’ve agreed to clean her bedsheets rather than tell Trixie to take them to “the Chinaman,” an exchange that leads to Trixie chatting with Sol in the thoroughfare and establishing an instant connection. Sofia would still have a family if Al hadn’t associated with loose-cannon road agents, and she’d be dead by Al’s hand if Doc hadn’t blocked the door of his cabin when Al’s henchman Dan came calling. Sofia sings a song in English: “Row Your Boat.” She learned it from Jane and Charlie. “We’ll see each other again down the road,” Jane tells Sofia.
This plot thread cannot say to that plot thread, “I have no need of thee.” All are necessary.