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: “Bullock Returns to Camp,” written by Jody Worth and directed by Michael Engler, which originally aired on May 2, 2004.
“You are changed,” Seth tells Alma, sitting at a table in E.B. Farnum’s restaurant.
“You seem to be too,” Alma replies. They’re both smiling.
Changed, how? Time will tell. But we see what they see in each other. If Alma and Seth haven’t changed entirely, something in them has shifted. Near-death experiences can do that.
Seth endured one in the preceding chapter. As he recounts his fight to the death with the Lakota brave to Sol, his voice breaks, there are tears in his eyes for the first time since Bill’s murder. Seth knows it could’ve just as easily been him laid to rest after the battle in the hills. “And I never once had the upper hand. It just happened out the way it happened out,” he tells Sol, adding, “That Indian saved Jack McCall’s life.”
Sol agrees, but in a way that oversimplifies what happened. It’s not just that the ambush interrupted Seth’s quest for vengeance; it’s that the outcome of the struggle turned revenge into something else. Justice? Bullock left Deadwood aiming to find and kill Jack. But once he finally catches up with his quarry — rescued at random, or maybe not at random, by Charlie — Seth points his revolver at the back of Jack’s head and threatens to do to him what he did to Bill, then hits him with his gun butt instead. The subsequent shot of Jack knocked out is framed so that the dominant sound and image is spilled booze splattering the floor in lieu of blood.
Jane is aghast that Charlie and Seth have turned Bill’s killer in. But Seth was spared on that ridge, so it makes sense he’d pay the gift forward by sparing Jack. He’s probably hearing the call of societal responsibility, owing to all the camp residents that keep shoving lawman-type tasks into his hands. Tin star or no tin star, you can’t personally execute every criminal, and for all sorts of reasons, it’s better if you don’t. Not killing McCall is major. “Under color of law” was how he justified the extrajudicial killing that kicked off the pilot. He could’ve made like a one-man lynch mob with Jack and nobody would’ve blamed him. But he didn’t.
There’s been plenty of death on this show already, so much that Deadwood practically raises an eyebrow at us when it returns yet again to the cemetery midway through the hour, then returns once more near the end, in a long, powerful, brazenly theatrical scene of Jane and Charlie standing before Bill’s tombstone, talking to him like he’s still alive. Seth and Charlie happen upon Brom’s burial mid-service. Seth’s current mortality index is two killings, four funerals.
Other Deadwood characters have had brushes with death, either narrowly avoiding death by violence (Seth) or disease (Andy), or merely being close to the fact of death (Alma and Sofia). It’s fascinating to see how those experiences affected them, or didn’t.
Alma didn’t have a near-death experience but has certainly been near death (Brom’s body) and was impelled to get sober for her benefit and Sofia’s, triggering greedy Al to hatch a surveillance program that’s still ongoing. Alma is sharper and more empathetic and emotionally open than she was when we met her. She sort of admits her laudanum addiction to the man she’s sweet on, telling Seth she has “a weakness in that direction,” but she doesn’t say for what. Later, Alma catches herself after making a thoughtless joke to Trixie (“Shall I reel and stagger?” in reference to faking being high en route to Brom’s burial), and apologizes for failing to acknowledge that Trixie is risking her life by deceiving Al.
It’s only a matter of time before Alma figures out what Al and Dan and E.B. already know: There’s gold on that thar hill. If Alma can just keep her hands on the claim and stay off the stuff she could become a threat to Al, whether she stays in Deadwood or goes back to New York.
Calamity Jane retreated into the woods after her best friend’s murder, found smallpox-infected Andy Cramed lying on a sled in the dirt, and nursed him back to health; now she’s a foulmouthed Florence Nightingale, and she can’t get smallpox herself because (according to Doc) she’s not a carrier. Doc thinks she has a gift for it. You can tell that he means it because he keeps asking Jane to help. As for little Sofia — now in Trixie’s care — she pantomimes laying her family to rest while Brom’s burial happens in the cemetery behind her. She’s speaking a tiny bit of English now, even singing it at times (“row your boat”), and allowing the adult women in her life (Alma, Jane, Trixie) to lavish her with warmth.
We can tell Andy has changed even though he’s a new face that we’ve only just met. Our certainty is due to the show’s deft writing and Zach Grenier’s no-fuss performance. This show knows how to get the most out of a scene, and if you give a Deadwood character four or five good ones, you end up with a novel’s worth of characterization. When Andy first showed up in “Here was a Man,” he was a gland-handing, high-rolling, slick-as-birdshit operator. Then he spent a whole episode delirious from fever, moaning “I apologize” over and over, a phrase Jane found irritating and mystifying. Now that Andy’s made it through the wringer, he sits up straight, looks at his caretaker, and says, “Hereafter in calamity, I’ll be sure to call for Jane.” There’s a hard serenity to the recovered Andy, and he wears it like a breastplate when he goes to the Bella Union to confront Cy. “You made it, Andy!” Joanie beams. When Cy tries to buy Andy’s forgiveness with cash, Andy refuses it, saying he came to get his things only to find that Cy threw them out. Cy dares Andy to tell him how he’d have done different, were the positions reversed. “Better than to throw him in the woods to fuckin’ die?” Andy says.
The question mark at the end of that sentence is a fishhook in Cy’s throat. He stuffs the money into Andy’s open shirt front and tells him to go join the circus. Andy walks away because he’s done with this clown.
E.B. had a brush with death at the end of the second episode — Al threatening to end him, in a sequence that was cross-cut with Dan throwing Brom from a ridge and then bashing his brains against a rock — but there’s no evidence it moved E.B. to rethink the lickspittle life. He’s showing a smidge more backbone now (calling out Al for using him as a “pawn” and negotiating a percentage of the Garret claim), but his offer of a choice of two damp palms doesn’t bode well for future assertions of independence. That scene in “Deep Water” probably didn’t mark the first time Al has threatened his life. Maybe the threat of extinction is the foundation of E.B. and Al’s relationship. In any case, E.B. doesn’t come off as a character about to enter a chrysalis and emerge a butterfly.
This episode feels like a reset in some ways, with assorted recurring characters acknowledging the permanence and magnitude of other major characters’ erasure (Brom and Bill), and new characters staking claims on our attention. Besides Andy, there’s the Anderson siblings, Miles (Greg Cipes) and Flora (Kristen Bell), who allegedly came to Deadwood to find their missing daddy. That scenario is tailor-made for a deep read. Who isn’t looking for daddy? The camp is filled with overgrown boys and girls falling under the spells (or into the clutches) of father figures. At the same time, various men find themselves consciously or unconsciously taking on the role of protector. Al and Cy are malevolent father figures who simultaneously shelter and exploit vulnerable women. Domineering Cy seems to get dollar signs in his eyes when he urges Joanie to turn Flora out, doing to her what Joanie’s dad did to Joanie, and what so many men do to so many women. Dan instantly anoints himself Flora’s protector, but the creepy way he glides his hand over hers (as they examine a photo of her father; you don’t have to be Freud to unpack that) reveals his agenda. Al correctly assesses Dan’s attraction to the girl long before he bashes a man’s brains in for looking at her too long and in the wrong way.
We know something’s off the instant we meet these teens. Flora and Miles both present as earnest, good-hearted kids just trying to survive in Hell Town, but there’s something performative about Flora’s flower-in-the-mud persona, and Miles is so starry-eyed that you might start to wonder if he has some kind of condition. Such are characters that villains tie to railroad tracks in melodramas. Although Flora confesses to Joanie that she’s secretly not a virgin (and her brother might kill her deflowerer if he knew), that fact alone fails to explain why Flora doesn’t flinch at Dan’s touch on her hand. By the time we get to the back third of the hour, Flora’s apparently gotten herself a john and is confident enough to set boundaries.
Notice how all of the male-female relationships have their own unique ratio of protection versus exploitation. Al and Trixie’s relationship mirrors Cy and Joanie’s. Both men are controlling, manipulative, looming presences, coded somewhere between lovers and fathers. (As noted earlier, the camp is filled with sexual abuse victims.) Both women are essentially prisoners in their own homes, which double as their workplaces. Interesting that a supposedly high-class madam like Joanie spends less time outside of her brothel than Trixie, who in another time might be an indentured scullery maid whose youngest son resembles the landowner, or the peasant side-piece of a bored Italian count. But even though Trixie gets to hang out in Alma’s hotel room playing au pair to a haunted Swedish moppet, she seems less thrilled to get time away from the Gem than constantly sad at the realization that she’ll eventually have to go back there for good. She’s like a prisoner who gets a few days’ furlough but still has to wear an ankle bracelet. Al is right across the thoroughfare. Sometimes he stares at the widow’s window. Trixie can probably feel Al’s eyes on her. When she goes to see him, Al calls out her deception, grabs her between the legs and squeezes hard, reminding her of what she actually means to him (and his business). Then he warns her, “Don’t get a mistaken idea” — i.e., that you can leave me.
Trixie is unable to envision her life being anything other than what it is. When Alma exhorts her to take Sofia and go to New York and become “established” with help from her family, Trixie finds the idea absurd, verging on insulting. Alma’s condescension and inability to grasp the terrifying reality of Trixie’s situation fractures their relationship and drives Trixie away. The closing closeup is of Alma’s face registering what just happened, and maybe wondering if what was broken can be fixed.
Alma plays matchmaker, admitting Sol to her room so he can spend more time around Trixie. She’s trying to be nice, but she’s also trying to make herself feel better about treating Trixie like the help (even though, strictly speaking, that’s what Trixie is). Flora is just a teenager, but she’s already figured out that she can play on men’s lust and their chivalrous urge to defend “helpless” women to maneuver her and Miles closer to whatever their true goals are. Flora does the same to Joanie, to a less flagrant extent, and with more complexity. Joanie is depicted as a lesbian who for various reasons must also have sex with men. The energy that she exudes around Flora blends the sexual (seeking companionship) and the maternal (the madam mothering her girls, giving them the attention they might never have gotten from their own mothers, and that Joanie seems not to have experienced herself). Flora’s deployment of feminine wiles against Dan, Cy, and Joanie mirrors Alma vamping for E.B. (whom she finds repulsive) and mesmerizing Seth (a man she fancies, and who fancies her back), and Trixie using her body to reestablish herself as Al’s main squeeze any time he grows disappointed or angry with her. The women are doing what they feel they have to do to improve their lives or prevent them from getting worse.
Trixie sees what’s happening between Alma and Seth as clearly as Alma sees what’s happening between Trixie and Sol. She urges Alma to fuck Seth and get her ass back to New York because what’s most important is saving Sofia and avoiding getting murdered herself. This is a point of connection between Trixie and Alma: At this point in the tale, they’re both being menaced by Al, and consequently needing male protection and pondering escape. (See also Joanie and Cy.)
Not for nothing does the Rev. Smith segue at the graveside from “The savior’s return” to “Mr. Bullock is back among us!” For a guy who keeps snarling about how sick and tired he is of people asking him to get involved, Seth sure does carry himself like he’s wearing an implied tin star. That Seth and Sol are fundamentally kinder and more decent than Al doesn’t make the dynamic between them and the women in their orbits less depressing. The people of Deadwood are all molded by society and their personal experience to perceive relationships in terms of protection — in the value-neutral sense (i.e., I will protect you from homelessness and poverty and make sure you have food and basic medical care), but also in the way gangsters use the word. Women (with or without children) get drawn into protection rackets run by men like Al and Cy, who give them shelter and a degree of stability while also intimidating them and sometimes brutalizing them and making them feel as if another existence isn’t possible — or that, if it is, it’ll mainly be the details that change.
Most of the men in Deadwood that could be considered emblems of paternal authority are career criminals or deeply, even violently troubled. Seth seems like a catch compared to Al, who bounces women off walls, and Cy, who’ll do the same and not bother to act charming the next day; but a guy who’d make snap decisions to personally hang a prisoner and ride on a mission of revenge a few days later wouldn’t be labeled a picture of mental health in anybody’s century. Remember also that Seth has a wife and adopted son in Michigan, and therefore shouldn’t be spending so much time with flirty widows. It’s also clear that Alma’s drawn to Seth in part because she’s traumatized by the death of her husband and excited to get attention from a sexier, more self-reliant man than the genial boob she married.
Sol is altogether the best of the Deadwood menfolk: lacking Seth’s magnetism but also his tendency towards self-infatuated melodrama and fisticuffs. Alma’s right to think he’d be good for Trixie. But Sol, too, is a product of his patriarchal time period. It would never occur to him to notice and decry the subservient position of women, even well-bred Eastern transplants like Alma. The closest thing in Deadwood to a strong yet truly enlightened man is Doc Cochran, who treats everyone — man, woman or child; gunfighter, businessman, or gangster; society lady or working girl — as equal in the eyes of medicine. There’s something about his delivery and expressions that suggests a yearning for a world that can’t be.