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: “Suffer the Little Children,” written by Elizabeth Sarnoff and directed by Daniel Minahan, which originally aired on May 9, 2004.
You can tell that the characters who thrive on lawlessness are starting to get anxious because they’ve started labeling do-gooders as such, as if mocking them will sap their righteous power. In “Bullock Returns to the Camp,” Al Swearengen mocked Seth Bullock twice as “your Holiness.” In “Suffer the Little Children,” Cy Tolliver, Al’s dark doppelgänger, stares down from a balcony at Andy Cramed registering camp residents for smallpox vaccinations and calls him “Saint Andy Cramed … all that’s missing are the scourges and flays.”
The thing is, though, men like Al and Cy stand a better chance of thriving than most of the people they consider threats. One possible exception is Alma Garret, whose inherited gold claim is certified a rich find by hired assayer Whitney Ellsworth — a turn of events that threatens to establish her as a vaguely maternal counterweight to the camp’s bad daddies. Mother lode indeed.
Savagery hiding within civilization has always been a theme on Deadwood, but the mechanics of that process are starting to get teased out in more detail, articulated mainly through stories unfolding at the Gem and Bella Union. The hour begins with a close-up of Al’s hands scrubbing the bloodstain left on his saloon floor by Dan’s murder of a man he repeatedly warned to stop leering at Flora (a girl Dan claimed for himself in his twisted brain, if not in fact). Among the show’s ritualized motifs are the scrubbing of bloodstains and the disposal of murder victims’ bodies (by burial, pig-feeding, or simply spreading tales that they died of some other cause). Cy’s people will disappear the corpses of Miles and Flora, killed when their plans to rob both saloons and flee camp were uncovered. The forced execution of Flora by Joanie behind closed whorehouse doors evokes Trixie’s murder of an abusive john in the pilot (his corpse becoming pig chow). Horrific acts happen in these places, and if the proprietors are lucky, the regulars will never know about any of it.
The purpose of tactical executions and swift disposal/cleanup is always to keep the money flowing and ensure the perpetual expansion of Deadwood (a microcosm of capitalism through the ages). There’s too much ugliness to ever entirely hide, but the more that kind of thing can be swept under the rug (or rendered unimportant through public distraction; see Al’s offering of discount drinks and companionship whenever bad vibes take over the joint), the better it is for local power brokers and ordinary folks who just want to keep their heads down, earn their coin, and move along to whatever’s next.
The arrival of vaccines in camp (heralded by celebratory gunfire) is another triumph of civilization (or the appearance of civilization) over chaos. The last time we heard gunfire like that was in the third episode when Cy opened the Bella Union. The whooping and blasting means the money will keep flowing through camp. At the start of this episode, Al tells E.B., the man that Alma describes as his “sock puppet,” that the “dam has broken” and “the camp is about to be swimming in money,” owing to the acquisition of vaccines and the Lakota’s decision to stop fighting for possession of the surrounding land and decamp to reservations.
Then the matter of Alma’s claim and Trixie’s spying is discussed, but there’s no reason to recount the fine points here because Seth and Alma come out on top at the end, certifying the claim’s value and answering the question of who will control it (Alma). Al could, in fact, just murder her in her sleep and take it (E.B. Farnum’s suggestion; credit where due). But that would cause more problems than it would solve. Best to let it go — for now, anyway. Alma’s attitudes toward staying versus leaving have fluctuated so wildly that they become the half-comedic subject of discussion between her and Seth. By the end of the episode, she has decided to stay.
There’s another subtle assertion of male privilege in this subplot. Alma, in line to get herself and Sofia vaccinated, tells Seth that she no longer requires him to serve as her proxy and guardian. Seth replies that he swore a promise about that — it was to Bill — and Alma had nothing to do with it. Even though the deeper issue in the Alma-Seth conversations is the dormant Krakatau of lust that could erupt at any instant, this exchange is still a reminder that the American West ca. 1876 is so sexist that a woman has to be rich to level the playing field and can’t even relieve a temporary employee/helper of his duties without him agreeing to move on. (Not that Alma actually wants him to.)
Flora, arguably the first great guest character on the series after Bill, becomes a walking, talking emblem of the civilization-savagery dynamic. A person who spoke to her briefly or didn’t pick up on nonverbal cues would buy her virginal schoolmarm-in-the-making shtick, but when nobody important is looking, she reveals her true self, the one that kept her and her brother alive in the Old West, and it’s more cactus than daisy. Bragging about her “fucking knife,” she pays a Bella Union gal $2 for a piece of cheese and an apple and takes it to her brother, who is sweeping up at the Gem. The image of these two nearly grown prairie foundlings enjoying a little meal amid a den of vice would be incongruous if we weren’t privy to the conversation, which is full of profanity and deception.
Flora is focused in this episode, icily assured in her actions, a hollowed-out human. It’s as if she is a spirit of exploitation visited upon Deadwood in the guise of a sweet girl looking for her absent father. The real, deeper purpose of Flora is to sow pain and deceit and betrayal and feast on the distress she generates. The money is what gets her and Miles from location to location, but it’s clear that fortune alone isn’t why she does what she does. She’s an emotional vampire.
Elizabeth Sarnoff’s script makes plain that of all of Deadwood’s major characters, Flora is probably temperamentally and philosophically closest to Cy. That retroactively explains why Cy immediately sees Flora as an ideal new recruit. If she managed to avoid exposure and death, she might have ended up replacing Joanie as Cy’s right hand and surrogate daughter-wife. In Joanie’s room, Flora drops her wrap and unbuttons her corset in a practiced way that aims to seduce while maintaining deniability. Flora’s expression as Joanie embraces her on the bed, tenderly rather than lasciviously, is that of a woman who expected a different reaction. Flora slices into Joanie’s subconscious after inviting Joanie to mother her as a setup for seduction and thievery. How could Flora know that when she made it seem as if she only wanted to be held, Joanie would take her at her word? “Who am I?” she snarls at Joanie. “Your little baby? Your little sister? You?”
“You geek-looking fuck,” she tells a pathetically clingy client. “Get away from me before I cut your fucking heart out.” In the entire history of filmed media, never has such invective been spewed by a tiny teenage girl in a bonnet.
The toll that frontier capitalism takes on working girls is another central subject of this episode. The hour begins with Alma talking about leaving Deadwood in part because of the rift between herself and Trixie (who had warned her to stop living inside a princess fantasy, fuck Seth, pack her bags, and go home with Sofia in tow). Trixie’s dire predicament drives her to try to end her own life. She doesn’t want to go back to the Gem, but she can’t go anywhere else — or so it seems until Doc ministers to her, repairing her body as well as her fractured relationship with Alma.
“If you don’t kill me or let me go, I’m gonna kill you,” Joanie tells Cy, articulating what Trixie might feel toward Al but would never dare say out loud. “You bring warmth into my life,” Cy tells Joanie, sounding like he truly means it. But does he feel anything but negative emotions? Cy at his warmest is a hammer made of ice. Only his self-loathing and neediness give Joanie permission to speak frankly to him every once in a while. There are wounded little boys in most of Deadwood’s men, just as there are wounded little girls within the women.
As individual dramas writhe and entwine, the camp rouses itself to maybe kinda think about evolving: Deadwood as a protoplasmic sea creature, one tentacle touching land. Might the camp be happier as a wilderness putting on airs? The viciousness of the place is overwhelming and erupts in unnerving ways. When two of Cy’s goons pause while beating Miles nearly to death, one of them looks up and flashes a lusty grin. He doesn’t care what the boy did; he just wants to stomp somebody.
“Before you know it, we’ll have laws here and every other fucking thing,” says Seth, chitchatting with the man who fantasized about installing him as a front for Deadwood’s cartels. Then Seth tells Al of E.B.’s attempts to skim the (thwarted) claim deal by stopping the bid at $19,500 rather than the $20,000 maximum authorized by Al.
“I wouldn’t trust a man who wouldn’t try to steal a little,” Al says, summing things up without meaning to.