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: “No Other Sons or Daughters,” written by George Putnam and directed by Ed Bianchi, which originally aired on May 16, 2004.
“Be in my joint in two hours. We’re forming a fucking goverment.”
So says Al Swearengen to his sock-puppet Farnum, and presto! The camp is on its way to becoming a town.
So much has changed since this story started. The biggest recent shift, intertwined with the possibility of the camp’s annexation, are negotiations with Indigenous tribal leaders, including Spotted Elk and Red Cloud, who could lead their people to reservations and make Deadwood, a camp established on then-Indigenous land, if not legal, then not strictly illegal anymore.
The episode’s first shot tells us what all of the grunt work was about: Al lies in bed next to a slumbering Trixie, contemplating the conciliatory gift she brought him the night before, a potato-sized rock with gold deposits all over. It’s proof that the widow Garret’s claim was far from pinched out — and unfortunately, once Seth hires Whitney Ellsworth to assess its true value and keep it active by panning the stream, there won’t be any possibility of Al getting his mitts on it short of ordering Alma and Seth killed, which the previous episode established he wasn’t willing to do.
But there are other revenue streams, so to speak, and Al’s first job is to make sure profits not only flow but grow, and that whatever he and his fellow citizens have already built don’t get taken away or diluted by the legislature deciding “to squeeze our balls with regard to our title and properties.”
In keeping with the Milchian idea of society as one big organism, there are many moments in “No Other Sons or Daughters” that establish a sort of unarticulated collective unconscious yearning for personal advancement through financial or civic success. Throughout the hour, major characters act independently of each other to improve their standing, then cross paths and realize they have that impulse in common. The recognition of commonality strengthens the larger organism that is the camp.
There’s Al, who’s becoming the closest thing Deadwood has to a mayor (notwithstanding E.B.’s hand job–worthy ascension to the office proper). And there’s Cy, who wants to reap the rewards of incorporation without participating in governance. And A.W. Merrick, who opens his mouth to declare for mayor just as Al bangs the gavel and certifies E.B. And Seth Bullock, who accepts the job of health commissioner to avoid being steered to sheriff. Ten or twelve rungs down on the camp’s power ladder we have Al’s errand boy Johnny, whom Al installs in a slot formerly occupied by Persimmon Phil. Johnny validates Al’s choice by coming up with the bright idea of serving canned peaches and pears (originally showcased at the plague conference) at Gem meetings, birthing a civic ritual.
This is the third time in nine episodes that Al has hosted a milestone event in the camp’s development. “Different path taken at certain forks in the road, who knows what kind of a joint we’d be in now, huh?” Al says at the end of “Plague.” “Course, truth is, as a base of operations, you cannot beat a fucking saloon.”
Charlie Utter is a one-man emblem of evolution: In the space of a single Deadwood week, he leases an office for his freight business, buys an ad in Merrick’s paper, erects a sign big enough to annoy Al, starts wearing a fancy frock coat that he worries makes him “look stupid,” and volunteers as fire marshal. His entrepreneurial mirror is Joanie Stubbs, who leaves the death-haunted Bella Union to scout property she can transform into a boutique brothel with Cy’s seed money. Charlie and Joanie’s colloquy in the thoroughfare is also a mutual reassurance that the other’s dream has value.
A sidelight, but not really: Seth explains his decision to invite his wife and her son — previously his dead brother’s — to Deadwood by noting that the camp is on the verge of being more hospitable to domestic life; but this also seems like Seth’s way of embracing the civilizing pressures of marriage and fatherhood to discourage himself from starting an affair with a soon-to-be wealthy widow who fretted that Seth was “dissociating himself” from her affairs.
As for the details of Deadwood’s annexation: it’s complicated. The writers know how complicated, so they give viewers not one but several scenes wherein the mechanics can be picked apart. First we get a meeting between Al and Magistrate Claggett (Marshall Bell) establishing that, contrary to Al’s nightmare that Deadwood will be overrun by the brothers and cousins of Yankton legislators, the powers-that-be would rather confer “the blessing of legal standing” on presumptive deed and claim owners because it’s less work than starting Deadwood all over again.
The episode’s slyest satirical thread originates in Al’s meeting with Claggett. Al urges Claggett to skip ahead to the part where he tells him how much to bribe the legislature. Claggett demures, in bland bureaucrat style, then returns to the subject at the end of their talk by offering to provide “a list of names and a preliminary guess at some numbers” and solve Al’s murder warrant problem for $5,000. Al wields that bribe sheet as if it were Excalibur.
The purpose of the meeting is explained again before it starts in earnest, to make extra-sure that everybody (viewer included) understands what’s at stake. The gist: All that the government requires to ratify pre-existing claims is proof of the existence of an “ad hoc municipal organization.” Turns out Deadwood kinda, sorta has that already. Note how briskly Al gathers “the pillars of the fuckin’ camp” and the order in which he contacts them. First he visits the lickspittle E.B., future mayor. Then comes the first of two attempts to speak with Pioneer publisher A.W. Merrick, who cares enough about the camp to consider declaring for mayor but will have to be content to serve as the “fourth estate.” Al seeks out Cy, his chief business rival, and Doc Cochran, the true Deadwood health commissioner, and Sol and Seth, who just arrived in camp but are already leaders. (“Did a fucking good job here!” Al says, admiring the sturdy build of Star & Bullock Hardware, which started its life as a tent: Like Charlie’s coat, the store symbolizes progress in the micro.) Tom Nutall, unfortunately the co-proprietor of the camp’s first historic site, shows up at the meeting late and flagellates himself at not having been invited. He is welcomed.
Less warmly received (by Cy especially) is Eddie Sawyer, who’s having an attack of conscience. In his years with Cy he’s been party to all manner of scumbaggery, but he draws the line at murder. “You fucked me up, Cy, with what you did to those kids,” he said. “There’s no angle to it.” His contribution to the meeting is to ask if women who pay business license fees will have the same rights to operate brothels as men. Eddie will never be mistaken for an activist, but he’s still the only man in the place who takes the needs and rights of women into account (the working girls watch from the wings, more permitted than welcomed), and although he’s mainly concerned with helping his pal Joanie escape Cy’s orbit, it’s a question that could have much wider ramifications should anyone answer it. Nobody does. Tom wants to know what that “has to do with the price of fish,” and Al swerves the meeting back to “the proper order of fuckin’ business” is “to make titles and departments before the territorial cocksuckers send their cousins in to rob and steal from us.”
Joanie’s trauma and Eddie’s distress over it are but two notes of disquiet in an otherwise celebratory episode. Both Jane and Doc try to help the Reverend come to terms with his mental disintegration from a brain tumor that fills his nose with a rotting smell and severs access to the holy spirit and his capacity to transmit its life force to others. Looking back over the hour, we can clearly see Seth accepting that he can’t act on his attraction to Alma without betraying his wife, his stepson, and his brother’s memory. In that light, Ellsworth’s immediate rapport with Alma and Sofia almost makes him seem like a husband/surrogate-dad candidate, on deck to replace Seth should Seth decide not to replace Brom. It’s as if the camp anticipated Brom’s murder and gave her an orphan to replace the child she’d never get to have with Brom, then immediately started auditioning Brom’s replacements: the Emersonian Oversoul as dating service.
Joanie’s walk through town is a powerful bit of subjective filmmaking by director Ed Bianchi, who puts us inside the head of a woman trying in every sense to navigate a man’s world. Seeing Flora’s mangled dress in a pigsty corner sends a shudder through Joanie. A shot of Joanie muddying her white boots is a synecdoche for everything she’s up against. In those scenes, as well as the front porch conversations between Seth and Sol and then Seth and Charlie, and the long talk between Charlie and Jane on the thoroughfare at night, and Doc’s anguished conversation with the Reverend revealing that he’s skeptical of God’s purpose, we feel what we felt in all the cemetery sequences so far, and in the immediate aftermath of Bill’s death: that sense of the camp as a living thing, a sentient energy field connecting individuals who might not otherwise connect, highlighting commonalities and affinities, shared pleasures and sufferings.
“Do not fucking worry about me!” Jane yells over her shoulder at Charlie, shambling down the muddy road. Deadwood hive-mind music swells: rattling acoustic guitar, plaintive harmonica. We feel what the hive-mind feels: affection, compassion, concern. Earlier that day, Charlie told Joanie he didn’t know what possessed him to rent the building where his freight company now resides. It was the Holy Spirit. It was Deadwood.