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. Today our journey concludes with season finale “Sold Under Sin,” written by Ted Mann and directed by Davis Guggenheim, which originally aired on June 13, 2004.
“Sold Under Sin” is the culmination of the first season of Deadwood, a tale of civilization carving itself out of the wilderness and the wilderness creating a new home for itself inside of civilization. An infinite array of contradictions are woven into this idea, and they all converge in the badge, which is simultaneously a prop, an insignia, a symbol, and an invitation to dream. Its wearer is Seth Bullock, who quits his sheriffing job in Montana and relocates to a place with no law at all and tries to convince everyone, himself included, that he’s not the sheriff of anything anymore, only to end up pinning the badge to his coat again and snarling, “I’ll be your fuckin’ sheriff!”
Sure, there’s genuflection toward struggle. But it’s mostly in service of delaying an outcome that even Seth seems to realize was inevitable. He was always wearing a badge in Deadwood, even when he wasn’t. Putting on a star just makes things official. That’s the joke of the episode, and of the show, and of Seth’s life, and it’s a mythic one. He’s a Greek hero fleeing his fate only to crash straight into it. You can remake yourself, but you can never escape yourself.
The final leg of the hero’s journey begins when Alma’s parasitic reprobate pedophile daddy Otis Russell moves simultaneously on her fortune and her ward Sofia, doubly refusing to take “no” for an answer. Distraught, Alma goes to the hardware store and asks Seth for his help, and he offers it without hesitation, beating her smug, hateful father to a pulp in front of the craps table at the Bella Union. (“Gentlemen, mind the felt,” says Eddie.) Then he glides past Alma, seeming less like a publicly approved romantic hero than a deranged vigilante leaving a crime scene, heading into the thoroughfare just as an Army unit led by General Crook (Peter Coyote) rides into town, as if summoned by Seth’s righteousness. These soldiers have come to the camp to quarter after avenging Custer’s defeat on behalf of “the white man” (Crook’s phrase). They are, at the same time, law and order personified, lawful evil sanctified by uniforms. Their fife-and-drums entrance music might as well be Seth’s personal soundtrack: It is relentless, monotonous, martial, and bound up in America’s manufactured self-image, and it cranks up the moment Seth leaves the saloon.
As if in a fog, Seth wanders into Chinatown, where one of Cy’s instruments, the paid-for sheriff Con Stapleton, has murdered one of Wu’s laundry workers: phase two of Cy’s scheme to use Leon to stoke a race war so he can clear the Chinese from Chinatown and take it over. Seth is appalled by Con’s corruption and opportunism but decides not to get involved (understandable, given what happened to Otis mere moments ago), and returns to the thoroughfare to hear the General’s self-aggrandizing, nakedly white-supremacist boilerplate about how he and his men avenged Custer by punishing the Lakota and Cheyenne who “scorched the prairie.” The General’s speech climaxes by promising that Deadwood will join the union soon. Then Con pops up again like a dancing hemorrhoid and makes the mistake of trying to commiserate with Seth, who advises him to take off the badge the next time he commits a crime, then pulls it from his coat and flicks it into the mud. Tom Nuttall, who got Con the job, seconds Seth’s revulsion: “Leave it there, you bought-out son of a bitch.”
The badge stays in the mud for maybe two minutes. Then Seth picks it up, puts it in his pocket, and takes it with him to the Gem, gripping it in his fist as he passive-aggressively tries to pressure Dan Dority to tell Al that it would be better for everyone, including Brom Garret’s killers, if Alma’s father “died” in camp rather than returning to New York. Dan is amused by Seth’s lack of self-awareness and contemptuous of his self-importance, pressing him to just come out and say what he wants rather than nudge others to extrapolate it. “The exact type murder you preach, Al,” he tells his boss later. “Head off trouble down the road.” But when Seth protests “I don’t swim in that shit” even as he pours a shit river and installs a diving board, Dan can’t resist busting chops. “You should pin that on your chest,” he says, indicating the tin. “You’re hypocrite enough to wear it.”
Seth eventually does pin it, but only after neutralizing his previous bad judgment by persuading the General to defend Otis against Al and Dan overnight, just in case they act on his wishes. This wouldn’t have happened without Sol playing Jiminy Cricket to Seth’s Pinnochio.
“I’m sensing you’ve done things today that you wish you could amend, Seth,” he says.
“What kind of man have I become, Sol?” Seth replies, not making eye contact.
“I don’t know,” Sol says, then adds, “Day ain’t over yet” — a merger of the Christian belief in the eternal possibility of redemption, the American belief in perpetual reinvention, and the Alcoholics Anonymous credo of taking things one day at a time. Thus is Seth’s fury recontextualized, again, as an addiction, one that he can manage and even control if he puts his mind to it. (Remember how he captured Jack McCall in lieu of lynching him.)
Like Al, and like Alma, and like the Reverend, and like so many other inhabitants of the camp, the General takes one look at Seth and thinks: Sheriff. He susses out Seth’s greatest psychological flaw just as fast, listing control of one’s temper as a prerequisite to doing the job right, and dismissing Seth with the phrase “We all have bloody thoughts,” a half-statement that completes itself in the mind.
And it’s here that we might have a laugh recalling how Seth’s story began: in Montana, where he had just tendered his badge in advance of relocating to Deadwood. His final act before leaving town (technically off-the-clock) was to hang a horse thief “under color of law” to break the fever of a lynch mob, reassert the state’s monopoly on violence, and impose order on chaos.
That same horse thief had admiringly described Deadwood as a place with “no law at all,” but it turned out not to be true: Seth is the sheriff wherever he goes. It doesn’t matter that there’s no star on his chest. People see one anyway. When he finally puts on a badge again, he’s not becoming someone new or reverting to something he believed he’d left behind. He’s making things official. Like writing “egg” on an egg.
“What I’ve done, Sol—and you have to admire me for it—is move 300 miles to set the same damn situation up I left Montana to get away from,” Seth said in “Mr. Wu.” “Drawing up proposals for refuse disposal.”
“Unsolicited,” adds Sol.
The day Seth arrived in Deadwood, folks started treating him like a sheriff or a prospective sheriff. Al assumed he’d come to take over the camp, perhaps in cahoots with Bill Hickok, also an ex-sheriff. Although it only lasted four days, the pairing of Seth and Bill was a master-apprentice platonic love story for the ages. They spent a day and night together and killed a man at the crack of dawn, shooting almost simultaneously. Then Bill was murdered and Seth avenged him by tracking and arresting his killer, risking death himself in the process. After Seth’s return to camp, he could barely walk down the street without being offered an unpleasant task and accepting it without hesitation. He always griped. He always said yes.
And now, here we are.
If Seth’s embrace of his core identity as a lawman is the backbone of this episode, the story of Al and the Reverend is its heart. Having established Al’s affinity for and understanding of the preacher, then built out an affecting seriocomic relationship that became funnier and sadder as the Reverend declined, Deadwood constructs a warped-mirror version of Seth’s struggle to figure out who he’s supposed to be in Deadwood, and resolve to be that thing rather than fight it. Just as Seth has been the camp’s shadow sheriff all this time, Al has been the shadow mayor. “Sold Under Sin” showcases him at his peak as a half-noble, half-demonic civic leader, protecting both himself and others. He presides over two killings within minutes of each other. First he euthanizes the Reverend while inviting Johnny, a road-agent-in-training, to study his asphyxiation technique, which is “like packing a snowball.” Then he lures Claggett into his office and verifies his possession of the warrant before signaling Silas Adams (a prospective new employee) to ventilate him.
Like Seth muddying, retrieving, and cleaning a badge before finally pinning it to his coat, Al’s brutal actions in this episode are charged with secondary meanings and associations. “You can go now, brother” alone resonates on multiple levels, from Al’s own biography to the Reverend’s invocation of Corinthians and the idea of the camp as one body, no part of which can say to another, “I have no need of thee.” Al was never present for the Reverend’s scripture-based moral lessons in the cemetery, but the decisive way he behaves here makes it seem as if he’s somehow accessed Seth’s experiences and put those teachings to work. Seth’s assumption of a lawman’s duties despite awareness of his ruinous temper and moral/sexual hypocrisy is mirrored by Al’s willingness to step into the breach and do horrible but necessary things that that respectable people can’t bear to consider.
The yin-yang of Seth and Al is rendered in such an unaffected and open-ended way that you can spend hours thinking about all the contradictions and variations and crossover points without getting hung up on whether you can slot each individual choice into a moral/ethical/philosophical spreadsheet and label it good, bad, both, either, or neither. This is an episode with a political hack turned sheriff who kills a man for money and clout and is stripped of his badge as a result. It’s also an episode in which an ex-sheriff almost kills a pedophile grifter with his bare hands, then nearly influences local criminals to finish the job before coming to his senses and appealing to a general, who assigns men to prevent Seth’s id monsters (Al and Dan) from realizing his darkest impulses.
Everybody on Deadwood is more than one thing at any moment, and making choices that mean more than one thing. Any time a scene or moment threatens to seem a little bit too tidy or didactic, the sandworm-sized ouroboros of David Milch’s thematic, political, and historical imagination swallows it again, and we’re back to dreamworld stage-play dynamics, wherein a shot of a man contemplating a muddy badge can seem to unify every single thought a series has had during the preceding twelve hours about good, evil, chaos, order, civilization, and the frontier, while at the same time serving as a snapshot of a guy doing a thing in a place and not having a clue what possessed him.
Most movingly, this is an episode where the second of the season’s unifying Christ figures, the Reverend H.W. Smith, breathes his last. The mechanics that set this up are as fluid and complex as the ones that end with Seth Bullock putting tin to tit. A morally righteous and often exhausted local doctor who sometimes sounds like a pastor goes to the local gangster drug-lord pimp to ask him to take care of the town’s actual pastor as he succumbs to a brain tumor, only to have the gangster immediately assume the doc wants the pastor mercy-killed, then be disabused of that unacceptable idea, at which point the doc goes back to his office and gets rip-roaring drunk while flashing back to the agonized screams of soldiers he couldn’t save during the war and beseeching God to take the pastor’s life. Lo and behold, on the other side of the camp, via cross-cutting that implies cause and effect while maintaining deniability, Al kills the pastor. Thus Al becomes the instrument through which Doc achieves the result he wants deep down and knows is right, or at least correct, but cannot just come out and request, of God or Al, because, per Cy Tolliver, that would be wrong.
Deadwood’s hive mind is at its most hummingly insistent during the episode’s key Seth and Al sequences: respectively, the one where Seth moves back and forth between Chinatown and the thoroughfare, his repetitious, circuitous motions suggesting the machinations of a mind trying to puzzle the right course of action; and the end sequence cross-cutting the Doc’s prayer and Al’s act of euthanasia, the former seeming almost to predict or conjure or impel the latter. In both sequences we are oriented by the actions of a single lead character while at the same time remaining keenly aware of other characters buzzing about the perimeter (each act of violence occurs before some kind of audience), and feeling certain that there’s more going on here than Drama 101 cause-and-effect equations or specious moralizing about what one ought to do in this or that situation. Cosmic forces are afoot in Deadwood, and they are bigger than any one person. Bigger than all, in fact.
As always, the soaring grandiosity of the show’s vision of life is tempered by disarming moments of humor, some scabrous and satirical (that scarred cavalryman in the crowd, Holy Fooling the General’s speech), others tenderhearted (Al twice dehumanizing his newly lost love Trixie as “the other one,” only to have his audiences clarify that he means Trixie). This is the kind of show that can establish a commonality of trauma and survival between women that transcends class lines by having one bring another her father’s teeth. For all the gore, madness, and opportunism showcased in this hour, we come away with a feeling of hope for the camp, for its characters, and for us. As Seth—married stepfather, healer of widows, newly re-anointed lawman/avenger/instrument of civic growth—stares at his new love in the window across the street, carving a secret outlaw space in the center of his identity as a lawman, the town’s most feared outlaw, Deadwood’s sulfurous daddy, instrument of mercy and profit, stands at a balcony railing, gazing down upon the saloon floor like a prince surveying his fiefdom, watching Doc and Jewel dancing nimbly as forest creatures, making eye contact with Trixie long enough to to realize what it means that she looks away first.
“Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh,” Al says.
He moves in mysterious ways.