And that’s why I love him so much. I don’t want to downplay the most sensational elements of Deadwood for a minute: I enjoy a good life or death fight, a sudden decapitation or an unexpected enucleation (wait for it) as much as anyone. But overtly dramatic events are generally the least interesting – and ultimately the least important – elements of David Milk’s Deadwood project. Events like the execution of Flora and Miles, the murder of Brom Garret, even the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, are themselves almost fleeting, almost insignificant moments of violence. In any other series, incidents like this could be the main story, but here they just happen. They serve to highlight and direct the true story of Milk, which is the development of these characters and the community they form together as one large, interconnected organization.
Let’s put it this way: Deadwood is not a matter of who lives, who dies, who gets rich, etc. It’s a matter of who lives and who dies. Therefore, the progress of the plot is not measured by these major events: It is based on moments of personal development and more discreet and subtle interpersonal relationships. The series moves forward in small, almost imperceptible moments of change, the precise mapping of which is Milch’s real project.
All of this makes No Other Sons and Daughters a very intense episode of Deadwood. Because it’s all about change.
Congratulations on your new company.
It’s almost unbelievable to realize, nine episodes into the first season, how many of the main characters we know so well haven’t been met yet. Differences in class, style and purpose keep them isolated in their own little comfort zone, but no other son or daughter sees them boldly step out of their comfort zone. This week, almost everyone in Deadwood is venturing into new and exciting territory: They create new businesses, take on new roles, make new friends, and most importantly, dare to imagine new identities.
And it’s a little scary. When Joanie Stubbs first arrived in Deadwood, she seemed confident, even intimidating, to the earth-soaked residents of the camp: an intelligent, confident, articulate beauty who seemed to come from a more cultured world. (Remember how nervous and unsure Al was when he first spoke to the guys at Bella Union in his best suit? The most powerful and dangerous man in Deadwood instantly turned into a ruby). But it was in the artificial luxury of Bella Union, a place, as Cy said later in the episode, that promises something it can’t (or won’t) deliver. We have seen Joanie gradually become disillusioned with this environment and her false opportunities, and she is now ready to escape and move into the less polite and more real world of camp.
And he scares her just as much, if not more, than she ever scared him. One of Deadwood’s most gripping sequences is the roughly 70-second sequence in which Joanie is wandering around Cinque Alley looking for a location for her new brothel. First she passes Wu’s pigs and in the corner of the barn lie stains, soiled and dirty – the remains of Flora’s clothes, a macabre reminder of the cruelty of the camp and – also dangerous for her C. (If she doesn’t handle this break with Cy with care, she knows she could end up the same way). As she continues to walk – her once lofty position softened and plunged into the mud – the camera follows her, seemingly trembling and feverish, and unfamiliar landmarks pass in a menacing blur.
But where Bella Union is a place of obvious comfort and creeping cruelty, the camp is just the opposite: It’s a hovel of hidden goodness. And fortunately she meets an ambassador of this raw kindness in the person of Charlie Utter.
I live for these incredible pairings proposed by David Milch, a mysterious alchemy where seemingly incompatible characters unite to create an amazing warmth. (These matings take place where there are no other sons or daughters – Charlie and Joanie, Alma and Ellsworth, Trixie and Sol, and Milk warming up). Here, two characters in contrast to each other, as they look, can be directly related to each other because inside they are in an almost identical situation and feel exactly the same emotions. I don’t know what, by Charlie’s own admission, drove me to start my new trucking business. I don’t know what came over me, Joanie said a few minutes later as she opened her new brothel. Joanie in her old fancy clothes, awkward for her mission and now ruined during her trip. Charlie, on the other hand, is uncomfortable and uncertain in his new clean raincoat, dressed as a businessman. I get along well in the camp, in the community or in the village, he explains. But that doesn’t make me a campground or a community or a town. It’s an outfit for that kind of… Type. Joanie, on the other hand, says I’m just a whore. They are both out of their element, feeling overwhelmed, feeling like braggarts, and are terrified of making a mistake, of being something other than what they have always been.
But – as a rule – good people are kinder and more generous to each other than to themselves. Anyway, you’re wearing it today, Joanie says of Charlie’s coat, which is touchingly wise. David Milch – a former alcohol and heroin addict, as well as a long-time compulsive gambler – likes to cite as many detoxification programs as possible: Pretend you do. That’s basically what Joanie tells him, and it’s a principle concerning religious themes that are never far below the surface in Deadwood: Faith, after all, is the essence of what you hoped for, the proof of what you didn’t see. Pretend to have faith, they say, and faith will be given to you. Change starts as a sham, then becomes a habit and a ritual, and eventually turns into a real transformation.
And what he offers her in return is essentially the same advice: Just trust the process and follow the path it leads you down, even if you feel unsure or unprepared. I’m telling you that once he’s prepared something for you, it doesn’t matter if you’re ready for it or not. This can be read ambiguously as an essence of the divine plan, or simply as a reality that changes, whether you like it or not. (I’m not sure Milch sees the difference between the two interpretations, to be honest). Either way, it’s going to happen. You better lift up your skirts and jump? says Joanie. That’s what I believe to be true, Charlie confirms it.
Everything changes. Don’t be afraid.
And that’s the spirit of No Other Sons and Daughters, as the episode opens with Al giving himself the same advice.
He does it under the guise of Trixie advice, of course. (Al Swearengen may be the greatest soliloquist since Hamlet, but he prefers to hide his soliloquies in monologues. He surrounds himself with desks – perhaps just for a reason to think aloud – but he almost always talks to himself). Here Al expresses his nervousness about the upcoming meeting with Magistrate Claggett, as well as his deeper concerns about the change in the camp itself. Like Charlie, Al doesn’t seem like a city boy by nature. (Cocksucker, he says, puts on his one good suit to meet the grumpy people of Bella Union. But like Charlie, he knows change is coming, whether he’s ready for it or not. After the annexation it will be different, that’s all, he reassures himself, pretending to reassure Trixie. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Things change. Don’t be afraid.
(But here’s the real genius of this scene: whether he knows it or not, he’s also talking to Trixie. We’ll get to that soon enough.)
So Claggett told Al how it was going to happen: The camp is annexed to Dakota Territory, and the best way to ensure that all campers legitimize their property and gold claims is to legitimize Deadwood. A special municipal organization, he said, would allow lawmakers to say: A dead tree exists, we don’t have to make it. Property rights, according to Mr Claggett, are likely to be determined by ease of use: Basically: If you do it and improve it, it’s yours.
That – and lots of bribes – is Deadwood’s best survival strategy. And, not coincidentally, it’s basically the same advice Charlie and Joanie gave each other: Pretend you do. You want to be a city? Pretend you’re already a city. Act like a city. Put on the suit, the air and the utensils. Even the property line – if you stick to it and improve it, you own it – with the Joanie line: Anyway, you’re wearing it now. The City of Deadwood and the Deadwood Collection are part of the same interdependent organism that is in the same state of transformation: Everyone has rights to his land and his soul, both of which are real as long as he manages and improves them.
So that’s how we form a fucking government. For the second time since Deadwood’s founding, a meeting will be held where most of Deadwood’s prominent citizens will come together to act as a community.
(Of course, these are only exceptional male citizens. When Eddie, thinking of Joanie, asks a question about women owning brothels, the men are confused, but the whores listening from behind are amused. Much later in the show, Alma, the richest woman in town, is excluded from such an encounter. I guess if you have a pussy, even the owner of the bank won’t let you come to the table, but one of the prostitutes will look at you).
Titles and responsibilities are randomly assigned. As far as I’m concerned, Al says we need to get the names out of that damn hat. At this point, it’s all about pretending: Put on the suit and take care of the rest later. So Bullock became health commissioner, Charlie became fire commissioner, and E.B. Farnum – because no one could oppose it fast enough – became mayor of Deadwood.
I don’t want what I can’t have.
There’s a lot to be said about the early days of the Deadwood government, but let’s skip that point this week and get back to the more personal changes taking place in that church in No Other Sons or Daughters.
Last week we discussed whether Trixie came back after her visit to Alma (and her suicide attempt) and whether it was a step backwards for her. Other people are watching them and asking the same question this week. Just as she was starting to help little Wonder Sol (who had shown a lot of interest in Trixie). Great appeal, back to what you know, notes Bullock. (This seems like a curiously uncomfortable comment for Mr. Bullock, until we remember that he did it just after explaining to Saul that he was only volunteering to be Health Commissioner because he didn’t want to be tied to the sheriff’s office. Bullock is familiar with the appeal of familiarity and will have a hard time accepting it for the rest of the season).
But last week, I made the point that things have changed between Al and Trixie, and– to go back to the opening scene of No Other Sons and Daughters now– we see the evidence of that in the way he treats her. Because even though I stand by everything I said before about Al talking mostly to himself, he’s different in this scene. We see it on Trixie’s face as she listens: the realization that the way he talks to her now is not the way he used to talk. She is softer, more open, more fatherly, even more emotionally vulnerable. Leaving the room, he asks for her hand and says: Don’t try to get away with it. He speaks kindly: She doesn’t scold, she doesn’t even scold, and she smiles, touches and cheers as he leaves the room.
Al knows something’s changed between them: If anyone’s going to change their mind, it’s Trixie. She’s back at work and officially on duty when Sol approaches her in the Gem, but she’s not comfortable right now. This is no place for you, she told him, adding her own statement: If you insist on embarrassing me, don’t see me here. The relationship Saul seems to be offering her isn’t even the one Trixie thinks would open up for her; it doesn’t seem any more realistic than the life Alma offered her in New York. I don’t need what I can’t have, Mr. Star. (Joanie’s statement comes to mind: I’m just a whore.) Trixie has grasped the possibility that she might be something else, but – understandably – she doesn’t believe it herself yet.
But Al, who saw the two flirting across the room. Whether he knew it or not, his previous speech about not being afraid of change was meant for him. Trixie starts and ends the episode in Al’s room as usual, but things are different: She has changed, and he seems to support that change. That morning Al showed her the gold nugget she had brought him. Can I expect them to come regularly? he asked him. No, she was just saying, and Al wasn’t arguing. Eventually, he says: Since the last time we saw each other, I hope you made me five bucks. No, Trixie’s talking again, and Al’s not protesting. She thought she could go back to her old life as a monumentalist for Al in his brothel and machinations – but there’s an unspoken agreement between them that she’s going down a different path now.
Everyone goes at their own pace, and try not to rush them.
That brings us to the people in the camp who are not willing to accept change.
Jane Cannary is drunk this week, because only Jane can be drunk: She spends a lot of time without her other sons and daughters and leans her forehead against the wall in the alley. (How much do they pay you to maintain this building? Charlie asks). Jane flourished briefly during the smallpox epidemic and found a real place and purpose in caring for the sick, but the last of the sick will soon leave the tent. Soon she has nothing to do, and nowhere to do it, so she goes back to what she does best: Drinking and insulting people.
She has three vicious confrontations in this episode, all with people who don’t deserve it. At first, she confuses the priest’s olfactory hallucinations with her fear of seeing her drink and falls in love with him. Then Dr. Cochran – who actually has a tear in her eye – confronts her about the drinking and asks her to stop. You can fuck off, she says. And don’t try to push anyone, because everyone goes at their own pace, and don’t try to push them. That’s Charlie’s opposite advice: If the time has not yet come to change, you cannot rush the process.
And that’s something Charlie has to accept for himself when he faces it. He offers her a job, any job, in his new trucking company, but she refuses to be nice to him and seems furious at her own transformation. Congratulations on being a fucking big shot, she’s smiling. I’ve seen you in a lot of stupid outfits, but this one is great.
Finally, that night, she told Charlie she was leaving. She attributes this to her own shortcomings. I won’t be a drunk where he [Hickock] is buried, and I can’t stay sober, she says. But he also puts her at the foot of the change. I’m tired of managing this whole camp, she says. And this living shit bores me.
This is a fair point, and one that others will take as Deadwood continues its steady progress toward civilization. (In a few episodes, someone else will complain that the camp seems to be moving away from them). After all, it was a lawless, makeshift, uncivilized place, and that’s what made it so attractive to so many people. It was a place of liberation from social constraints, a place that welcomed all losers, the marginalized and the grotesque. Now he has taxes, firefighters, health inspectors and soon he will have laws. Today, former losers, misfits and grotesques are taking matters into their own hands, leaving behind their former comrades who are not quite ready for change.
What do we sell?
The other important voice in No Other Son or Daughter who speaks out against the possibility of change is Cy Tolliver. I’ve talked about the parallels between Joanie and Trixie in several episodes, and the way Cy and Al confront each other has been important since Cy came to Deadwood. But the similarities and differences are no more obvious than that. Cy and Al have been struggling with the same fear for the past few episodes: losing the only people they really love, the only ones who make them feel human, even from afar. Al knows Trixie is moving away from him and Cy knows Joanie is doing the same.
But where Al openly resists and offers tacit support, Cy is the opposite: He makes it a point to introduce Joanie to his new life, but he resents it and undermines her every moment. Through them, this week, he tackles the idea of a new beginning:
A store like ours, Joanie. What do we sell? Walk out that door, it’s a fresh start. Come on in and try your luck. Of course, we know that percentages are percentages, so if you play long enough, your luck is no better here than anywhere else. Maybe it’s because we’re in a whole new camp, but since we’ve been here, some of my relatives seem to have bought our own crap, and now they’re trying to get me to move on. But I can’t. Look, Joanie, I’m a big boy.
Like I said before, Cy is damn near pure evil. At this point he is closest to the devil, and the devil does not like redemptive arcs. The devil doesn’t like real new starts, only false starts that attract pigeons. The devil is a voice that tells people they can’t change. And the devil certainly doesn’t like it when the spirit of collective goodness permeates society. Eddie, who tortured and killed Flora and Miles last week, snapped – now he calls him: Why didn’t you sign up for this meeting? He asks Sy. Why didn’t you raise your hand? Maybe that’s what kept you from being such a badass. Everyone else changes: All others recognize the possibility of a better life and accept the need to act in the public interest. (Al C’s counterpart has become almost unrecognizable since the beginning of Deadwood. Remember when he blew into Trixie’s neck before fighting back? Remember how he almost slit Sophia’s throat? (Remember how he looked like the devil?) But Cy hasn’t changed. Cy doesn’t change, and – like Jane – he’s disgusted and annoyed that everyone in town seems determined.
This is God’s plan. Ignorance of purpose is my part of suffering.
Finally, this week I want to talk – reluctantly – about Reverend Smith and how not all change is positive.
Smith has been a bit insensitive since we’ve known him, and it was at least at the time of Jack McCall’s trial that people were worried about him. Did he look pale to you? Saul asked Seth about Bill’s funeral. He looked pale. And it was after this ceremony that Smith had his first crisis). His condition had become notorious in Plague, but now only Jane seemed to notice that he was much, much worse. (You don’t notice that day after day, same damn attack, you think she’s blaming the doctor this week).
Milk and Ray McKinnon, who gives one of the best performances in a show full of greats, make Smith absolutely heartbreaking. His nightmare hallucinations are bad enough. Do I smell weird? He’s asking Jane. It’s like my flesh is rotting. Do I look like I’ve been ripped from my own grave?) But what I find almost irresistible is his constant kindness, his desire to please, even in his deteriorating state. (Jane points out that her eyes are moving in different directions. You should look at that, he says, it’s useful).
It’s also a change. Your flesh doesn’t stink, you’re not dead, the doctor said. You have an organic change in your mind that makes you believe these things. But what really bothers Smith is that his relationship with God and the camp has changed:
Smith: In the past, Doctor, when the Word took hold of me, when I read the Scriptures, people felt the presence of God through me, and that was the great gift I could give them. Now the word does not take hold of me when I read it, and I do not feel the love of Christ. And those who are listening can’t hear it through me.
Doc: That’s all I’m saying.
Smith: That is God’s purpose. Ignorance of purpose is my part of suffering.
Doc: Is there a pain that rivals ignorance?
Smith: It doesn’t hurt. There are new smells I can smell, and there are parts of my body I can’t smell, and his and his love.
Doc: And you want to keep it that way?
Smith: As long as he wants it, that should be my role. And also to be afraid.
Doc: If that’s what he wants, Reverend, then he’s an asshole.
We will be talking about Pastor Smith – and God’s purpose for him – for the rest of the season. But what strikes me at this point is the fact that his suffering becomes the main secondary plot of this particular episode. I just noticed that the Al leaders who met at the gem to form a government are the exact same group that met to plan a response to smallpox – with one exception: Reverend Smith was not invited this time. It might be said that its presence was necessary in the first session, and not appropriate in the second, but it is deeper and more important: It feels like he’s just one more character leaving camp behind as things move forward.
A cynical interpretation would be that progress is ominous: His spiritual leadership was needed in a lawless place, but once secular power is established – with all its inherent bureaucracy and corruption – it becomes a cancer that eats away at the church as the foundation of community. The city is moving towards questions of legality, leaving behind questions of morality and spirituality.
However, I tend to read Milk’s message more generously in this case. Smith was a catalyst for change, a key figure in two of the most important events that shaped the Deadwood community: Hickok’s murder and the smallpox epidemic. Because of him, or by God through him, if you will, Deadwood became a church. By him, Bullock, rejecting the message from St. John’s. Paul, like the gibberish, came to take responsibility for the capture of Jack McCall and began his reluctant role as one of the referees of justice in Deadwood. In Smith’s words – his sermon at Bill’s funeral – Jane was inspired to help the first pox victim and Joanie search for a better life.
If Pastor Smith no longer feels the presence of God moving through him, it may be that she already has: This spirit, this grace, has already spread through the community of Deadwood, a wave of change that has already spread far from the center. Part of the reason for Mr. Smith’s situation is that he doesn’t see the big picture and he won’t see the long-term results. But if he’s sick today and not feeling well, his creator – whether you think of him as God or David Milk – may recognize that his work here is almost done.
Additional thoughts and favourites
- Oops, even though I put them in the title picture and even though they gave the title to the episode, I neglected this week’s episode where Alma and Seth have another one of those conversations that seem trivial but are actually very important. It is interesting that Seth, having no other sons or daughters to begin with, decides it is time to have his wife and son: It is of course a reflection of the hardening of the camp, but also a reaction to the almost tangible attraction he and Alma have for each other. (Seth is still at war with his instincts, and he’s trying to be good here). And then, at the end of the episode, he and Alma have a coded conversation in which they explain the impossible situation he finds himself in: He married his brother’s widow and adopted his son. So he can’t go after Alma like they clearly want him to. As for our topic this week, I think it’s an example of someone trying to prevent a life-changing event from happening to them, whether they’re ready for it or not.
- Among this week’s key presentations, Seth paired Alma with Ellsworth, a partnership that will be important to both. I feel like I haven’t talked much about Ellsworth in these reviews, but he’s one of my favorite characters, another real diamond like Charlie Utter. (I’d trust myself more in what I feel about the man than what I’ve seen, advises Alma Bullock, and that’s good advice.)
- One of this week’s minor additions is the arrival of Piano to Jewel, an Al who doesn’t remember the sequence or see the goal. (What kind of fucking income do these fuckers have, gather around this asshole and yodel at their fucking places of origin) He clings to Dan and holds his head to keep the noisy headache away. But even that is important as the first season of Deadwood draws to a close.
- Another new project that never seems to get anywhere: Already giving Johnny the job of road manager, previously organized by the late Persimmon Phil.
- Another little plot that escaped me: E.B. receives Wild Bill Hickok’s final letter, delivered by a character who I can only assume is described in the script as an Irishman who does a lot in his pants. Zach Ward, who plays the character, has made many appearances over the years – I remember him in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse – but he is best remembered for his first role in the terrifying tyrant Scat Farkus in A Christmas Story (1983).
- And, as always, a few quotes. That’s all Al did this week, as he had some real gems for the Swearengen calendar:
- Al: Life is often like this: one dirty job after another.
- Al (after talking to Johnny): I walked out of my own office, terrified of his fucking asshole.
- Al (asking Magistrate Claggett to come to the point): And don’t let me, uh, on the one hand and on the other, hmm? Go ahead, say it: I will, because this multi-armed nonsense isn’t going to help me.
- Al (presiding over this meeting, as Dan says): I call myself the leader of this meeting because I have a bribe list.
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