The biggest surprise I’ve had in doing these reviews is the realization of just how often I end up talking about God. In my previous viewings of Deadwood I was certainly aware of some of the overtly religious storylines, but the show itself always seemed to exist in a completely amoral, disordered, and indifferent universe—one where sin runs rampant, evil flourishes, goodness regularly takes a beating, justice is almost wholly absent, and the kindly preacher is rapidly losing control of his faculties. Where was God in any of this? At best, I would have said that Deadwood made a simple existentialist argument that—in the absence of God—we are each responsible for doing well unto others and giving our own lives meaning.
But I would have been wrong. It’s only as I’ve sat down to really think about each episode that I’ve realized that this incredibly foul-mouthed, frequently violent, sex- and greed-driven show is one of the most deeply religious programs ever produced for television.
“Art, storytelling, I believe, is the dynamic process which embodies spirituality, even in a seemingly Godless society. God is just a name for whatever is the spirit that has given us rise.”—David Milch
In retrospect, that shouldn’t be so surprising. In the wake of Deadwood ‘s cancellation, HBO offered creator David Milch the opportunity to make another show, and Milch responded with John from Cincinnati, an overtly allegorical story about Christ returning to deliver his Father’s message to a family of Southern California surfers. (Shameful admission: I haven’t seen much of John from Cincinnati, but, as I become more aware of Milch’s purpose in Deadwood, I become more intrigued with this short-lived follow-up, which was received with almost universal bafflement. I may tackle it soon for the blog.)
Milch is Jewish by birth, but quotes from many religions liberally; I don’t know anything about his actual religious practices, if he has any, except that he views his art—and all art—as a spiritual exploration. “Art is God’s gift to us,” he told a USC class on “Religion, Media, and Hollywood” in 2008. (The full lecture is here, and, when you have time, it’s well worth the hour and a half.) “It’s the place He gives us to stand, from which we can intuit our membership in the body of Christ. And it doesn’t have to be Christ’s body: it can be the Buddha’s body. Every religion has the same formulation…You realize that all things are part of the same thing.”
In that context, Milch says, art is a “religious construct,” through which we both open ourselves to, and come to understand, our place in the universe:
You rest, each of you, transparently, in the ground of being that created you. By which one means that, despite your seeming separateness, each from the other, there radiates with a perfect clarity the soul of the universe that created you…This paradoxical doubleness, of seeming to be both separate from each other and yet to be able to experience, radiating through each other, with no distortion, the universal spirit, is the state of grace.
This, of course, is the core message of Deadwood, as expressed last week in Rev. Smith’s sermon about St. Paul. (Before retooling his idea to become Deadwood, remember, Milch’s original proposal to HBO was to do a show about St. Paul, set in Rome in the time of Nero.) “Art, storytelling, I believe, is the dynamic process which embodies spirituality, even in a seemingly Godless society,” Milch says. “God is just a name for whatever is the spirit that has given us rise.”
I dwell on this at such length because I believe it’s essential to understanding Deadwood—this “seemingly Godless society” through which Milch is exploring the spiritual notion that we are all members of the body, and through which we realize that all the cocksuckers and motherfuckers, all the whores and drunks, all the heathens and hoopleheads, experience and radiate through each other the state of grace.
“The Hickok murder, the exoneration of the coward McCall: a stain on the escutcheon of the camp.”—A. W. Merrick
Right from the title of this episode we are thrust into religious territory. The epidemic that has struck Deadwood is an outbreak of smallpox, but everyone except Doc Cochran calls it “plague.” (“I was raised calling it ‘plague,’” Al says. “But Doc wants that in reserve, in case our luck holds and the rats decide to descend on us too.”) A brief scene near the beginning of the episode reminds of us the towns sins, as Merrick raises a sarcastic glass to recent events. “The Hickok murder, the exoneration of the coward McCall: a stain on the escutcheon of the camp,” he says, immediately before Doc confirms the smallpox outbreak to Al. The juxtapositioning of these two scenes suggests a Biblical plague may be descending on the town in retribution for its sins.
Later, Al and the Reverend will raise the religious implications again, though determined to dissuade the public from that interpretation. “It would also be useful to avoid apocalyptic predictions,” Rev. Smith says, and Al agrees. “Yeah, nip that Sodom and Gomorrah shit in the bud.” Yet, given all we know of what has happened so far, it is a valid interpretation: the epidemic began when Andy Cramed arrived in camp sick, and Cy—instead of taking him in, and instead of taking into account the safety of his fellow men—told no one, and secretly had Andy dumped in the woods to die. The outbreak might have been contained then, but Cy—like the residents of Sodom—abused the laws of hospitality. (Wisdom 19:13-14: “…whereas the men of Sodom received not the strangers when they came among them.”) It’s not much of a stretch to say that Cy’s inhumanity brought down a plague on the town, which now can only be redeemed through a collective effort to tend to the less fortunate.
If we want to go a little further with the idea of divine retribution, we should look to where this episode begins, with what at first seems like an unconnected sub-plot. Bullock—riding off to search for McCall—is attacked by a Sioux warrior, and nearly killed. Only by luck does Bullock get the upper hand, and just manages to beat the warrior to death before falling unconscious himself.
Charlie comes across him later in the episode, and explains that Bullock was attacked for interrupting the Sioux warrior in the act of laying his friend to rest on holy ground. The Sioux’s “headless buddy” is almost certainly the same “chief” whose head now sits in Al’s office, the result of Al’s offering—way back in Episode One—to give “a fifty dollar bounty for every decapitated head of as many of these godless heathen cocksuckers as anyone can bring in.” In this case, Bullock has paid a price for the camp’s sins.
Taking it still further, I’d argue that, by beginning “Plague” with the Sioux warrior’s wrath, Milch is drawing an intentional connection to the reprehensible history of smallpox and the Native American population. (Whites brought smallpox to the New World, and on at least one documented occasion attempted to use it as a biological weapon to eradicate Native American tribes, who had no immunity; some estimates say smallpox and other European diseases killed 30 to 50 percent of the native population.) The town of Deadwood—an illegal camp on stolen Indian land, built around the greed for gold and power—is the perfect symbol of this genocide, and the smallpox epidemic is a perfectly appropriate retribution for these crimes against humanity. To survive it, the townsfolk will need to prove that they have the capacity for selflessness, for compassion, for offering hospitality to those less fortunate. As Smith said last week, “the members should have the same care, one to another, and where one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.”
“Why don’t we do something together? Us, and several others.”—Al Swearengen
Just as Al took the leadership in organizing the trial last week, so too does he take the initiative in dealing with the plague. Here again a sharp contrast is drawn between Al and Cy: Cy thought only of himself, but Al immediately thinks of the interests of the town. (Of course, his concern for the well-being of the town is, itself, selfish, but that’s the point: Al recognizes that he and the town are one organism.)
And so Al calls the first meeting of what will become the ad-hoc government of Deadwood, summoning the town leaders to deal with the epidemic: Cy, Doc Cochran, Sol, Farnum, Merrick, Tom Nutall, and Rev. Smith. They agree to recruit riders to go after vaccine, and they agree to construct a “plague tent” at the end of Chinaman’s Alley to house the afflicted.
Finally, they must deal with public relations, in a funny scene in which poor Merrick must suffer the indignities of writing-by-committee:
Merrick [reading]: “At Doctor Cochran’s suggestion, a pest tent, endowed by the generous retailers of our fine community, is being erected for the afflicted at the South End, and riders dispatched to secure vaccine.”
Al: Maybe you should add there, “They’re probably already on their way back.”
Merrick: “The Pioneer has been assured of their imminent return.”
Cy: That’s catchier.
Merrick: “Thanks also to the aforementioned merchants, the vaccine will be distributed gratis.”
Al: “Free gratis.”
Merrick: “Free gratis” is a redundancy.
Farnum: Does that mean, repeats itself?
Al: Then leave “gratis” out.
Merrick: What luck for me, Al, that you have such a keen editorial sense. “Free. Distributed free.” Period.
It’s a lovely scene, with the men (probably for the first time) taking a fascination in the arcane rituals of publishing, of which Merrick alone is expert. (Later, Al expresses pride in his contributions to the group effort. “‘The Pioneer is assured of their imminent return,’” Al reads to Dan. “‘Imminent return’ is one of my contributions to the fucking article. The idea for that phrase.”)
Overall, it’s a kinder, gentler Al we’re seeing. He’s still trying to swindle the gold mine out from under Alma, but a more tender side of the man is emerging in response to crisis. This is most evident with the Reverend Smith, who collapses immediately following the meeting. Al reveals that he had a brother who was given to fits, and so knows what to do: afterwards, he is brusquely kind to the afflicted man of God. “Prescribe this malingerer a can of peaches, and show him the fucking door,” he jokes to Cochran, and the Reverend smiles sweetly. We also see Al’s kindness in his treatment of one of his terrified whores who fears she may have caught smallpox: Al goes out of his way to reassure her that she may be immune, and then tells her to “stick to handjobs for a day or two,” if she likes. These moments—rare instances in which Al is driven by no ulterior motive—are quietly but powerfully humanizing, demonstrating a basic compassionate decency in Al that we don’t often see.
Again, this is contrasted with Cy Tolliver, who has none of Al’s decency or humanity. Joanie’s sadness has been building, and here she expresses it in what will be a common theme in Deadwood: the difficulty of achieving redemption, of achieving personal change or transformation. “What’s wrong with a fresh start?” Cy asks her. “How it feels when there isn’t one,” she responds.
Cy sees Joanie moving further and further away from him—she dissuades Ellsworth from losing more money on a fixed craps game—and Cy responds with protestations of love, but his form of affection is threatening and terrifying:
Joanie: Sorry I crapped on your play with the prospector.
Cy: Me and Eddie turned it into a longer campaign. We don’t get plague, it’ll all have a happy end. My worry is you. My concerns…and feelings of fucking affection.
Joanie: Shut up, Cy.
Cy: Work on believin’ it, Joanie. [Caresses her cheek.] That’s the way I always want to touch you, just like that. Don’t make me do it different.
“I’d rather try touchin’ the moon than take on a whore’s thinking.”—Al Swearengen
Once again it is the women of Deadwood who express the spirit of grace most clearly. Trixie, at increasing risk to herself, is still taking care of Sophia, and still nurturing Alma through her laudanum withdrawals. Farnum, spying on them for Al, has become suspicious that something strange is going on, reporting to Al that “if that widow was high, I am a monkey’s uncle.” (Al gives him an appraising look, considering the possibility.)
Cy and Joanie parallel Al and Trixie in many ways—both men have scenes this episode in which they threaten the women for screwing up their business deals—but there is a marked difference between the two. (The difference will become more pronounced in the next few episodes, as we compare Cy’s response to Joanie’s growing independence with Al’s response to Trixie’s.) Here Al tells Trixie that “the only suspicion you gotta worry about is mine,” instructing her to ensure that Alma is taking her dope.
And so now Alma must return the kindnesses Trixie has shown her, and pretend to be high to allay Al’s suspicions. This she does, in a funny scene with Farnum, pretending to be floating and libidinous on laudanum. It’s a nice thematic tie-in with the women’s solidarity that she, Trixie, Sophia, and Jane have formed in that room: that Alma realizes a show of female sexuality is the quickest way to drive Farnum whimpering away. (“I hope you comported yourself like a gentleman,” Al jokes when Farnum reports this behavior. “There was a child in the room,” Farnum hisses, mortified.)
Jane, having returned to camp, is still our best example of the spirit of grace. Drunk, surly, and unrepentantly profane, she has the biggest heart of anyone in camp, and understands intuitively her responsibilities to her fellow humans. She agrees to help Cochran look after the smallpox victims, and goes to check in on Sophia. “I carried that fuckin’ child,” she mumbles drunkenly of Sophia. “No, not in my body…None of that fuckin’ blood in me,” but she is connected to the child, and responsible for her. We get a lovely scene between Jane, Trixie, Alma, and Sophia, that reminds us of how the spirit of compassion joins these women. “I might be tending to sick people,” Jane tells them, shyly, and Sophia sings “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to the ailing Alma, just as Jane once sang it to her.
The end of “Plague” finds the residents of Deadwood taking their places for the well-being of the camp, acting as one body, looking after the less fortunate in ways large and small. Alma is taking care of Sophia; Trixie is tending to Alma; Jane, Doc, and Smith are tending to the afflicted. Bullock and Charlie—who are off to seek justice, looking to expiate the recent sins of the camp—pause in their crusade and take the time to lay the Sioux warrior to rest. “His way to heaven is above ground and facing west,” Charlie tells Bullock, and so that’s what they do, putting the two Native Americans side by side on the path to heaven, according to their beliefs. It is a simple gesture Charlie and Bullock make, but it is an important one: an unnecessary but voluntary choice to respect the universal spirit, to recognize that we are all members of the same body, however different our beliefs or religions.
It’s an odd and mismatched collection of individuals who make up this body, this organism, this community and membership known as Deadwood, but strange confluences of events have led them, finally, to form a real community. In the final scene, Al sits at the center of power in the Gem Saloon, and speculates aloud to Dan on how different paths, different events, might have found them all in different places. But it is Reverend Smith—the man of faith—who expresses the notion, based in faith, that there is a purpose to everything. Doc asks him if he’s sure he’s up to working with the sick, and Smith smiles beatifically, in a state of grace, the universal spirit radiating through him. “Oh, yes,” he says. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Random Thoughts, Loose Observations, and Selected Quotes
- The parallels between Trixie and Joanie will become more pronounced in the next few episodes, as both women start to forge new roles for themselves while never quite escaping the roles in which they have been stuck. In this episode we get just a glimpse of one possibility opening up for Trixie, as she and Sol Star begin, ever so slightly, to flirt.
- The actors in this show are so goddamned good that I find myself rewinding certain scenes just to watch fleeting emotions move across their faces. Robin Weigert, as Jane, is giving a master-class in acting, charged with playing so many emotions simultaneously. Watch the brief scene this episode in which she talks with Alma, Trixie, and Sophia: she’s a little drunk, she’s ashamed of herself, she’s embarrassed and uncomfortable, she’s grief-stricken, she’s proud, and she’s so in love with that little girl—while knowing herself to be a terrible role model—that she can hardly bear to look at her. It’s a complex and heart-breaking performance she’s giving.
- Dayton Callie, as Charlie Utter, is another favorite. He is always a little uncomfortable speaking to anyone, his body trembles with awkwardness and inarticulateness, and his face is a beautiful monstrosity that conveys emotions Utter does not even have the language to express.
- As Deadwood is about the formation of civilization, there are always strange little customs and rituals that form—somewhat arbitrarily—and become traditions, symbols that stand for the absent laws and guidelines of society. Spitting in the palm to seal a deal is one we’ve already seen, and now—totally by accident—another is formed when Al has Johnny set out “peaches and pears on the fucking bar” for the gathering of town leaders. Thus are “traditions” formed in a society that has none: peaches and pears will become de rigueur for important business meetings.
As always, some quotes:
- Merrick, to Dan: “And may I say, Dan, that I often find you the source of many well-put and witty things that you say.”
- Jane, to a random passerby: “If I had that mug on me, I believe I’d cut down on gettin’ told how butt-fuckin’-ugly I was by not staring at fucking strangers.”
- A classic exchange: Joanie: “Will you keep a girl company?” Ellsworth: “I will…But I’m expensive.”
- Al, to a whore sitting by herself: “You better have a paying dwarf underneath you.”
- Al, to Farnum: “Don’t play that shit where you make me drag your words out of you. Declare, or shut the fuck up.”
- Another classic exchange: Farnum: “Be brief!” Jane: “Be fucked!”
- Farnum, as Jane goes to visit Alma: “Her gutter mouth and the widow’s opium stupor: a conversation for the ages.”
- Al: “Truth is, as a base of operations, you cannot beat a fucking saloon.”