"Bullock Returns to Camp"
Over the past two episodes, "The Trial of Jack McCall" and "Plague," we've seen the town of Deadwood faced with crises that force its members to come together and act as a community. Now we see Deadwood step back from the overall sense of togetherness to re-introduce some necessary conflict and tension, while—at the same time—focusing on some smaller social units to explore and strengthen the same unifying theme: that we are all, however different, connected. "Bullock Returns to Camp" is structured around pairings, as individual characters interact with old friends, encounter kindred spirits, and recognize slightly distorted reflections of themselves. In friendship, in sympathy, and even in conflict, if we look closely enough at the person across from us, they start to look a lot like us. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
The key moment in "The Trial of Jack McCall" comes not during the titular event, but during the funeral for the man Jack McCall killed. In laying Wild Bill Hickok to rest, the Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon) has chosen as his text Corinthians, Chapter 12:
"Saint Paul tells us: By one’s spirit are we all baptized in the one body…For the body is not one member but many… He tells us, The eye cannot say unto the hand, 'I have no need of thee.' Nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of thee.' Nay, much more those members of the body which seem to be more feeble, and those members of the body which we think of as less honorable, are all necessary. He says that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care, one to another, and where the one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.
So far, Deadwood has been a camp: a makeshift collection of rebels, outlaws, and outcasts, each, for the most part, selfishly seeking their own fortunes. But now two crises strike the camp—the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, and an outbreak of smallpox—and everyone is forced to recognize that "the body is not one member but many." There can be no outcasts or isolationists: all are necessary, and no one member can deny his or her responsibility to the others. With the death of heroes, and the absence of the law, regular people are left with the responsibility to ensure order, justice, and compassion in the face of tragedy and adversity. But, as they do so, perhaps something else is happening: "I believe in God’s purpose, not knowing it," Smith says. "I ask Him, moving in me, to allow me to see His will. I ask Him, moving in others, to allow them to see it."
Throughout this episode—and from this point forward—we'll see that, in the absence of the law, there is just the hope of grace manifesting itself (in ways often mysterious) through the actions of human beings. In this way—through random acts of kindness, and individual acts of justice—Deadwood will begin to become a community. Continue reading
Reconnoitering the Rim/Here Was a Man
One of the reasons I resist calling Deadwood a "western" is that the word suggests something familiar and formulaic. Period pieces are popular and comforting, in part, because we know what to expect: movies and TV shows have turned certain historical eras—the Old West, Victorian England, the Great Depression—into stock settings: phony and frozen moments in time, as static and unchanging as Disneyworld's Frontierland or Colonial Williamsburg.
With this tendency to treat time as little more than trappings, few movies or TV shows capture history as flux in quite the way that Deadwood does. Creator David Milch understands that time is a river, not a lake, and he very intentionally sets his story in some serious rapids. Deadwood provides a microcosm of American history that seems to develop before our eyes like time-lapse photography, in a time when the Old West is disappearing, and "progress" is coming on a daily—even hourly—basis. "Things sort out fast in Deadwood," Al Swearengen said last week, and this week we see that even Al is unprepared for how fast the modern age is coming to the Black Hills. Continue reading
Last week I got most of the preliminaries out of my system—at some length—so now let's plunge right in.
Like all shows—and perhaps more than most—Deadwood has a lot of work to do in its first few episodes; there's a lot foundation to lay, a lot of exposition to get through, and at least a dozen major characters to introduce. There are also, by necessity, some expectations to recalibrate and thwart: series creator and writer David Milch is very aware of the fact that, for most of us, our perception of the Old West is inseparable from Hollywood's, where the genre is as old as the medium itself. (The film widely credited as the first narrative movie—1902's The Great Train Robbery— is a western, and since then we have been fed a steady, surprisingly consistent diet of cowboys and Indians, horse chases and train heists, saloon brawls and showdowns.) The Hollywood version of the Old West is such a part of our cultural DNA that we have trouble accepting any other. It is—to borrow one of Milch's favorite phrases and themes— "a lie agreed upon." Continue reading
Welcome, all you ignorant cocksuckers, you limber-dicked motherfuckers, you degenerate titty-lickers. Welcome to all you squareheads and hoopleheads, you heathen dirt-worshippers and slant-eyed celestials, you gimps and Jews and chink bosses and Nigger Generals. Welcome to the shitheels, the loopy cunts, the interesting pieces of strange, to the imbeciles, the contemptible, and the promiscuous fucking insane. If I've not caught you mid-thrust in other business, if you are not pickling your prick in the cunt-brine of another, then pour yourself a whiskey, and help yourself to some peaches, and let us ponder together some fucking imponderables. Sometimes life is just one vile fucking task after another, and the world ends when you're dead, but it's a solace having friends: I know that from past experience.
Welcome to fucking Deadwood. It can be combative. Continue reading