DEADWOOD 1x05

"The Trial of Jack McCall"

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.

"The jury will now retire to the whores' rooms and begin their deliberations."—Magistrate Claggett

As we discussed in Episodes One and Two, the arrival in Deadwood of Sophia (Bree Seanna Wall)—Sophia, God's wisdom, co-creator of the world—was the first crisis that brought people together. But that event was about protecting one innocent life from the camp; now, in this and the next episode, come two new crises that threaten the camp itself, and we start to see the residents of Deadwood stepping forward to take their places in the community, and to do right unto their fellow men—sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes without even knowing why they are doing it.

The first of these two crises is also the camp's first need to mete out justice—the first time it has been necessary for this society to deal, as a society, with one of its undesirables. There have been plenty of murders before, but this time "a man of reputation" has been killed, and both the community and the outside world are paying attention; a more public solution is required than simply feeding Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt) to the pigs. (Though Al does make that suggestion.)

"The Trial of Jack McCall" opens with most of the residents of Deadwood gathering to stand in one of two lines: the first, to see Wild Bill's body, to pay their respects; the second, to join the juror's pool, to try his killer. Throughout the episode, we see Jack's trial juxtaposed against Bill's funeral: the civil and the religious ceremonies happen simultaneously, as though asking us to decide between man's justice and God's. Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), significantly, stands in the line to see Bill, eschewing the responsibilities of the law: he came to Deadwood, after all, to get away from those responsibilities. But even here, he cannot help doing what he thinks is right, stopping the con-artist Soapy from selling "souvenirs" at Bill's viewing. "No law against me selling these, mister," Soapy protests, and Bullock agrees: "No law either against me breaking your fucking jaw if you don't quit it," he tells the huckster. In the absence of the law, it is up to men to decide right and wrong—a responsibility Bullock will try, and fail, to avoid.

Overlooking this scene from the Gem's balcony are Al (Ian McShane) and Cy (Powers Booth), who have been (and remain) competitors, but now stand together for the first time to act as overlords of the town. (Deadwood is filled with balcony scenes: the gods of the town looking down on their people, making decisions from on high.) Al and Cy will always be enemies, but—beginning now—these two puppet-masters will also be forced to recognize their common interests and act together to protect the town. The one thing they agree on is that holding a trial is a bad idea, since it would be setting the unincorporated camp of Deadwood up as a sovereign nation and inviting the ire of the federal government. "But if we're going to have the fucking thing, might as well have it in my joint," Al says, ensuring the event happens where he can control it, and solidifying his position as the unofficial Mayor of Deadwood.

Control it he does, ensuring that it happens (because the people require it), but that the outcome does not threaten the camp. ("I don't want anything done that can't be undone five minutes after this fiasco is over," he tells Dan.) During the brief trial he summons Claggett (Marshall Bell), who is acting as judge in the case, and shares a couple of "visions" he's had:

Al: My point is, before a guilty verdict would get executed on that cocksucker, three men would walk into that meat locker where he's being held with bags over their heads and cut his fucking throat. Within half an hour that celestial's little pigs would be on their backs, with their hooves in the air, belching up human remains.
Claggett: Are you saying you'd order that to be done?
Al: I'm saying I had a vision it would happen. My second of the day. First come when I was watching you and those lawyers on line this morning. They began to slither in my sight like vipers. So as not to puke I had to close my eyes. The vision went on. Got worse. I saw the vipers in the big nest in Washington; they were taking us in the camp for acting like we could set our own laws up or organizations. And then I saw the big vipers decide to strangle us and swallow us up and every fucking thing we gain here. It was horrible. How could we fucking avoid it? How could we let the vipers in the big nest know that we didn't want to cause any fucking trouble?
Claggett: And that's when you had your second vision.
Al: Yeah, the cutthroats and the pigs. But who wants all that blood spilled, judge, you know? Isn't there a simpler way of not pissing off the big vipers?

Al's motives here are practical, but his argument is—very deliberately, on David Milch's part—couched in the language of prophecy and religious imagery. (Jesus called the unbelieving Pharisees "a brood of vipers," and the first miracle of Saint Paul—yes, him again—was shaking off a viper's bite unharmed, which helped convince the barbarians that he was not only good but divine.) I think there's a great deal more going on here than I have the time to explore, but on a simple level this is another hint that what we are seeing here can be interpreted as God's will working itself out through men—in this case, through the unlikely prophet Al Swearengen. (If we have any doubt about whether Al's take on the situation is wrong, the next scene has the unimpugnable Sol Star (John Hawkes) expressing the same view: "Hang him here, it'll be opening a can of worms," he says of McCall, echoing Al's "nest of vipers.")

Al's speech works: the judge goes back to the jury and instructs them. “This camp is part of no territory, state, or nation," he reminds them. "You of the jury are therefore without the law upon which to decide this case. How then are you to decide? You must rely on common custom.” Jack and his lawyer have made up a story about how Hickok once killed Jack's brother, and revenge—by common custom—is an acceptable reason for killing a man.

The jury clears Jack—who is enjoying his new notoriety—but his reprieve is short-lived as Al quickly takes him aside. "There's a horse for you outside you want to get on, before someone murders you who gives a fuck about right and wrong, or I do...Run for your fucking life." Al later explains to Dan that having a guy like Jack around is bad for business, but one suspects that perhaps Al cares a bit more about right and wrong than he even knows.

"I'm not 'supposed' to do anything. Let's agree to that. Not one fucking thing that I don't decide I'm gonna."—Seth Bullock

Contrasted against the trial, we have Bill's funeral. "Who stands for Mr. Hickok?" the Reverend Smith asks Bullock and Star while preparing for the service, and the question seems to have larger significance than just deciding on the text and the hymn. With the hero dead, who will step up to fill the void he leaves behind? Bullock, feeling increasingly put-upon and angry, senses and resents the implications of the question. He is grumpy with the Reverend, he snarls at Sol, and he lashes out at poor Doc Cochran, who reminds him that Bill assigned Bullock to deal with the Widow Garret's affairs. Finally, overwhelmed with grief, guilt, and pressure, he goes to confront McCall, and comes close to murdering him in his cell—Is that his role? Would that be justice?—before being interrupted by the arrival of the law (in the form of Jack's lawyer).

Everyone looks to Bullock. Throughout Bill's funeral Smith seems to be speaking directly to Bullock, and at the end of the service Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) comes to him to deliver the news that the jury has set Jack McCall free: the "law"—or this impromptu mockery of the law—has not delivered justice, which must now come, if it is to come, from somewhere else. Afterwards, as they walk back to camp, Smith puts it squarely to Bullock: "May I ask, Mr. Bullock, what you feel now may be your part?...I would not impose, but it has been given to me to ask." Bullock is simmering, and rudely shuts him up from reiterating the point that "none of us can deny our parts."

Immediately after delivering his message, Reverend Smith is struck down by a fit of some kind, writhing uncontrollably on the ground while passersby ignore him; it is another sign that the purpose may come from God, but it must be interpreted and enacted by men: God's mouthpiece will not always be here to tell us what we should do. So it passes to Sol (the only one who notices Smith is sick) to help Seth grapple with the question of his role, and accept his responsibility.

Seth: The man is a lunatic. High water, he never made much sense, but now he just utters pure gibberish.
Sol: Did he look pale to you?
Seth: What?
Sol: Did he seem pale?
Seth: How the fuck do I know if he was pale or not?
Sol: He looked pale to me.
Seth: What if he was? Let's say he was. Will you shut up about it? "What is my part? And your part? What part of my part is your part? Is my foot your knee? What about your ear? What the fuck is that?"
Sol: Yeah. I don't know.
Seth: What don't you know? If he was pale or not?
Sol: What you're supposed to do.
Seth: I'm not supposed to do anything! Let's agree to that. Not one fucking thing that I don't decide I'm gonna. Alright, Sol?...Goddamnit! If I kill the droop-eyed son-of-a-bitch, and my part is getting hanged for it, good luck with the fucking store...Can I impose on you to pack a bag for me to cut down on the cocksucker's head start?
Sol: It'll be ready for you when you ride out.
Seth: Thanks, Sol.

"Don't apologize to me. I don't even fuckin' know ya."—Jane

While the men of Deadwood make their big decisions from balconies, the women of Deadwood watch from the periphery. "The Trial of Jack McCall" is full of women (Trixie, Alma, Sophia, Jane, Joanie) staring out windows and standing on the sidelines. They are relatively powerless, and left out of the politics, but it is through those women that the current of grace, the spirit of shared suffering, and the milk of compassion flows most strongly.

Alma (Molly Parker), recently widowed, being harassed about her gold claim, and undergoing Laudanum withdrawals, is struggling with the burden of Sophia, who was left in her care when Jane took to the hills after Bill's death. "I cannot look after this child," she tells Farnum. "She needs someone less distracted." When she requests someone to help look after the little girl, Farnum and Al come up with the idea of sending her Trixie (Paula Malcomson), to spy on her and to slip her some dope to make her more pliable.

But Trixie, it turns out, has her own history with laudanum, and is sympathetic to Alma's plight. (She's also immediately taken with Sophia.) She sets out to help the Widow get through her addiction. "What's that to you?" Doc asks her, and Trixie has no explanation: she is risking her own position, and perhaps her life, for a rich stranger, out of simple sympathy and compassion.

Joanie (Kim Dickens) is feeling horrified over Cy's handling of Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), who has been sent off in the woods to die alone from smallpox. Though she barely knew Hickok, she gets dressed up and goes to see his funeral. "Conscience-struck," Cy observes. "Needs to sing a hymn." This is the beginning of Joanie's journey away from Cy, and her rejection of the sociopathic disregard for others that he represents.

Jane has crawled into a bottle following Bill's death, and taken to the hills in drunken self-pity. There, however, she comes across Andy. Delirious, and in that state perhaps viewing his fate as divine retribution for his crimes, all Andy can say is, "I apologize." "Don't apologize to me," Jane tells him. "I don't even fuckin' know ya." (But that's how forgiveness and grace come, sometimes: through the random actions of strangers.) Jane is gruff with him at first, drunk and consumed by her own grief. Her pain is all turned inwards, and she tells him about Bill—but in describing his virtues she says Bill "took you as he found ya, thought the best of ya, was sweet to me." She goes to get Andy water, and is drawn by the hymn to a hillside in time to see her friend laid to rest.

When she returns to Andy, she is kinder, more at peace, and doesn't even hesitate before sitting with him to tend—Christlike—to his sickness. It is another echo of Smith's message—which Jane understands, which Cy does not—that the members are of one body, and where one suffers, all suffer.

Deadwood seems, in most ways, like a godless place, but Milch seems to be telling us that God may be nowhere, but He's also everywhere. On this repeat viewing of Deadwood, I am noticing that it pays to pay attention to everything, including the music. "The Trial of Jack McCall" closes with "God and Man" by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:

God and man played hide-and-go-seek.
God told man, "Now, man, don't you peek."
Man counted to ten, and then looked around,
But God was nowhere, nowhere to be found.
God is in you, and God is in me.
To love all of God is to love humanity.

It is also worth noting the hymn that the Reverend Smith chooses to have sung at Bill's funeral: "How Firm a Foundation." Catalyzing community action, inspiring kindness and compassion, and urging individuals to accept the responsibilities of justice, Bill's death is, in many ways, the foundation upon which the community of Deadwood will be built.

Random Thoughts, Loose Observations, and Selected Quotes:

  • As you may have noticed, this post is very late. As you may have also noticed, I've abandoned the idea of trying to do two episodes at a time: these things are related. I'm hoping doing one at a time will help me keep a more regular posting schedule, and also help me better do justice to each (incredibly dense) episode.
  • So dense are these episodes that I find I neglected to discuss what may be my favorite scene of the episode: Farnum's soliloquy. It is his most purely Shakespearean moment, railing against Swearengen while scrubbing bloodstains out of the floor of his hotel, and it is one of William Sanderson's crowning achievements. In penance, I present it here in full:

  • I also skipped over the first meeting between Seth and Alma. Not to spoil things for anyone who hasn't seen later episodes, but until now I hadn't noticed how breathless Alma is right from the moment she meets him.

And now some quotes:

  • Al, in response to a question from Cy: "If it's important to you, I'll look it up in my yesterday's diary."
  • Al, longing for a simpler life: "Sometimes I wish we could just hit 'em over the head, rob 'em, and throw their bodies in the crick."
  • Cy, in response: "But that would be wrong."
  • Al, ordering his whores to work: "Go on, get fuckin'!"
  • Al, to E.B.: "Advance the subject or pick up a broom."
  • Jack, on his crime: "You think they know me in New York City by now?"
  • Johnny, on what to do with the severed head of the Indian chief: "It's a nice conversation piece. I mean, if it's handled the right way."
  • Merrick, on "justice" in Deadwood: "Should it ever be your misfortune, gentlemen, or mine, to need to kill a man, let us toast together the possibility that our trials may be held in this camp."

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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7 thoughts on “DEADWOOD 1x05

  1. A good year (2004) for Molly Parker. She was good (though pretty much the same) in "Iron Jawed Angels," a poorly named, but good made-for-TV movie about the women's suffrage movement.

    Robin Weigert is just great. She was instantly my favorite character. Without knowing shit, I thought she should've gotten an Emmy. I looked it up and saw she was nominated, but behind Adrianna from "The Sopranos." Good company, but she still should've won.

    1. Dan, I remember that movie, but hadn't realized that was Parker. I may need to watch that again.

      I have to resist spending 500 words of every review on how good Weigert is; she destroys me almost every time she's on-screen, either laughing or crying. Or both.

  2. As I watched EB try to wash away the bloodstain, I kept thinking of Macbeth - the difficulty of washing away blood and the consequence of murder. Lady Macbeth: "Out, damn'd spot! out, I say! Macbeth: "Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red." And: "A little water clears us of this deed." But we know that nothing will clear the deed - EB knows it too - he'll have to keep scrubbing the blood from the floor "to keep from having to lower his rates." I loved this scene.

    1. Yes, exactly! I'm sick that I didn't find time to write about it: it didn't quite fit neatly in my "people doing good deeds" theme, but you're right: it is very much an expiation-of-sin scene. (And it's also almost a Biblical lament, with Al as E.B.'s god.)

      Poor E.B. I'm not sure he ever really gets any redemption; he may be one of the few characters who doesn't.

  3. Great write-up!

    For me, this was the episode that marked the transition from liking the show to loving it. I was especially moved by the final montage of people being kind to one another set over that beautiful music.

    As much as Bullock's inappropriate lashing out annoyed me (don't swear at the Reverend, Seth, come on), his "what part of my part is your part?" was hilarious. One of Bullock's rare flashes of humor.

  4. I love these Deadwood insights. So much of this show only comes out in subsequent re-watches, as the viewer moves past the first layers. I've seen a law school thesis floating around with a reference to Milch saying that Al "was a very good man with none of the behaviors of goodness", and that sounded perfect for him.
    I know a lot of people wrote off Cy as a sociopath from the "Little Children" scene, but for me, it was Andy (at a micro level) and the smallpox (at a macro level) that did it for me. Looking at Jane in contrast to Cy, her afflictions and violence and drunkenness against his polish and control, and to see who had so much humanity and who had none (and he kept pushing any offers of humanity away with both hands)...I keep going back to that as an example of finding grace and compassion in unlikely places.

    Deadwood has been like a profane Sunday school for me. There's a homily for every life situation I can think of in the quotes, and in every re-watch, I find something that I missed before.
    Thanks for having done these reviews. They're a treat to read.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Kathryn. I agree with you about Cy: in a show about how community develops, he really is the antithesis of that spirit. (The entire smallpox epidemic was arguably his fault.)

      I'm hoping to get back to these reviews soon; I love doing them, but they take a great deal of time, and I found I couldn't keep up with them while I was reviewing current shows (though I don't love those anywhere near as much as Deadwood). I'm planning to at least finish the first season later this month.

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