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.
"He was just trying to live, same as me, and do honor to his friend, and make some fucking sense out of things.”
That's the lesson Bullock has taken from his travels. As the least imaginative episode title in Deadwood history proclaims, Bullock returns to the camp this week, after he and Charlie capture Jack McCall and turn the murderer over to the authorities. Bullock bears both physical and psychological wounds from his fight with the Sioux warrior in last week's episode: The former will heal naturally—though the Reverend points out Bullock is now marked like Cain—but for the latter Bullock turns to his closest friend, Sol Star. In a touching scene that speaks worlds about the depths of friendship between the two men, Bullock spontaneously starts talking about the fight, in a speech that is as much confession as catharsis:
That Indian fought like hell…Charlie figured out how it must have been. The Indian had to kill me for comin' on the burial-place. And maybe it had been me too, who had killed his friend, cut his friend's head off so his friend wouldn't have eyes to see the sunset all those years he'd be lyin' there dead. So he had to kill me for that, too. And he couldn't before he'd laid hands on me, or the killing wouldn't be honorable. We fought like fucking hell, I'll tell you that much. And I never once had the upper hand. It just happened out the way it happened out. He was just trying to live, same as me, and do honor to his friend, and make some fucking sense out of things. And we wind up that way, and I wind up, after, beatin' him till I couldn't recognize his face, for Christ's sake.
Bullock, like the Sioux warrior, was "out to do honor to his friend," and to make sense out of things. "That Indian saved Jack McCall's life," Bullock goes on to say, for in recognizing a kindred spirit in his enemy, and acknowledging the slim difference between them, Bullock has had enough—for now—of murderous wrath and violence.
"We're in this together."
It's interesting that—without so much as a pause to indicate a change of thought—Bullock goes from this speech right into his latest brainstorm: that Swearengen should nominate someone to properly assay the Widow's gold claim. It seems like a non sequitur, and it also seems like a terrible idea. ("Shit, Seth," Sol says. "Get his opinion, too, who should guard that hen-house we're gonna build.") But—consciously or unconsciously—it all follows logically for Bullock: to bring his enemy to his cause, to cut through the deception and back-stabbing and have it all out on the table.
So Bullock asks Al to recommend an assayer, and tells him, "If in any way his work would be mistaken, I'd be coming after you." Swearengen understandably balks at this—and, on paper, Bullock's plan doesn't make any sense. But practically, and thematically, it's perfect. Enough bullshit, Bullock is telling Al: We're in this together. "You and I know how it is, Mr. Swearengen," he says. "She gets a square shake, or I come after you." Swearengen threatens him right back, but the reality is that Bullock's plan works, and from this point forward the two men—who do recognize each other as kindred spirits, as different sides of the same coin—will not only deal with each other as equals, but also most often work together to protect the interests of the town.
"That's an interesting piece of strange.”
The other major event in "Bullock Returns to Camp" is the arrival in Deadwood of Flora and Miles Anderson (Kristen Bell and Greg Cipes), two apparently lost little lambs in search of their father. For me, this is the first of a (thankfully) few minor sub-plots in Deadwood that don't completely work. It's not that the guest-stars aren't good—a pre-Veronica Mars Bell is particularly impressive—and it's not that the writing fails the storylines terribly: It's simply that short, one-off stories seem out of place in this show. In most other storylines, Milch is playing a long game, and the pleasures of Deadwood come from seeing the slow, almost imperceptible growth of both the town and its regular residents. New characters who are truly woven into the fabric of the town are fine, but guest stars—and close-ended subplots—always seem both out of place and less interesting, like short-stories stuck in the middle of a novel. (It will happen a few more times over the course of the series, with varying degrees of success.)
What is important about the newcomers is the effect they have on our regulars, and—after next week—the long term ramifications they'll have on established relationships. Here, it is interesting to note what reactions they elicit, and what those reactions reveal about our more familiar Deadwood denizens.
To the pimps in town, Cy and Al, Flora is a potential whore. ("That's an interesting piece of strange," Cy says, and immediately sets Joanie the task of training the girl.) Al sees her potential as well, but he doesn't push it: He seems mostly amused by the two waifs, even going so far as to hire Miles to sweep up in the Gem. Again, Al's gentler machinations are contrasted with Cy's more cutthroat ones, but there's something else at work here: Al doesn't really have anything to gain by hiring the boy, or by being kind to him. What Al does have—as has already been hinted—is a bit of a soft-spot for orphans. (We will learn more about Al's past, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say here that he himself was an orphan, of sorts.)
Dan Dority develops an instant crush on Flora, and it's fun to see the most dangerous man in Deadwood flustered and floundering trying to be nice to her. It's less fun for a loudmouthed drunk (Clay Wilcox), who takes a similar shine to Flora, and is warned by Dan repeatedly to quit "lookin' evil" at the girl. Wilcox's nameless character has appeared before, always representing the darker side of the town: He was the drunk who first admired, then cursed, Wild Bill Hickok in Episode Three, and he was one of the (hardly unbiased) jurors who turned Hickok's killer loose in Episode Five. Here, viewed thematically with the rest of the episode, it's easy to see him as a manifestation of Dan's struggle with his own lecherous feelings towards the apparently innocent Flora: the feelings in himself he can't admit, the side of himself he can't abide. In this case, Dan's struggle with his demons results in the drunk being sliced open from groin to ribcage. ("Fuckin' pussy," Al observes, shaking his head wryly at the effect women have on men.)
Also grappling with her demons is Joanie, who takes the waifish Flora under her wing. We've had hints before that Joanie is a lesbian, and there is a suggestion of a sexual attraction here, but, more than that, Joanie looks at the girl and sees herself reflected back. It's an interesting situation: Joanie, who has become more and more despondent about her own career "choices," is now grooming Flora for the same life. Just last episode, Cy chastised and threatened Joanie for failing to present a cheerful enough countenance for the clients of the Bella Union, and now Joanie finds herself repeating the same lesson to Flora:
Joanie: I'd prefer you happy, honey, but if you can't be, you need to pretend at it better than you're doing. Or you're going to be hungry, and cold, and getting done to you for nothing outside what you'd have made money to live on, and save up, if you'd acted the part in here.
Flora: I thought I only had to act it with them that wanna stick it in me?
Joanie: You never know who that might be, Flora. [Flora smiles, falsely.] There you go.
Flora: I prefer you happy.
Joanie: Or at least pretending better?
Last week, Joanie also expressed desire for a new start, and lamented "how it feels when there isn't one." Flora represents her new start, in a way—a chance to do it over—but also reinforces the difficulty of achieving such a thing, as Joanie seems set to lead Flora down the exact same path.
(One of the reasons I don't think this storyline completely works is that it all happens too fast, abandoning the slow character development at which Deadwood usually thrives. Barely half an hour after they first appear, Flora and Miles reveal their true natures: they're not innocents at all, but a couple of manipulative con artists looking to make a score. A far more interesting story might have been told if they had been actual innocents, and been slowly corrupted over the course of many episodes, but this storyline does yield some powerful scenes and some important character development that we'll discuss in more depth next week.)
"As much as she favors you, she could be yours."—Charlie Utter, to Trixie
As I've mentioned before, the stories of Trixie and Joanie contrast with one another much as those of Al and Cy do, and we see it again in "Bullock Returns to Camp." Just as Joanie would like to do, Trixie has been living a different life. She's put on respectable clothes; she's been flirting with Sol (while being admitted to his store like a regular lady); she's been developing what appears—on the surface—to be a real friendship with the Widow; and she's been playing mother to Sofia. ("As much as she favors you, she could be yours," Charlie tells Trixie.) While Joanie is leading her younger version down the same path she herself followed, Trixie is risking everything to protect Sofia from a similar (or worse) fate.
But Al reminds her of who she really is, grabbing her roughly by her crotch, asserting his ownership in the most brutally symbolic way possible. Trixie confesses the deception she and the Widow have been staging, and honestly reveals her motives: "Her being high wasn't gonna have nuthin' to do with whether or not she sold you that claim, and she wanted to get off the dope," she explains. "And that little one needs someone to care for her, and maybe get her the fuck out of here. And I knew it wasn't gonna be me."
Trixie is trapped in her life, and knows it, even if she has momentary glimpses of another life she might be living. "Don't kid yourself, Trixie," Al tells her. "Don't get a mistaken idea." Having been reminded of her role, it's a lesson she repeats to Alma.
Alma is prattling on about Bullock like a teenager, chatting with Trixie like a girlfriend, but Trixie isn't playing anymore, and all illusion of equality between the two women is gone. They are so alike—they have Sofia in common, and laudanum, and they have each fallen for one of the partners of Bullock and Star Hardware—but there is an untraversable gulf between them of privilege, of opportunity, of freedom. Trixie can't really have Sol, can't really be a mother to Sofia, and can never leave Deadwood.
Trixie: The point is, I gotta go back. And you need someone to look to this child. And with choices bigger elsewhere, and nothing I can tell to hold you here, maybe you better think about sellin' and gettin' out.
Alma: Would you want to take the girl and go?
Trixie: Where? I have no people anywhere.
Alma: You could go to New York. I could have my relatives there see you established.
Trixie: What the fuck? What would keep you here? You wanna fuck this man? Fuck him. Then think about the child.
Alma: Don’t use that language with me, Trixie. Or that tone.
Trixie: Don’t you want to say, to remember my place? I do, you rich cunt. And I’m goin’ back to it. [Looks at Sophia.] She's about to say her name, you know. She named her sisters, and her folks. Think of sellin'. If you took her away, you could hear her say it.
"Is that something we need to get into in front of him?"—Charlie
I've spoken a great deal—probably too much—about the spiritual underpinnings of Deadwood. I'm mostly taking a break from belaboring that point this week, but even without the spiritual connection we can surely recognize that anything worthy in human interaction arises from the sympathetic imagination: the ability to break through the walls that separate subject and object, the essential human ability to identify with, and imagine ourselves as, the other. "Bullock Returns to Camp" may seem to be also taking a break from the larger spiritual issues, but it's really just exploring those same themes on a smaller, inter-personal scale, connecting and contrasting characters to illuminate the thin lines that separate us, and the invisible threads that bind us all. Put another way, the theme that runs throughout the episode could be summarized as "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
"Bullock Returns to Camp" ends with Lyle Lovett's "Old Friend" playing over the credits. Alternating verses between addressing an "old friend" and an "old foe," the song ends with the line, "I think you still look a lot like me."
That's as good a transition as any into my favorite scene of the episode, which—since it's one of those devastating scenes that I can barely talk about—I'll present without commentary, except to say that Jane and Charlie—however much they fight—are very much two sides—female and male—of the same creature, and that the scene itself speaks inarticulate worlds about what friendship looks like.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I skipped over a couple of great scenes this week, including one between Al and Farnum, in which Farnum confronts Al about the real value of the Widow's gold claim. "Assume you ain’t been privy to the ins and outs of that matter, for the sake of fucking conversation, huh?" Al tells him. "Was I asleep, E.B., when you and me declared undying loyalty and full-faith mutual disclosure about every fucking detail of every fucking move we’re ever gonna fucking make together?" Al chastises him for screwing up the deal with the Widow, and sends him back to make another $20,000 offer on the claim. Farnum chooses to approach Alma during her husband's funeral, and still screws up the deal: unable to resist skimming a little, he hilariously offers her $19,500.
- I also skipped over Doc, Jane, and Rev. Smith tending to the sick. A sober Jane is a marvelous thing to see. She is still very much herself, but some of the bluster and bravado is gone, and her tenderness and basic decency shines through: she even apologizes to Smith for Doc's harsh language. (I also skipped over this scene because the Rev. Smith, whose symptoms are worsening, breaks my heart.)
- In one of my favorite scenes, Al takes it upon himself to teach Miles a thing or two about the trade, pointing out one of the Gem's "specialist" clients, the Tit Licker. (I tried to find this scene to embed, but it turns out that Googling "tit licker" turns up a greater number of videos than I had time to sort through. Who knew?)
"Stand with us here a second…And out the door he'll go, and prompt as a Swiss timepiece three big-titted whores will now emerge from behind that screen. He lines 'em up at two-foot intervals, smock-tops down, and all but sprints past 'em, giving their titties a lick. And if he misses a titty, he does not let himself retrace his steps…And on he goes, on his way home, relieved for the day….Strange, huh, Miles? But something you gotta know about specialists. They pay a premium, and they never cause fucking trouble. I sometimes imagine, in my declining years, running a small joint in Manchester, England, catering to specialists exclusively. And to let them know they're amongst their own, maybe I'll operate from the corner, hanging upside-down like a fucking bat."
- There's also a wonderful scene between Charlie and Tom Nuttall (who are very much alike). Charlie goes into Nuttall's to hear about Bill's final moments, and Tom tells it to him straight. But then Captain Massie (Nicolas Surovy) jumps up to tell his own eyewitness account, a version that is accurate but rehearsed. Watch the disgusted look that moves across Charlie's face as he realizes his friend's life and death have already passed into history to become the stuff of legend. ("Aces over eights, as I just now recall," Massie elaborates, improving his tale. "That is the hand Wild Bill had.")
Some additional quotes:
- Jane, taking pride in Andy's recovery: "Them as heals under my care stay fuckin' healed."
- Andy, in one of the few truly false lines of dialogue Deadwood will offer: "Hereafter, in calamity, I'll be sure to call for Jane."
- Giving instructions to Miles, Al points to the crippled Jewel, struggling with a broom on the staircase: "We teach a special sweeping technique here. Follow her lead."
- Sol, flirting with Trixie: "Our stock's depleted, but we are offering a 100 percent discount on any item that catches your eye. Our special 'Get-Acquainted-With-Those-We’d-Like-To-Get-Acquainted-With’ sale.”
- Farnum, noting that Sol has allowed Trixie into his store: "Congratulations, sir, on your advanced thinking."
- Al, to Farnum: "Say what you're gonna say, or prepare for eternal fucking silence."