If one were watching Deadwood for the high drama alone, "No Other Sons or Daughters"—written by George Putnam, and directed by Ed Bianchi—might seem like an uneventful chapter. Taking place the day after the horrific events in "Suffer the Little Children," this episode seems to depict what may be the first 24-hour period in the history of the camp in which not a single act of violence takes place. (It is only the second episode—after "The Trial of Jack McCall"—in which no one dies on-screen.) For that matter, it's an hour of television with very little sex or nudity. (E.B. celebrating his new position by getting a quick handjob in the back of the Gem provides the only example of either.) "No Other Sons or Daughters," in fact, is an episode that takes place entirely in what are—for Deadwood—relatively polite, civilized conversations.
And that's why I love it so. I don't mean for a moment to disparage the more sensationalistic elements of Deadwood: I enjoy a good life-or-death struggle, sudden disemboweling, or surprise enucleation (just wait) as much as anyone. But overt dramatic events are usually the least interesting—and ultimately the least important—elements of David Milch's project in Deadwood. Events like Flora and Miles' execution, Brom Garret's murder, even Wild Bill Hickok's assassination, are, by themselves, little more than fleeting, almost banal moments of violence. On any other show such incidents might constitute the main plot, but here they are just things that happen. They serve to punctuate and propel Milch's real story, which is the development of these characters and the community they collectively form as one large, interconnected organism.
Let's put it another way: The stakes of Deadwood are not about who lives, who dies, who gets rich, etc. So advancement of the story is not measured in such large events either: It hinges on quieter, subtler moments of personal progression and interpersonal connection. The series moves forward on tiny, almost imperceptible moments of change, the precise cartography of which constitutes Milch's true project.
All of which makes "No Other Sons and Daughters," in fact, a very eventful episode of Deadwood. Because it's all about change.
“Hearty congratulations on your new venture.”
It is almost startling to realize—nine episodes into the first season—just how many of the major characters, whom we know so well by now, have not yet met each other. Differences of class, style, and purpose have kept them isolated in their own little spheres of comfort, but "No Other Sons or Daughters" finds them bravely stepping out of their comfort zones. Almost everyone in Deadwood, in fact, is venturing into exciting and uncertain new territory this week: They are launching new businesses, assuming new roles, making new friends, and—most importantly—daring to imagine new identities for themselves.
And it's a little terrifying. When Joanie Stubbs first arrived in Deadwood she seemed confident, even intimidating to the mud-caked denizens of the camp: a smart, poised, well-spoken beauty who seemed to have landed from a more sophisticated world. (Remember how nervous and uncertain Al seemed, when he first called on the Bella Union folks, dressed up in his finest suit? The most powerful and dangerous man in Deadwood was instantly reduced to a fumbling rube.) But that was within the artificial luxury of the Bella Union, a place—as Cy says later in this episode—that promises things it can't (or won't) deliver. We have seen Joanie's gradual disillusionment with that milieu and its phony offering of grand possibilities, and now she is ready to break away, and venture out into the less polished, more genuine world of the camp.
And it intimidates her as much as, or more than, she once intimidated it. One of the most harrowing sequences in Deadwood is the roughly 70-second sequence in which Joanie walks through Chink's Alley, scouting a location for her new brothel. First she passes Wu's pigs, and spots—torn and muddied in the corner of the pen—the remains of Flora's clothes, a brutal reminder of both the camp's cruelty and—more dangerously for her—Cy's. (If she does not navigate this break from Cy carefully, she knows, she may well end up the same way.) As she keeps walking—the finery of her formerly elevated position becoming soaked and caked with mud—the camera follows her, seeming shaky and feverish, the unfamiliar sights swirling past her in a menacing blur.
But where the Bella Union is a place of apparent comfort and secret cruelty, the camp—in many ways—is the opposite: It's a shit-hole with hidden kindnesses. And, luckily, she meets an ambassador of that rough-hewn kindness in Charlie Utter.
I live for these improbable pairings that David Milch offers, the mysterious alchemy in which seemingly incompatible characters combine to generate surprising heat and warmth. (These pairings happen all over "No Other Sons or Daughters"—Charlie and Joanie, Alma and Ellsworth, Trixie and Sol—and Milch is just getting warmed up.) Here, two characters who are outwardly as opposite as they could possibly be instantly bond over the fact that they are, inwardly, in almost exactly the same situation, and feeling exactly the same emotions. "I don't know what possessed me," Charlie confesses, about starting his new freight business. "I don't know what got into me," Joanie says a few minutes later, about opening her new brothel. Joanie is in her formerly fine clothes, impractical to her mission and now ruined through her journey. Charlie, on the other hand, is uncomfortable and insecure in his clean new frock coat, dressed up to pretend he's a man of business. "I do well in a camp or settlement or township," he explains. "But that don't make me a camp or settlement or township type. This is the attire for that type…of type." Joanie, in her turn, says, "I'm just a whore, though." They're both out of their element, feeling over their heads, feeling like poseurs, and scared to death that they were deluding themselves about the possibility that they could ever become anything different than what they have always been.
But—as good people tend to be—they are kinder and more generous to each other than they are to themselves. “Anyway, you’re wearing it today,” Joanie says, of Charlie's coat, which is a touchingly perfect bit of wisdom. David Milch—a former alcoholic and heroin addict, and a lifelong compulsive gambler—is fond of quoting a maxim from addiction recovery programs: "Fake it till you make it." This is essentially what Joanie tells him, and it's a tenet that ties into the religious themes that are never far beneath the surface in Deadwood: Faith, after all, is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Act as if you have faith, they say, and faith will be given to you. Change begins as pretense, then becomes habit and ritual, then eventually becomes actual transformation.
And what he offers her in return is basically the same advice: to just trust the process, and follow the path where it takes you, however uncertain or unready you feel. "I tell you what," he says, "something’s ready for you to do something, it don’t seem to matter if you’re ready or not.” We can read that ambiguous "something" as an essence of a divine plan, or simply as the reality that change happens, whether you like it or not. (I'm not sure Milch sees a difference between those two interpretations, to be honest.) Either way, it's gonna happen. "Better lift your skirts and jump?" Joanie says. "That's what's coming to me to be true," Charlie confirms.
"Everything changes. Don’t be afraid."
And this is the overall spirit of "No Other Sons or Daughters," for the episode opens with Al giving himself the same advice.
He does so, of course, under the pretense of giving the advice to Trixie. (Al Swearengen is perhaps the greatest soliloquist since Hamlet, but he prefers to hide his soliloquies in monologues. He surrounds himself with underlings—perhaps just so he has an excuse to think out loud—but he's almost always talking to himself.) Here, Al works through his nervousness about his upcoming meeting with Magistrate Claggett, and his deeper anxieties about the camp itself changing. Like Charlie, Al is not, by nature, a township type. ("Cocksuckers," he said, putting on his one good suit to meet the fancy Bella Union people. "Where were they when Dan and me were chopping trees in this gulch?") But—also like Charlie—he knows change is coming whether he's ready for it or not. "It’ll be different after the annexation, that’s all," he reassures himself, while pretending to reassure Trixie. "There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything changes. Don’t be afraid.”
(But here's the real brilliance of this scene: Whether he knows it or not, he is also talking to Trixie. We'll get to that shortly.)
So Claggett tells Al how it's going to be: The camp will be annexed to the Dakota Territory, and the best bet to ensure that everyone in camp gets to hold onto their property and gold claims is to legitimize Deadwood. An "ad hoc municipal organization," he says, "would enable the legislature to say, 'Deadwood exists, we don't have to create it.'" Property rights, Claggett says, would most likely be determined by simple usage: "Essentially, if you're on it, and you improve it, you own it."
This—plus a lot of bribes—is Deadwood's best strategy for survival. And, not coincidentally, it's essentially the same advice Charlie and Joanie gave each other: Fake it till you make it. You want to be a town? Pretend you're already a town. Act like a town. Put on the costume and airs and trappings of a town. Even the line about the property deeds—"if you're on it and you improve it, you own it"—echoes with Joanie's line: "Anyway, you're wearing it now." Deadwood the town and Deadwood the collection of individuals are all part of the same interdependent organism, in the same state of transformation: Everyone has squatters rights to their own land and souls, and both are real as long as they keep working them and improving them.
So, just like that, "We're forming a fucking government." For only the second time since Deadwood began, a meeting is called, bringing together most of the prominent citizens of Deadwood to act as a community.
(It's just the prominent male citizens, of course. When Eddie—thinking of Joanie—asks a question about women owning brothels, the men are baffled, but the whores—listening from the back—are amused. Much later in the series, Alma—the richest woman in town—will be left out of a similar meeting. "Guess if you've got a pussy, even owning a bank don't get you to that table," one of the prostitutes will observe.)
Titles and responsibilities are handed out arbitrarily. "Pick names from a fuckin' hat, as far as I'm concerned," Al says. At the moment, the pretense is all that matters: Wear the costume, and worry about the rest later. Thus, Bullock becomes Health Commissioner, Charlie assumes the role of Fire Marshal, and E.B. Farnum—because nobody quite knows how to object quickly enough—becomes the Mayor of Deadwood.
"I don't want what I can't have."
There's a lot to discuss about the embryonic government of Deadwood, but let's skip it this week and circle back to the spirit of more personal change that is moving through this community in "No Other Sons or Daughters."
Last week we discussed Trixie's return to Al after her time with Alma (and her suicide attempt), and whether it constituted a step backwards for her. Other people are watching her, and asking the same question this week. "Much as she'd taken to helping with that little one," wonders Sol (who has taken a big interest in Trixie). "Big pull of that, going back to what you know,” Bullock observes in response. (It seems an oddly sensitive comment for Bullock to make, until we remember it comes just after he has explained to Sol that he only volunteered to be Health Commissioner because he did not want to be roped into serving as Sheriff. So Bullock is familiar with the call of the familiar, and will struggle with it through the remainder of this season.)
But last week I argued that things had changed between Al and Trixie, and—returning now to the opening scene of "No Other Sons or Daughters"—we see evidence of it in how he treats her. For, as much as I stand by everything I said earlier about Al's primarily talking to himself, he is different in this scene. We see it on Trixie's face as she listens: the awareness that the way he is talking to her now is not how he usually talks. He is gentler, more openly paternal, even more emotionally vulnerable. As he leaves the room, he asks after her arm, and says "Don’t fucking try it, doin’ away with yourself again, huh?" He says it kindly—not berating her, not even chastising her—and she smiles, touched and amused, as he leaves the room.
Al knows things have changed between them: If there's anyone who has their doubts, it's Trixie. She is back to work and officially "on-duty" when Sol approaches her in the Gem, but she is uncomfortable with it now. "This isn't the place for you," she tells him, and then addends her own statement: “If you insist on my embarrassing myself, have it not where I’d want you to see me.” The relationship Sol seems to be offering is one Trixie does not believe is even open to her; it seems no more realistic than the life Alma offered her in New York. "I don't want what I can't have, Mr. Star." (Echoing in our minds is Joanie's assertion: "I'm just a whore, though.") Trixie has glimpsed the possibility that she could be something different, but—understandably—she doesn't fully believe it herself yet.
But Al—watching them flirt from across the room—does. Whether he knew it or not, his earlier speech about not being afraid of change was directed at her. Trixie begins and ends the episode in Al's bedroom, just like always, but everything is different: She has changed, and he—tacitly—seems to support the change. That morning, Al had pointed to the gold nugget she'd brought him. "I can hope those'll be appearing on a regular basis?" he asked her. "No," she said simply, and Al didn't argue. Now, at the end of the day, he says, "Since last our eyes were upon each other, I hope you've earned me five dollars." "No," Trixie says again, and once again Al does not protest. She thought she could return to her old life as a moneymaker for Al—in his brothel, and in his schemes—but there's an unspoken understanding between them that she's on a different path now.
“Everyone follows their own fuckin' pace, and don’t try to fuckin’ hasten them.”
Which brings us to the people in the camp who are not ready to embrace change.
Jane Cannary is drunk this week, as only Jane can get drunk: She spends much of "No Other Sons or Daughters" leaning with her forehead resting against a wall in an alleyway. ("What do they pay you to hold that building up?" Charlie asks her.) Jane had flourished briefly during the smallpox epidemic—finding a real place and purpose in tending to the sick—but the last of the inflicted are leaving the tent soon. Soon she'll have nothing to do, and no place to do it, and so reverts to what she does best: drink, and swear at people.
She has three angry confrontations this episode, all with people who don't deserve it. First, she mistakes the Reverend's olfactory hallucinations for his making a crack about her drinking, and loses her temper with him. (More on him in a bit.) Then, Doc Cochran—an actual tear falling from his eye at the sight of her—confronts her about her drinking, asking her to stop. "You can go fuck yourself," she tells him. "And don't try to hasten anyone anywhere, 'cause everyone follows their own fuckin' pace, and don't try and fuckin' hasten them." It's Charlie's advice in reverse: If the time has not come for someone to change, you can't rush the process.
And this is what Charlie himself is forced to accept, when he confronts her. He offers her a job, any job, in his new freight business, but she rejects every kindness, and she seems infuriated by his own transformation. "Congratulations on being' a big fuckin' deal," she mocks. "I seen you in some stupid fuckin' outfits in my time, but that one takes the prize."
Finally, that night, she announces to Charlie that she's leaving. She lays the blame on her own failings. "I will not be a drunk where he [Hickok] is buried, and I cannot stay fuckin’ sober," she says. But she also lays it at the feet of change. "The direction of this entire camp makes me sick," she says. "And it bores the living shit out of me."
It's a fair point, and one that other people will raise as Deadwood continues its steady evolution towards civilization. (In a couple of episodes, someone else will complain that the camp seems to be "getting away" from them.) This, after all, was a lawless, makeshift, uncivilized place, and for many people that was exactly its attraction. It was a place of freedom from society's restraints, a place with room to accommodate all the misfits, fuck-ups, and grotesqueries. Now it's getting taxes, and fire marshals and health inspectors, and soon—inevitably—it will have laws. Now, former misfits, fuck-ups, and grotesqueries are putting on fine clothes, and assuming positions of responsibility, and leaving behind their former companions who aren't quite ready for change.
"What are we selling?"
The other major voice in "No Other Sons or Daughters" arguing against the possibility of change is Cy Tolliver. I've been talking for several episodes about the parallels between Joanie and Trixie, and the ways Cy and Al contrast with each other have been important ever since Cy arrived in Deadwood. But the similarities and the differences don't get much more stark than they are here. Cy and Al these last couple of episodes have been dealing with exactly the same fear: the loss of the only people that they actually like, the only people that make them feel remotely human. Al has known Trixie is pulling away from him, and Cy knows Joanie is doing the same.
But where Al is openly resistant and silently supportive, Cy is the opposite: He makes a big show of staking Joanie to her new life, but he resents and undermines it at every turn. Through her, this week, he attacks the very notion of making a fresh start:
"Joint like ours, Joanie, what are we selling? Walk through this door, it’s a new start. Come on in, try your luck here. Of course, we know, the percentages being the percentages, you play long enough, your luck ain’t gonna get no better here than anywheres else. Maybe it’s ‘cause we’re in a brand new camp, but since we arrived, certain people that are near and dear to me seem to have bought into our own fuckin’ line, and now they’re trying to get me to go along. But I can’t. See, Joanie, ‘cause I’m a big boy."
As I've suggested before, Cy is pretty damn close to being pure evil. At the moment, he's the closest thing Deadwood has to a Devil, and the Devil does not like redemption arcs. The Devil does not like genuine new beginnings, only illusory ones that lure the suckers in. The Devil is the voice telling people they can't change. And the Devil definitely does not like it when a spirit of collective goodness sweeps a community. Eddie—who was pushed over the edge by Cy's torture and murder of Flora and Miles last week—calls him on it now: "Why didn't you volunteer for something in that meeting?" he asks Cy. "Why didn't you put your hand up? Might've kept you from being such an evil cocksucker." Everyone else is changing: everyone else is recognizing the possibility of a better life, and accepting the need to act in the common good. (Al—Cy's counterpart—has changed almost unrecognizably since Deadwood began. Remember how he stood on Trixie's neck for defending herself? Remember how he came this close to slitting Sofia's throat? Remember when he looked like the Devil?) But Cy hasn't changed. Cy doesn't change, and—like Jane—he is disgusted and bored that everyone else in town seems determined to.
"This is God’s purpose. The not knowing the purpose is my portion of suffering."
Finally, this week—and reluctantly—I want to talk about Reverend Smith, and the fact that not all changes are for the better.
Smith has been a bit squirrely ever since we've known him, and it was at least as far back as "The Trial of Jack McCall" that people have been concerned about him. ("Did he look pale to you?" Sol asked Seth, after Bill's funeral. "He looked pale to me." And it was after this ceremony that Smith had his first seizure.) His condition became public knowledge in "Plague," but now only Jane seems to have noticed that he is getting much, much worse. ("You happen to be fuckin’ overlookin’ that you think it’s just one day after another with the same fuckin’ seizure," she accuses the Doc this week.)
Milch and Ray McKinnon—who gives one of the best performances in a show full of great ones—make Smith absolutely heartbreaking. His nightmarish hallucinations are bad enough. ("Do I have a strange odor about me?" he asks Jane. "As if my flesh were rotting. Do I look like a man taken from his own grave?") But what I find almost overwhelming to witness is his continued kindness, his eagerness to please even in his deteriorating state. (Jane points out that his eyes are moving in different directions. "This is the one to look at," he says helpfully.)
This, too, is change. "Your flesh does not smell, you have not died," Doc tells him. "You're having organic changes in your mind that's making you believe these things." But what's really bothering Smith is that his relationship to God—and the camp—has changed:
Smith: Formerly, Doctor, when the word took me as I read scripture, people felt God’s presence through me, and that was a great gift that I could give to them. Now the word does not take me when I read, nor do I feel Christ’s love. Nor do those who listen hear it through me.
Smith: This is God’s purpose. The not knowing the purpose is my portion of suffering.
Doc: And is there any pain competing with the not knowing?
Smith: I’m not in pain. There are new smells, I smell, and there are parts of my body I can’t feel, and His—and His love.
Doc: And you want to continue like this?
Smith: As long as He wills, this must be my part. To be afraid, as well.
Doc: Well, if this is His will, Reverend, He is a sonofabitch.
We will be talking about Reverend Smith—and God's "purpose" for him—throughout the rest of the season. But I am struck, here, by the timing of it, by the fact that his ailment becomes a major subplot in this particular episode. I only noticed on this rewatching that the luminaries Al gathers at the Gem to form a government are exactly the same group who assembled to plan the smallpox response, with one exception: This time, Reverend Smith was not invited. We can say that his presence was necessary to the first meeting, and not appropriate to the second, but it feels deeper and more significant than that: It feels as if he is another character that the camp, in its progress towards the future, is leaving behind.
The cynical interpretation of this would be that progress is a godless business: His sort of spiritual guidance was necessary in a place without laws, but once a secular government is established—with all the inherent bureaucracy and corruption—it becomes a cancer that eats away at the church as a foundation for community. The town in moving towards questions of legality, and leaving questions of morality and spirituality behind.
I'm inclined towards a more generous reading of Milch's message in this, however. Smith was a catalyst for change, the key figure in the two most important events that defined the community of Deadwood: Hickok's murder and the smallpox epidemic. It was through him—or through God moving through him, if you prefer—that Deadwood became a community. It was through him, too, that Bullock—who had resisted Saint Paul's message as "gibberish"—came to accept his responsibility to capture Jack McCall, beginning his reluctant role as one of the arbiters of justice in Deadwood. It was through Smith's words—his sermon at Bill's funeral—that Jane was inspired to help her first smallpox victim, and Joanie was inspired to seek a better life.
If the Reverend Smith no longer feels God's presence moving through him, it may be because it already did: That spirit, that grace, has already been transferred to the community of Deadwood, a ripple of change that is already spreading far from its center. Smith's "portion of suffering" is that he cannot see the entire purpose, and he will not see the long-lasting results. But if he is ailing now, and falling out of the community, it may be because his creator—whether you see that figure as God or David Milch—realizes that his work here is nearly done.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Oops—despite putting them in my header photo, and despite their giving the episode its title—I skipped right over Alma and Seth this week, having another of those conversations that doesn't appear to be significant, but is actually hugely important. It is interesting that Seth, early in "No Other Sons or Daughters," decides the time is right to send for his wife and son: It is a reflection of the solidification of the camp, to be sure, but it is also a response to his and Alma's almost palpable attraction to one another. (Seth is always a man at war with his own instincts, and he is trying to be good here.) And then, at the end of the episode, he and Alma have a coded conversation in which he explains the impossible situation he is in: He married his brother's widow, and adopted their son, and that's why he is not free to jump Alma as they both so clearly want him to do. In terms of our theme this week, I suppose this is an example of someone trying to prevent a life-changing event that is barreling down on them, whether they're ready for it or not.
- Among the important introductions this week, Seth hooks Alma up with Ellsworth—a partnership that will be transformative for them both. I feel like I haven't talked enough about Ellsworth in these reviews, but he's one of my favorite characters, another real diamond-in-the-rough like Charlie Utter. ("I’d lean more on what I felt about this fellow than what I saw,” Bullock counsels Alma, and it's good advice.)
- One of the smaller "new ventures" this week is the arrival of a piano to the Gem, one Al does not remember ordering and does not see the purpose of. ("What fuckin’ revenue is being generated by these hoopleheads gathering around that cocksucker and yodelin’ about their fuckin’ points of origin?" he gripes to Dan, holding his head in defense of the headache the noise is giving him.) But this, too, has its role to play as Deadwood's first season moves towards its conclusion.
- Another new venture, which never seems to amount to much: Al puts Johnny in charge of the road-agent work formerly organized by the late Persimmon Phil.
- Another minor plot point I skipped over: E.B. comes into possession of Wild Bill Hickok's last letter, delivered to him by a character I can only assume was labeled in the script as "Irish Guy Who Shits His Pants a Lot." Zack Ward, who plays this character, has turned up in a lot of things over the years—I remember him from Joss Whedon's Dollhouse—but he is still best remembered for his first role, as the dreaded bully Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story (1983).
- And, as always, some quotes. It's all Al this week, because he had some real gems for the Swearengen Quote-a-Day Calendar:
- Al: "Many times, that’s what the fuck life is: one vile fucking task after another."
- Al (after talking with Johnny): "I have just fled my own office in horror at his fucking dimwittedness."
- Al (asking Magistrate Claggett to just cut to the chase): "And don’t give me the, Um, on the one hand, and on the other hand, hmm? Just say, 'This is the way I think it’s gonna be,' ‘cause this several hands fuckin’ shit don’t help me."
- Al ("chairing the piss outta that meeting," as Dan says): "I’m declaring myself conductor of this meeting, as I have the bribe sheet."