I found myself thinking this week about a very minor character in Deadwood. This character only appears in half a dozen episodes of the entire series—"Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking" is not even one of them—and he has no name, and no storylines, and no real impact on anything that matters. He's just part of the textured background of the world David Milch created, a bit of the colorful human miscellany that gives Deadwood its depth of authenticity.
I am referring to the guy—played by Gill Gayle—who sells "Soap With a Prize Inside." Officially listed in the credits as "Huckster," and unofficially referred to by the cast and crew as "Soapy," he is actually based on an infamous real life grifter named Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith II, who ran short cons and crooked gambling operations throughout the West for twenty years. When the real Smith eventually died in Alaska in 1898—shot to death after swindling some Klondike gold miners—the headline in the local paper read "Soapy Smith's Last Bluff Called."
There doesn't seem to be any evidence that the real Soapy Smith ever actually operated in Deadwood, which may be why Milch never explicitly names him in the series. But what's important is what "Soapy" represents. He was, after all, one of the first people we encountered in the pilot episode of Deadwood: He was fronting his signature con game during the opening night of Bullock and Star's hardware operation, before Bullock chased him away. We've seen him a couple of more times so far in the series: He tried to talk Charlie into capitalizing on Wild Bill's fame in "Reconnoitering the Rim," and he was selling tufts of hair—which he claimed were from a decapitated Native American—during the viewing of Wild Bill's body in "The Trial of Jack McCall." He'll pop up a few more times throughout the series, always trying to swindle a crowd, always representing the greedy, grasping, opportunistic element of Deadwood.
He is, in other words, a "shitheel." And "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking"—written by Ricky Jay, and directed by Steve Shill—is largely concerned with shitheels. "That job shouldn't go to a shitheel," Bullock tells Al, speaking of Con Stapleton's new appointment as Deadwood's sheriff. “Sorry Mrs. Garret’s pop turns out a shitheel,” Sol commiserates with Bullock, after Alma's father has made his true nature known. Deadwood is a prospering community, with millions of dollars worth of gold being pulled from the very ground: It's the sort of place that attracts a lot of shitheels.
The question of what is to be done about shitheels—in this officially lawless community—is one that has largely driven this first season of Deadwood. Shitheels come in all shapes and sizes, and they don't all announce themselves as transparently as Soapy does. Flora and Miles were shitheels. Jimmy Irons was a shitheel, and (as we see this week) his friend Leon still is. Magistrate Claggett—to Al's increasing frustration—is turning out to be a very powerful shitheel. Shitheels are a cancer on a community, especially one—like Deadwood—that is still in the process of cohering.
And it's actually a far more complicated problem than it appears at first glance. As has come up almost every week, we have to consider Saint Paul's point about how all members of the community—the "body"—are necessary, and worthy of the same care. Jack McCall, for example, was treated like a shitheel: In the hours before he killed Wild Bill, he was humiliated by Bill, he was fleeced at the Bella Union, and he was viciously thrown into the mud by Bullock when he wanted to buy some prospecting equipment. (Bullock, as we shall see, has almost no tolerance for shitheels.) Had Jack been treated with more compassion, would Wild Bill Hickok still be alive? (McCall even warned Bullock of what would happen. "If I’m out prospectin’ in the hills, then he [Hickok] ain’t gettin’ his just desserts," he rambled.) But Bullock cast him out, treated him like a dog, and helped set him on the path to murder.
So there are a couple of questions that come out of these observations, which I suspect we'll be trying answer throughout our discussion of Deadwood. The first is: How, exactly, do we define a shitheel? (What, for example, makes a greedy, manipulative schemer like Alma's father a definitive shitheel, when a greedy, manipulative schemer like Al Swearengen—who had Alma's husband murdered—is not? It can't simply be a question of scale.)
But the second, intrinsically related question—one more central to "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking"—has to do with one of the fundamental subjects of Deadwood: What—absent the artificially imposed dictates of the law—are the unspoken golden rules about how we see, treat, and behave towards our fellow human beings? What constitutes a responsibility to another person, and what constitutes a violation of their trust? What, in short, can we expect from one another, and what do we owe one another?
"First, do no harm."
In my piece on "No Other Sons or Daughters," I said that the roughly 70-second walk Joanie Stubbs takes through the mud of the camp was one of the most harrowing sequences in Deadwood. Here, "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking" has the title character making a journey of similar screen-time, though a much more grueling one across a much shorter distance. Painstakingly making her way to Doc Cochran's office, placing her uncooperative legs down carefully in the muck with each precarious step, Jewel is roughly jostled and cruelly jeered at by an inhumane and dehumanizing throng of humanity. There is no compassion for Jewel: When she finally stumbles and falls into the mud, no one helps her, and even the Chinese residents look down on her in scorn. (Last week we talked about the informal caste system of Deadwood, in which a prominent Chinese figure like Mister Wu was afforded less respect than white dope fiends—shitheels—like Leon and the late Jimmy Irons. Now, we see where a "gimp" falls in this social hierarchy.)
The callback to Joanie's walk is deliberate, I think: Both characters—albeit starting from very different places in the social strata—are bravely venturing forth alone into the hostile camp, in hopes of slightly improving their station in life. And Jewel is brave: We see her struggle, but we also see her tremendous dignity and determination, letting neither her disability nor the disdain of fools deter her from her mission. (Even among this stellar cast, Geri Jewel—a groundbreaking actress and comedian—is a constant standout through the entire run of Deadwood.) Falling in the mud, she struggles back to her feet with tremendous effort, brushes herself off, and continues on her way. Even struggling, and subject to constant abuse, she looks happy just to be out and on an adventure.
Doc Cochran's reaction when Jewel turns up at his door is telling. "Who's sick?" he asks. "And what's he doing making you walk to tell me?" Cochran is a fundamentally empathetic man, yet even he sees Jewel as an extension of Al, not as an individual with agency. It does not occur to him that Jewel might have come on her own initiative, and on her own behalf. When she explains her purpose—to ask if a brace might be made for her leg, to stop it from dragging and annoying Al—he is curt and dismissive. "Fuck Al," he says gruffly. "Everybody's got limits. You dragging your leg is yours."
(Jewel looks flabbergasted—even offended—at his saying "Fuck Al." Considering how Al talks to her, Jewel's fierce loyalty to her employer might seem hard to understand—until we asked ourselves why the allegedly heartless Al Swearengen employs her at all, and what might happen to her if he did not.)
Jewel frames her desire to walk better as concern for Al, but we have just seen how much difference a little more mobility might make to Jewel's life. Doc's dismissive reaction, therefore, is a rare failure of empathy on his part. He is, after all, one of the key figures in Deadwood who consistently tries to help people improve their situations, often at his own expense, and frequently venturing far beyond the official requirements of his profession. (He helped save Sofia's life, even though it meant risking his own. He helped Alma overcome her opium addiction, even though she constantly abused him for his interference. He tried to help Trixie navigate a path out of prostitution, though that, too, might have incurred Al's wrath.) But fortunately his failure here is just a momentary lapse, one he recognizes, reconsiders, and apologizes for later. ("I regret the tone I had with you earlier," he says. "If we hold with the Greeks that we’re made of humors, I guess my bile was in its ascending.") Apologies of any kind are rare on Deadwood, and we suspect this is the first time anyone has bothered to apologize to Jewel for anything.
In this second meeting with Jewel, Doc's manner is different: He speaks to her not as Al's lackey, but as a human being in her own right, worthy of consideration and courtesy. (Even his body language is different: No longer talking down to her, he meets her on her level, and even ends the scene by moving over to sit beside her on the couch.) He agrees to try to help her, and in doing so he lays out his creed, which serves as one of our first golden rules for how people should treat one another. (The rules—in other words—for not being a shitheel.) Primum non noncere: "First, do no harm." (Or, as Doc puts it—in vernacular more suited to Deadwood's milieu—"I would not want to fuck you up.") It's a general tenet of medicine, but it can also serve as a general guideline for what we owe each other as human beings. Everyone does have their limits, and—as Doc's experiences in the war taught him—not everyone can be saved. So you help those you can, but, at the very least, you don't actively make anyone's life worse.
"And the rest…I forget."
For another, less secular view of what it means to not be a shitheel, we turn to our old friend, the Reverend Smith. If Smith's eulogy for Wild Bill provided one of the first mission statements for Deadwood, he provides another here—perhaps the last his fading faculties will be able to offer.
Andy Cramed has returned to Deadwood. When last we saw him, his recovery from smallpox had inspired the former con-man to reform his ways—we saw him volunteering to help distribute the vaccine a few episodes ago, for example—but his tentative resolution seems to be weakening. He "backslid in the other camps," he confesses to Smith, ending up at dice again. "Thought I'd try to work here, where I'd been good," he says. (Deadwood has always had a reputation as an amoral den of iniquity: This notion of it as a place that inspires goodness is new, and a mark of how this community is coming together.) Seeking guidance, Cramed asks the ailing minister to pray with him.
Smith is barely managing to stay upright, clinging to a pole in the remnants of the plague tent. (Like his sickness, the dismantling of the tent—where he did the most good—is another sign that Smith's purpose in Deadwood is rapidly coming to an end.) But he is ecstatic at this suggestion that he might still help someone find grace: It was his self-perceived inability to feel God's words move through him that most bothered him about his condition. And so it is to Cramed that the Reverend delivers what will turn out to be his last benediction to the people of Deadwood: "Oh, Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted, to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved," he offers. "And the rest…I forget."
His mind is almost gone, but what he has retained are the most essential parts of the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
His trailing off where he does can certainly be a read as a sign of his mind's deterioration, but it may also be a subconscious hesitation to acknowledge aloud his own imminent death. (He pointedly stops before the "dying" part.) Either way, the prayer he invokes is—every bit as much as his St. Paul speech—an ethical guidebook to life in Deadwood. It is an admonition against selfishness, which may be the defining characteristic of a shitheel. It is a plea for everyone to put aside their own needs, troubles, and resentments—as Doc did earlier—and offer whatever comfort there is to give, wherever comfort is possible. It is a reminder—one absolutely vital to Milch's project in Deadwood—to be of service to one another, and create moments of hope, and joy, and light in what could otherwise be unending despair, and sadness, and darkness.
It is the Reverend Smith's final message to his strange, unruly congregation, and he manages to convey it, even in (and through) his own suffering. Smith's addled mind retains just enough association with St. Francis's message that, in his delirium, he picks up on another of that particular saint's proclivities: preaching to the animals. In Francis's view, these lowest of creatures—who neither reap nor sow—were still worthy of God's love, and as receiving of God's grace, and so Smith takes his message to them, delivering sermons to the oxen in the thoroughfare. To the crowd of onlookers, it looks like madness, and Smith receives no more care or consolation from them than Jewel did from the people she passed.
But Al is watching, and he finds it hard to watch: Several times, he turns away from Smith, as though he can't bear the sight of him. But he keeps turning back, and when he does his eyes are moist: This is as close to seeing Al Swearengen moved to tears as we will ever see. The minister, in his flailing, catches sight of Al, and meets his eyes, and waves his Bible at him with heart-wrenching joy. Indirectly, perhaps—without acknowledgement or even conscious awareness—the message has been delivered.
“Cold enough world without gettin’ done against by your own.”
"Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking" is the penultimate episode of Deadwood's inaugural season, and so—naturally—it is predominantly a collection of set ups for storylines that will pay off next week. I shall do my best to avoid spoilers here—difficult, because so much of what we'll realize next week is foreshadowed here—but for now let's continue discussing the set ups. (I am realizing—belatedly—that it might have been more fruitful to discuss these two episodes as a piece, but alas.)
Alma's father, Otis Russell (William Russ), has arrived on the latest coach to surprise her. He is dapper, he is friendly, he is well-spoken, he is affectionate, and yet we—along with almost every single person who encounters him—immediately know that he is a shitheel.
Part of this is due to history we've been given before. (Back in "Here Was a Man," Alma confessed to Jane how her loveless marriage to Brom—and therefore her entire presence in Deadwood—came about as a convenient solution to her father's financial problems. "Darling, I can never repay you for what you are about to do, but I can repay everyone else," Alma quoted him as saying.)
Part of it, certainly, is the suspiciousness of his timing. Alma has had no "people" to help her in her difficulties, but now that she has struck it rich Otis has hurried to her side, and expressed a keen interest in her lucrative stakes. (She has to remind him to give her back the gold nugget she has shown him.) "I hope I'm here to help," he tells Alma, but her careful manner with him suggests that she already knows what Bullock will realize later: "That man’s not here to help his daughter," he tells Sol. "Cold enough world without gettin' done against by your own."
We'll talk much more about Otis and Alma next week, but for now it's the community's reaction to him that interests me. (Hell, even a fellow shitheel—EB Farnum—instantly recognizes Otis for what he is. "That man is a charlatan," EB tells Richardson. "What brass that would be: To gull your own flesh and blood.")
The efficiency of Deadwood's storytelling is often marvelous to watch: For all the attention given to Milch's deservedly lauded dialogue, we learn so much of what we need to know from silent moments of reaction and nearly imperceptible flickers of emotion on an actor's face. We know, for example, that Ellsworth is a good person, so we take note of how quickly and nervously he moves away from Otis. We know Alma is a good person, and we notice the subtle wince she makes when Otis pulls a coin from Sofia's ear. Joanie Stubbs is a good person too, and so we pay attention to the split-second look she gives when Otis kisses his daughter on the lips and says "I take a father's liberty." It is only Otis's second line of dialogue in the episode, but it raises all of Joanie's hackles, and so it raises all of ours.
No one is fooled by Otis, because Deadwood is a place that teaches people to trust their instincts. Everyone knows that someone who looks respectable (like Otis), may well turn out to be a shitheel, while someone who looks like a shitheel (Ellsworth) may turn out to be one of the most decent men in town. "I’d lean more on what I felt about this fellow than what I saw," Bullock told Alma a few episodes ago, when he introduced her to Ellsworth. And he was right: “I trust you, Ellsworth, as an honorable man," Alma tells her new friend now. "And I take great pleasure in your company.” And, in talking to her father, Alma significantly mentions the men who have been of help to her in Deadwood: Ellsworth, Bullock, and Wild Bill Hickok. (She might also have mentioned Charlie and Jane, who saved Sofia's life, or Trixie and Doc, who helped save her own.) There are people who go out of their way to help other people—who seek to console, rather than be consoled—and then there are shitheels.
Like pretty much all of my favorite shows, Deadwood is a story about found families, about disconnected and discarded individuals coming together to form a trusting community. And it is a place where these newly formed units instinctively close ranks against a newly arrived shitheel like Otis, a place where bonds of decency and empathy are more important than bonds of blood or class.
"It doesn't have to be like that."
At the heart of the experiment that is Deadwood—both the place and the show—is a fundamental question about human nature. In the absence of the law, are we all just selfish creatures who will rob and murder each other for the slightest advantage? Are human beings, at their core, nothing more than shitheels?
I only want to briefly discuss the subplot of Con Stapleton's appointment as sheriff, but it's an interesting one from this perspective. Tom Nutall is feeling the icy hand of civilization tightening around him. The newly-formed, ad hoc government of Deadwood—in the form of Fire Marshal Charlie Utter—is insisting Tom make a few changes to his saloon. The request is reasonable—separate his stove-pipe from the wall, so it doesn't burn the entire camp down—but Tom resents the interference. "That's the kind of shit that ran me out of Wilkes-Barre," he fumes.
It's a seemingly trivial matter—"This ain't the goddamned day of judgement" Charlie points out—but it actually speaks to the central concern of the episode: What are we willing to sacrifice as individuals to help, or protect, the people around us? ("Hazard to one, hazard to all," Charlie argues: Your own selfish needs and desires are not more important than the well-being of the entire community.)
So when Con Stapleton—a born shitheel if ever there was one—takes this opportunity to lobby for the job of Sheriff, it's an important moment. Some sort of law is inevitable in Deadwood: That much is clear to everyone. But what sort of order will emerge from the primordial chaos of the camp? Will it be an attempt at actual fairness and justice—driven by a sincere desire to protect and serve—or will the camp simply codify the rights of every person to be a complete shitheel?
“The truth is, I feel like the camp’s getting away from me,” Tom tells Al. We talked last week about the camp's "growing pains," and how everybody is not going to embrace a more formal societal structure at the same pace, especially if they came here precisely to escape the strictures of society. (The community of Deadwood—as we are reminded this week—is only two months old at this point.) So Al agrees to Stapleton's appointment, because it will placate the "pioneer types" like Tom, and because Al maintains—on the surface, at least—a fundamentally cynical view of humanity. "It's shitheel's work," he explains to Bullock, offering his current problems with Magistrate Claggett as proof that the law is almost always corrupt. (Claggett, in fact, is blackmailing Al over his murder of another corrupt cop.) "It doesn't have to be like that," Bullock says. Bullock's point is basically the same as Charlie's "hazard to all" argument. "It's not right for the camp," he says: He is expecting his wife and son to arrive, and giving a shitheel a badge makes life more dangerous for everyone.
We talked a few episodes ago about the somewhat radical notion that Deadwood could actually be a place where one could raise children, a place where innocents (of all ages) are protected and nurtured. Al Swearengen—a crime-lord, after all—would appear at a glance to be the living antithesis of that idea, but here he makes an even more surprising leap: He can suddenly imagine his own criminal enterprises existing within a more decent and just community. "Now, if you were fucking sheriff, and you said, 'Do this, do that,' I'd consider it, 'cause you're not a fuckin' whore," he tells Bullock. "You're one of those pains in the ass who thinks the law can be honest." The problem with the law, in other words, is that it's usually enforced by shitheels, and Bullock is not a shitheel.
"I don't want it," Bullock says, repeatedly. We'll talk much more next week about Bullock's resistance to the role that he was born to play. (He came to Deadwood from Montana, remember, precisely to escape that role.) But what's important here, I think, is the idea of individual sacrifice. "Well, I do lots of things I don't want to do," Al tells him—and this, as we've seen before, and will discuss further below, is true. If Deadwood is to survive and thrive, people—whether Doc Cochran, or Tom Nutall, or Bullock, or even Al himself—are going to have be willing to set aside selfish interests, and even inconvenience themselves, for the good of the community. "For," as Saint Francis tells us, "it is in giving that we receive."
"I mean, what can any one of us ever really fuckin’ hope for, huh? Except for a moment here and there with a person who doesn’t want to rob, steal, or murder us?"
Here's a fun fact, and one I challenge you to find another example of anywhere in television history: The phrase "I love you" is never spoken in the entire run of Deadwood. There are precious few admissions of romantic feelings of any kind, and absolutely no face-to-face declarations. On its deceptive surface, Deadwood—and Deadwood—would appear to be too hard and brutal for such soft and sentimental considerations.
And yet Deadwood contains what are, to me, some of the sweetest and most convincing love stories of all time, and one of them finally kicks into high gear this week. Sol Star and Trixie have been lightly flirting for weeks, but Trixie had convinced herself that such things were out of reach for her. She was, after all, "just a whore," both unfamiliar with and (in her mind) unworthy of that sort of affection. "I don't want what I can't have, Mr. Star," she said, just two episodes ago.
But, as we've discussed, Trixie's entire arc this season has been a gradual, even reluctant acceptance of her own worth and potential, an awakening to the possibility that she can have—and deserves—an actual life. (We can say it properly began when she was assigned to spy on the Widow Garret, and discovered that she was someone who could help other people. But, looking back, we realize that the very first thing we saw Trixie do—early in the pilot—was assert her own personhood by shooting an abusive john.)
So this week represents a watershed in her journey. Al—who has been even more aware of the changes in Trixie than she is herself—offers her the morning off, so that she can go visit Sofia. Instead, Trixie goes to see Sol, and offers herself to him in classic, unsentimental Deadwood fashion: "Anyways, would you want a free fuck?"
This is how love blooms in Deadwood. Sol objects to her phrasing—"Why would you say it that way?"—but it's a person's intentions that matter, not their presentation. Look, after all, at Otis: He dresses and speaks like a gentleman, but he's an unrepentant shitheel. Trixie dresses and speaks like a "whore," but we know—better than she does—that she's a good person, capable of great kindnesses, and deserving of genuine love. This exercise of her own agency is possibly the only wholly voluntary sexual experience she's ever had, and their kiss—for Sol insists on kissing her, despite her protests—may very well be her first. (This is, to be sure, the first romantic and mutually-desired sexual encounter ever on Deadwood, and one of only a handful that we will ever see in the series.)
And it changes everything. There is no relationship in Deadwood more rich and complicated than the one shared between Trixie and Al Swearengen, and Al's reaction to her burgeoning relationship with Sol is interesting.
What Al Swearengen knows and understands about his own feelings and motivations is an ongoing question in Deadwood: He plays his cards close to his vest, and he opens up to virtually no one. It is even more ambiguous when we attempt to understand his feelings about Trixie, because she is the closest thing he has to a confidant, but the last person to whom he would admit his feelings about her. "Jewel's Boot is Made for Walking" opens, however—as "No Other Sons or Daughters" did—with Trixie and Al waking up together in the morning, and we feel the intimacy he shares with her and no one else. She stands at the window, looking out over the town. "What should I know?" he asks her from his bed, and she reports back on the notable comings and goings. (For a man like Swearengen—whose stock-in-trade is information—trusting her to act as his eyes like this is, itself, a mark of her importance in his life.) This scene mirrors one at the end of the episode with a different whore, Dolly (Ashleigh Kizer)—which we will get to—but these two scenes together underline how unique his relationship to Trixie is. (Trixie asks him questions, and he answers them, and he never tells her—as he tells Dolly every single time she speaks—to "shut the fuck up." He talks with Trixie: With almost everyone else, he is really talking to himself.)
The point is: Trixie is important to Al, in ways he would never admit. And things have changed between them. It started when she went to work for Alma—and disobeyed his orders, in order to help her—and the changes solidified after she disappeared on him and nearly killed herself. Since then, Al has not only been aware of the changes in Trixie, but—as I've argued before—subtly (even unconsciously) encouraging them. ("Everything changes," he told her two episodes ago. "Don't be afraid.") Now, his encouraging her to go see Sofia—one of the catalysts for her change—is further proof that he may actually want what is best for her, whether he knows it or not. They have both begun to see that there are other lives open to her than whoring, and giving her the morning off to go reacquaint herself with one of those other lives can be read as a quietly noble gesture.
It may, also, have been a test. He has noticed her flirtation with Sol before, so I do not think it comes entirely as a surprise to him when Bullock accidentally lets slip that Sol and Trixie are coupling in the hardware store. He compliments her sarcastically when she returns: "You look good having gone out," he says. "You’re more relieved, more relaxed. We can’t work all the time, can we? We all need some type of relaxation, companionship or the like?" Immediately afterwards, he sends for Sol, to collect the money he now says Sol owes him as Trixie's pimp.
Sol refuses to pay: "It wasn't business," he says. And Al is firm—"You pay, or she pays"—but oddly sympathetic.
"Don’t you think I don’t understand. I mean, what can any one of us ever really fuckin’ hope for, huh? Except for a moment here and there with a person who doesn’t want to rob, steal, or murder us? At night, it may happen. Sun-up, one person against the fuckin’ wall, the other may hop on the fuckin’ bed trusting each other enough to tell half the fucking truth. Everybody needs that. It becomes precious to ‘em. They don’t want to see it fucked with.”
I'm dwelling on this because I think it's so complicated, and absolutely key to understanding Swearengen's character. He is, I think, genuinely upset at Trixie's betrayal of their unspoken relationship: He treated her like a whore—he probably even thought of her as a whore—but she was the closest thing he had to a trusted friend, and perhaps the closest thing he could ever have to a wife. So his anger and hurt are genuine, I think, and he lashes out at both of them by demanding payment brutally—"You owe me five dollars. If you ass-fucked her, you own me seven"—and by banishing Trixie from her privileged place in his bed. ("You sleep tonight amongst your own," he tells her harshly.)
But isn't he also acting with her best interests at heart? His confrontation with Sol may have also been a test: He needed to know if Sol actually cared for her, or if he was just thinking of her as a whore. (There is an element in their conversation of a protective father interrogating his daughter's suitor about his intentions: This, too, is an aspect of Al and Trixie's very complex relationship.) And his banishment of Trixie from his bed could be seen as a punishment, but it could also be seen as a necessary recognition of the truth of how their relationship has changed, and a way of pushing her from the nest. She could not have a real relationship with Sol Star, after all—and go wherever that might take her—if she continued to be Al's mistress and unofficial wife.
All of these things are true, I believe, and happening simultaneously—and perhaps unconsciously—within him. He does resent it, and he is hurt. When he describes how we all need a moment here and there with someone we can trust, he is talking about himself and Trixie. She was that for him, and it was precious to him, and Sol is, in fact, fucking with it.
The full extent of his wounding does not become clear until the end of the episode, and the extraordinary monologue he delivers while Dolly—Trixie's replacement—is going down on him. (This is not the last "blowliloquy" Al will deliver in Deadwood. Fellatio seems to put him in a confessional frame of mind.) He starts off by explaining Dolly's new role, and he explains it in ways that probably make no sense to her, but which make perfect sense to us. "I see what the fuck’s in front of me, and I don’t pretend it’s somethin’ else," he says. "I was fuckin’ her, and now I’m gonna fuck you.” He has accepted the change in his relationship with Trixie, and is trying to move on from the feelings for her that make him vulnerable. What he says next, he frames as an aside about the Reverend Smith needing to be killed, but this, too, is really about himself, and his feelings for Trixie:
"He's making a fucking jerk of himself. I mean, well, why go on with that? Who’s gonna benefit from that, huh? No, you just gotta kill it and put an end to it. You don’t linger on about it, you don’t fuckin’ go around weepin’ about it, and you don’t, you know, behave like a kid with a sore thumb, you know, loco suckin’ it, now 'mmm, my poor fucking thumb!' I mean, you—you gotta behave like a grown fuckin’ man, huh? You gotta shut the fuck up. Don’t be sorry, don’t look fuckin’ back, because, believe me, no one gives a fuck. You understand?"
And then, while Dolly services him, we hear about his childhood for the first time, as he discusses the orphanage in Chicago where he bought Dolly:
“Did you know the orphanage part of the building you lived in, behind it, she ran a whorehouse, huh?…Now, I’ll tell you somethin’ you don’t know. Before she ran a girls orphanage, fat Mrs. Fucking Anderson ran the boys orphanage on fucking Euclid Avenue, as I would see her fat ass waddling out the boys dormitory at five o’clock in the fucking mornin’, every fuckin’ morning she blew her stupid fuckin’ cowbell and woke us all the fuck up. And my fuckin’ mother dropped me the fuck off there with seven dollars and 60 some odd fuckin’ cents on her way to suckin’ cock in Georgia. And I didn’t get to count the fuckin’ cents before the fuckin’ door opened, and there, Mrs. Fat Ass Fuckin’ Anderson, who sold you to me. I had to give her the seven dollars and 60 odd fuckin’ cents that my mother shoved in my fuckin’ hand before she hammered one-two-three-four times on the fuckin’ door and scurried off down fuckin’ Euclid Avenue, probably 30 fuckin’ years before you were fuckin’ born. Then around Cape Horn and up to San Francisco, where she probably became mayor or some other type success story, unless by some fucking chance she wound up as a ditch for fuckin’ cum."
This story has the effect of completely rewriting our perception of Al Swearengen. I do not want to romanticize him: He is a murderer, and a thief, and a pimp, and a human trafficker, and a lot of other reprehensible things. But it's all more complicated than that. This story makes us see that scared little boy, dumped by his mother on the steps of an orphanage with a fist full of coins he didn't even get to keep. And we understand that he is telling this story now—to someone who won't understand it—because he is trying to process his feelings of abandonment in regards to Trixie. Once again, the one person he trusted—the person who was supposed to love him—has left him alone in a whorehouse while she goes off to a better life.
And we take note, too, of another important piece of information: Al brought Dolly to Deadwood from that same orphanage. It is not much of a spoiler, I think, to say that we will discover that Al gets all his whores from that same orphanage, or that he brought Jewel here from that same orphanage. And then we think about that question of why he keeps Jewel around. And we think about all those other hangers-on in Al's retinue—Dan, and Johnny, and even EB—and how he puts up with them, and teaches them, and tries to protect them, even when they fuck up, even when they're far more trouble than they're worth. And everything we think we know about him starts to look less certain.
But we don't need to dwell on all of that now. (The series, in fact, will never dwell on it much: All we will get is these tiny little insights into Al's secret past and hidden workings.) For now, I think, we can focus on the simple fact of his feeling abandoned by Trixie—perhaps the most important person in his circle—and how he let her go, or even pushed her away, even though he relied on her. And here, I think, we come back to that question of why Al is not a shitheel, despite all the terrible things he does.
Because self-interest is the defining characteristic of a shitheel, and it turns out that Al is capable of making a painful sacrifice at great personal cost to himself. And that brings us back, full-circle, to Saint Francis, and that wave of recognition Reverend Smith gave Al from the thoroughfare. Because Al Swearengen proves, in letting Trixie go, that he is willing to console, rather than be consoled. He's willing to understand, rather than be understood. He's willing to pardon, rather than be pardoned. It comes as something of a surprise to us—and we suspect it would come as a hell of surprise to him—to learn that, in the end, Al Swearengen would rather love than be loved.
And in that sacrifice—made reluctantly, resentfully, even unconsciously—lies all hope that anyone can find light in this place of darkness.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I apologize for the delay this week: A combination of external deadlines and some technical problems has put me behind schedule on all my stuff lately, but I'm hoping to catch up soon.
- There were a few minor plot points I skipped over. Al continues to bring Adams under his wing, here persuading him to murder Magistrate Claggett for the low, low price of $2,000. "You gotta believe the job could open the door to your future," Al tells him.
- And Al's other minions continue to resent Adam's new favored status. Dan explains how Al said last week that Silas's hair looks like his mother fucked a monkey. "Just that affectionate?" Johnny asks Dan. "Yeah, I've never seen Al warm up to somebody so quick," Dan marvels. (EB, in horror at realizing Adam is someone he needs to suck-up to: "I put him in a room above the privy.")
- As we knew was coming after last week, Cy Tolliver is marshaling the camp's racism against Swearengen. Shitheel Leon's new job is to sow discord about Al's killing a white a man to placate Mr. Wu.
- I suspect one of the reasons I started this week talking about Soapy Smith is that this episode was written by Ricky Jay, who plays Eddie Sawyer. Until his death in 2018, Jay was one of the greatest sleight-of-hand magicians alive, and he was also an authority on cheaters and confidence games, writing several books on the sweet art of ripping people off. The man knew a lot about shitheels. (Here, Eddie only appears briefly, returning to Cy's employ so he can pocket money to back Joanie's brothel.)
- Finally, as always, some quotes:
- Trixie, trying to phrase her sexual proposition to Sol in a more gentile way: “Mr. Star, my cherry is obstructing my work. Sir, would you take it from me, free?"
- Alma, to Sofia, resenting how the menfolk have gone off to discuss important matters not fit for women's ears: "If we didn’t hate them too much to be curious about the world, we’d wonder what they’d had to say."
- Ellsworth, responding to Alma's expression of affection: "I feel the same. I look forward to our breakfasts. And I’ll just say once: I know I’m too damn old for ya."
- Doc, to Al, on the advice he gave to Jewel: "Not to worry about your moods, that you generate those yourself and then find your excuse for havin’ ‘em…I will leave you now to pursue another excuse."
- Jewel, perfectly delivering one of the funniest retorts in Deadwood, when Al asks why she went to see the doc: "I'm knocked up."