What, you’ve never asked that question before? Welcome to the 1870s.
Deadwood Revisited: No Law at All: Season 1, Episode 1
The opening sequence of the first episode of Deadwood depicts a mercy killing.
We open on a building in a pretty well-put-together Western settlement (the title card tells us we’re in “Montana Territory, May 1876”) and when we go inside we see a guy who looks suspiciously like that one dude from Mandalorian, sporting one hell of a mustache/soul patch combo. He’s writing something down, but the camera won’t show us what, which gives the guy locked up behind him an opportunity to ask him for us: “That some sort of letter, Marshal?”
The lawman looks up at him for a second. “Journal.”
His prisoner takes this very innocuous piece of information in like it somehow holds the key to his future. “Journal. Good.” He’s clearly trying to figure out how to escape his current predicament, and may have just gotten the impression that our lawman friend is a soft touch. But, like, he says “Good” out loud. I don’t think this is going to go well for him.
But let’s let him try.
“You know, I was going to Deadwood, same as you.”
The lawman is, again, polite without fully engaging. “Is that so?”
“Had my plans about set…I only wish to Christ I could get these past three days back.”
The Marshal, for his part, is surprisingly patient with this knucklehead. “I can imagine.”
They get into a little exposition about how there’s no law in Deadwood—because it’s in Sioux territory—and how there’s apparently “gold you can scoop from the streams with your bare hands,” and how our Marshal, when he gets there, won’t be a Marshal anymore, but is opening a hardware store.
Then the knucklehead goes back to trying to butter the Marshal up, using the term “supposedly” to half-heartedly deny having committing the horse-thieving that landed him in jail in the first place, apologizing for shooting the Marshal in the shoulder during his arrest—and further making clear to us that he’s about to be executed for what he’s done. Then, having done what he can to establish rapport, the knucklehead decides to take his best shot at saving himself.
“I’d like to suggest an idea to you, sir, that I pray as a Christian man that you will entertain on its own fuckin’ merits.”
(Which, by the way, is how I should have pitched my plan to write this series.)
The Marshal comes over to the cage, a hilarious look of mock-curiosity on his face. He leans up against the bars and narrows his eyes, his non-bandaged arm supporting his weight. “Does it involve letting you go?”
The knucklehead…doesn’t know he’s being toyed with. He makes his pitch about the two people in transit he knows they could rob together on their way to Deadwood, and how they could part company and “meet as strangers” forever after, and as the Marshal is about to let him down easy, his partner barges in, forcing him instead to rip the band-aid off.
“It don’t appeal to me.”
While the knucklehead entreats the Marshal’s partner to “please get the fuck out of here til we have finished our previous conversation,” said partner is warning the Marshal of the impending arrival of Byron Sampson, victim of the horse-thievery that put the knucklehead behind bars in the first place, and “a dozen, shitfaced” backing his play to remove (forcibly, it seems) the knucklehead from the clutches of the law and, as Mr. Sampson himself says, “give him what he fuckin’ deserves!”
And so we come to the mercy killing.
Bullock (which is the Marshal’s name) grabs a rope and the knucklehead and proceeds to stand down Sampson and his mob of rifle-toting drunks, announcing that the knucklehead will be “hanging under color of law” while tying the rope to one of the beams of the front porch of his office building. The knucklehead protests: it’s too short a drop, so his neck won’t break. Bullock promises to help him with the drop.
Byron Sampson fires a shot into the air, and suddenly Bullock is pissed. “Any more gunplay gets answered.” And you fucking know he means it. “You called the law in, Sampson. You don’t get to call it off because you’re liquored up and popular on payday!”
Sampson retorts that Bullock doesn’t get to tell them what to do and what not to do, because he’s “leaving Montana, anyways.” And also, you’d imagine, because Bullock is not their real mom. Then he turns his attention back to the knucklehead. “Now do not jump off of that stool, you cocksucker!”
“Or what? You’ll kill me?”
This is, for me, perhaps the most interesting moment in this episode: the knucklehead, at the realization that he’s really a goner, grows a pair. It’s fascinating to watch his face as he gets there and resolves to die well.
He gives the Marshal his last words to pass along to his family, reminds him one more time to help with the drop, shouts one last “Fuck you!” at Sampson and the mob, and jumps the twelve or so inches off the stool he’s standing on.
It is, indeed, way too short a drop. He’s strangling for a moment, and it’s awful, and then Marshal Bullock grabs him by the knees, hoists him up and yanks him down with enough force to break his neck against the noose.
It gets real for everybody present as they see the knucklehead die. The only thing we hear is the sound of urine dripping down the dead man’s pants leg onto the wooden porch. (And yeah, gross, but it really does emphasize how quiet it gets.)
The Marshal wipes a tear from his eye, feeling the weight of the real duty of a responsible person in the West: it’s less about saving people from death than it is about saving them from suffering. We’re going to see Bullock shoot to kill another man, under totally different circumstances, before this first hour is up. Death is everywhere and not particularly negotiable. Bullock is mostly here to protect people from its cruelty, rather than from its presence.
He writes down the knucklehead’s last words to be passed along to his surviving family, hands it to one of the instantly sobered-up men who now have no reason to listen to Byron Sampson, and hops on the wagon that his partner is driving to get them out of town.
Six weeks later, in the Black Hills of Dakota…we’re in a traffic jam.
(I’m only going to say this once, because especially after waxing so goddamn poetic last week about this show’s virtues I feel like a jerk saying it. I’m not wild about a few moments in this pilot. There are small details that almost feel like someone on the sales and marketing side of things got their hands on the pilot script and decided to make it more “classic Wild West”-y to pitch it to the execs, especially since they never repeat themselves after this first episode…but they’re there. I’m not going to spend too much time on them. You’ll just have to guess what they are from context.)
(…Okay, I lied. I’m going to make jokes about them when they happen. What else am I supposed to do? I kid because I love.)
Imagine with me, for a moment, that you’re sleeping off a terrible hangover. A bottom-shelf liquor hangover. It’s the same hangover you’ve been sleeping off every night for a couple of decades as you struggle under the weight of being famous for the speed at which you can draw a weapon, and the accuracy you shoot with. Of being a famous killer. The inevitability of seeing a suspicious, appraising look on the face of nearly every single man you come across as they ask themselves, “Could I take him?” The distrust that comes from seeing that look over and over again. The weight of all the killings is probably starting to pile up, too. You have lived hard. You’re tired. And again, the fucking hangover.
And the first thing you hear as you wake up is Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane screaming, at top volume, “SAME DAMN WAGON THAT BROKE DOWN YESTERDAY, BIIIIILL!”
It’s a little jarring. All I’m saying. Not the way I would want to start my morning.
Wild BIll Hickok (Keith Carradine) is way kinder about it than I would be, even cracking a joke about the traffic being “tighter than a bull’s ass in fly season.”
Jane, who is adorably moony-eyed over Bill, offers to canvas for (which I take to mean, look around the wagon train for) some more whiskey for his hair-of-the-dog purposes, but Bill waves her off. “I know your canvassing techniques. I don’t want any casualties on my conscience.”
So Jane wanders towards the front of the train, where the “ignorant fuckin’ cunts” who’ve made the unforgiveable error of making a celebrity sit in traffic are trying to fix the wagon that’s broken. She looks down into the gulch and we see the camp for the first time. It’s small, a hodgepodge of wooden buildings and tents, surrounded by wilderness.
Bullock is just arriving himself, a few hours ahead of the broken-down wagon, and it’s his gaze we follow to get our first close-up. It’s already pretty busy. Prospectors are digging makeshift goldmines right in the middle of the main road. There’s a Music Hall, and a Progressive Hall, and a banner for a Meat Market hung right across the whole thoroughfare. There’s also guys shopping for pistols, and a stand offering fifty-cent whiskey shots. The meat market is…well, I’ll say this: the meat is as fresh as it gets. It’s still flapping its wings, in some cases. Not sure exactly where the butcher is washing his hands, though. It looks a little suspect. I’m giving it a maximum of three stars on Yelp unless they really impress me with their delivery speed.
Bullock finds his partner, who tells him he found a lot to rent for $20 a day. Bullock balks at the price but his partner says it’s a “corner location”…which we don’t get visual proof of, but fine. The big, tough-looking fellow they’re negotiating with says they’re to pay every morning in advance to Mr. Swearengen at the Gem. “You’ll find it. Everybody does.” And as the camera also, very quickly, finds it, with no small help from the big fucking banner hanging from its balcony, I’m able to confirm for you all that the big guy is correct. What a relief.
And that’s convenient, because we’re going there next.
The aforementioned Mr. Swearengen, played by the inimitable Ian McShane—an actor whose performance in this show is so powerful that I watched a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel ON PURPOSE because he was cast as the bad guy—is behind the bar, allowing a prospector to trade in some newfound gold for credit at the saloon’s tables and bedrooms. “Inform your dealers and whores of my credit, and pour me a goddamn drink!”
Another pilot nitpick: In this first exchange, we hear Swearengen call the prospector, two different times, “my good man,” and it’s just a bit awkward, because of how disconnected it is with the way McShane plays the role. For instance, seconds later, when the prospector asks Mr. Swearengen if the rumors are true about him being descended from British nobility, Swearengen deadpans that he’s “descended from all them cocksuckers.”
Right? Doesn’t fit. Thankfully it never happens again after this scene. (Also, just on the strength of that response, how much money would I pay to see this character hanging out with Queen Victoria? All of it. All the money. Moving on.)
The prospector, Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), takes the moment to exposit not just his own backstory, but likely the raison d’être of every single character in the show: “I may have fucked my life up flatter’n hammered shit, but I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and workin’ a payin’ fuckin’ gold claim.” Swearengen has leaned in closer to give Ellsworth his undivided attention. He has not blinked. Ellsworth continues. “And not the U.S. Gov’ment sayin’ I’m trespassin’ or the savage fuckin’ red man himself or any o’ these limber-dicked cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.”
* * *
So. Before we move on, a quick word about racial slurs:
We will hear, throughout the series, American Indians referred to as “savages” and “heathens” and “dirt worshippers” and the like. We will certainly hear Black people referred to using a word that begins with N that I will not type out in its entirety, and also hear Chinese people referred to using a five-letter word that begins with C that I will ALSO never type out in its entirety (as well as several other slurs, another few of which also begin with C…there are a lot of them).
We can’t discuss this show without discussing race. The history of European expansion into the Americas is a history of genocide, usually in the service of economic self-interest on the part of one group of white people or another. This time, the impetus is the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, which was Sioux territory until said gold was found, and then the American government did next to nothing to stop its people from evicting the territory’s current residents and setting up camp there themselves.
We will be watching how this group of white people treats its non-white counterparts—and how small a minority try to treat them with any respect. We will see, later this very episode, a bounty put on the head of every American Indian that can be found, in an attempt to deflect blame for a murder a group of white men committed. We will see hourly examples of casual racism directed at the Chinese immigrant population in camp. We will eventually also get a pretty good idea of how safe and fun it might have been to be a Black man in a settlement like this. Not to mention, Bullock’s partner turns out to be the one Jewish character in the whole show. I’ll let you guess what he has to put up with from everyone else in camp.
And instead of thinking to ourselves, “Well, at least most of these other groups have it better now,” which I will admit is a trap I fell into a little bit on first watch, we might focus instead on how casual and fucking normal these characters’ racist tendencies are for them—even the ones we like and root for. Even the ones who are trying to treat the non-white population fairly and respectfully. And then, you know, look at what happened on Twitter the day Elon took it over. We’re not as far removed from this wilderness as we want to believe we are.
We will be discussing this further. Count on it.
* * *
In response to Ellsworth’s monologue, Swearengen straightens his back, and says simply, “Well, they’d better not try it in here.” His face is very serious. In the Gem, we have our customers’ backs.
Ellsworth, to his credit, isn’t buying it for a second. He chuckles and says, “Goddamn you, Swearengen, I don’t trust you as far as I can th’ow you, but I enjoy the way you lie.” And Swearengen thanks him. Which is hilarious.
And then there’s a gunshot. Swearengen is all business in an instant. There’s a gunshot in HIS place of operations. Unacceptable. He turns to Dan, the big guy. “That’ll be her Derringer. I warned you about that loopy cunt!” He makes his way upstairs, tossing a casual “Keep your own tally!” to Ellsworth, who mutters in response, “Have no fear on that score!”
Upstairs we find a woman with some bruises on her face, and a john with a bullet in his head. Who is…still alive and conscious. Swearengen, the woman, whose name is Trixie (Paula Malcolmson, long may she reign), and the john with the bullet in his head are all talking over each other. Dan, the big guy, asks Trixie if she’s got any more guns, and Trixie’s exasperated delivery of “No, I don’t got any more!” is priceless. Finally the Doc (Brad Dourif, fresh off of giving the King of Rohan some very bad advice) arrives, just in time to stop the john from putting his fingers in the bullet hole…which, ew, and also, of course. Then, almost immediately after that, the john dies—and again, the room goes silent as it’s happening, out of an incongruous respect for the man’s last moments. Then Swearengen instructs his men to “get the Chinaman.” Doc wonders aloud how the man lived for twenty minutes, shot through the brain, and asks to take the body to his office before it gets removed.
Swearengen only cares about his business’ reputation: “Doc, you drink free today, and I hope future word of this would keep the gun out of the whore’s hand.” Then he takes her to his office for what will clearly be a calm, comforting chat about customer relations. Meanwhile, Doc pokes some instrument through the hole in his new friend’s head, removes the bullet, and geeks out for a second about the prospect of making a new discovery about how the brain works. “Of course, it won’t matter to Mr. Wu’s pigs.” Well…now I can’t wait to meet Mr. Wu’s pigs!
Back outside the camp, Bill has finally shaken off his hangover enough to stand up on his own two (very high-booted) feet, and decides to ride in and see the camp. He and his other riding buddy, Charlie (played by the also-magnificent Dayton Callie) leave Jane to watch the stock, which gives the pilot an only-slightly clunky opportunity to establish that Jane is as unfond of Charlie as she is fond of Bill. More importantly, for the sake of the story, as she waits with their wagon, Jane crosses paths with a family of Norwegians leaving camp on their own to go back to Minnesota. Jane smiles and winks at the smallest of their children, and the little girl smiles back shyly. Cute kid. I hope nothing happens to that family.
On the main thoroughfare, Bullock and his partner are trying to unload their goods from their wagon while being harangued by a jackass who’s impatient to get to HIS parking space. Bill and Charlie ride past as the situation seems to be escalating. Bullock walks closer to the jackass and basically dares him to keep talking shit, and then his partner, Sol Star (whom we probably should have named already, and who is played by John Hawkes), offers the guy a free commode (i.e., chamber pot) for his inconvenience and cools the situation down. Bill, in the background, seems impressed by how the two of them work together.
Sol comes back to the wagon to continue unloading it. “My father’s last words back there in Vienna, before he passed, were ‘Sol, those who can’t abide a god-damned fool get slowed down some at retail.’” Bullock chuckles. “I ought to put a book together of your old man’s death-bed sayings.”
Then John Hawkes catches his own little momentary bout of pilot-sickness and he briefly turns into that one nine-year-old kid in every corny Western movie. “That was Wild Bill Hickok just ridin’ past us, Seth. I seen him in photographs!” He even drawls ‘photograyaphs’ a little bit. It’s very silly, and a tiny little bit endearing—which, in itself, is my biggest problem with it.
Olyphant, for his part, is one of the two actors in the pilot who are completely immune to these little lapses into Classic Western-acting, otherwise known as hootanhollerism. (Yes, of course I just made that up.) He doesn’t play this role like an old-timey sheriff trope. He’s brutally, rigidly steadfast, perfectly locked in with his character from minute one. The other actor that locked in is Paula Malcolmson, last seen having shot a customer through the head for beatin’ on her, and her character’s day is about to get…not better.
“He said he’d lost his stake gamblin’. He tol’ me before he passed out. He said he lost his stake and he hadn’t found no gold an’ he was headin’ back east after one last piece o’ pussy.”
We don’t see her face while she’s doing this monologue. We see Swearengen, who’s barely making any eye contact with her and is eerily calm, and if you’re not instantly a little afraid for her life you’re not paying attention.
* * *
Oh, we’re doing this again already? We sure are.
It should go without saying—and it probably does, among this particular audience, but I’m going to say it anyway—that nobody should ever treat anybody the way men treated women in the 1870s. Hot fucking take, right?
This show does, in my opinion, a pretty good job of showing the violence and the various relationships between pimp and sex-worker for what they are—vicious, sadistic, unacceptable, kind of terrifying—and also does a good job of showing the general treatment of women in ‘polite’ society for what it is—portraying the men who bend over backwards with false chivalry, then slap down any dissent with open condescension, as petty and creepy. The few—again, the few—exceptions are often mocked by the other men around them for treating women like human beings.
And again, this isn’t a conversation about which characters we like and are rooting for. It’s pretty much everybody. There are degrees to it, just like with the portrayal of the almost universal racism, and those degrees absolutely make a difference in a show like this and a setting like this, but watch how even some of the men we might really get to like down the line treat the women around them.
What’s really fascinating is watching the different ways the women of Deadwood navigate this environment and its customs—especially as we get far enough into the series to really get to know a few of them. Trixie’s absolutely the most complex, interesting character in the series, and watching her deal with the insane hand she’s been dealt is riveting.
Speaking of which…
* * *
“None of that’s anything to me,” intones Swearengen as he walks toward her. If someone starts hurting her, she’s supposed to call Dan or Johnny. He takes her head in his hands, strokes her hair, unnervingly gentle. “You don’t shoot nobody, because that’s bad for my business and it’s bad for the camp’s reputation. He beat the living shit out of you, didn’t he?”
Trixie’s not fooled. She’s in tears, and she’s clearly terrified, but she’s not backing down. “Do what you’re gonna do to me.”
Swearengen’s eyes widen subtly. “Don’t tell me what to do.” He hurls her across the room into a wall, grabs her arm, and steps on her neck. “Either way this comes out, we’ll only have to do it once. What’s it to be, Trixie?”
Trixie, for her part, doesn’t fucking give in. She holds eye contact with him, almost daring him to finish it.
Then Swearengen puts a bit more pressure on her neck, raising the stakes, and she finally croaks out “I’ll be good.” He keeps his foot there for an extra moment before he lets her go.
I have nothing clever to say here. It’s brutal. It’s the clearest indication yet of the tone of the show we’re watching—and remember, we’re only a third of the way through the pilot and we’ve already seen a guy get hanged close up, and a guy talking with a bullet hole in his head.
(What’s that? We’re only a THIRD OF THE WAY THROUGH THE PILOT? I feel like I’ve been writing this for two weeks. Goddamnit. Oh well. Labor of love. Moving on.)
Bill and Charlie walk into a hotel, and the hotel clerk (William Sanderson) is immediately a total fucking weirdo about having a famous person in his place of business. “We heard rumors you might be coming, but you can’t believe every rumor. We heard you might be coming from Cheyenne.”
You can immediately tell that Bill just wants this interaction over with. “Here I am.”
The clerk continues with his monologue, which is not just awkward because of its inherent awkwardness, but also because of how ham-fisted an attempt it is on behalf of the speaker to make himself look impressive (which will be a running gag amongst the tertiary characters throughout the show). “If every rumor was true, we’d all have been scalped now by the Sioux, or the government would’ve tossed us all out as treaty violators.” To whch, Bill and Charlie say…nothing. Five solid seconds of dead silence. Charlie’s facial expression is magical. The clerk waits for them to respond for a beat too long before he realizes they aren’t going to, then compounds the awkwardness by abruptly introducing himself. “E.B. Farnum, how do you do?”
Charlie makes another face as he shakes E.B.’s hand. “You got some mighty clammy hands there, pardner.” Bill also wrinkles his nose, ostensibly at the thought of shaking E.B.’s hand.
E.B. plows ahead with his charm offensive. “Damp palms run in my family. Here to prospect, Mr. Hickok? Or on other business?”
Bill is done. “I’m here to get a room.”
E.B. can get them one room, but can’t arrange separate rooms for them until the next day—and he looks furtively at Bill to make one more hideously crass attempt at building rapport: “Unless you kill a guest.” His creeply laugh clearly makes Bill wish he’d gone to a different hotel, and makes me want to cut to a different scene.
And we’re back at the Gem, where E.B. has just run to tell Swearengen of Hickok’s arrival. Swearengen is looking in the mirror, having just done something fucking weird to his mustache. The ends of it are pointing upward. After as many times as I’ve watched this series, I’ve come to the conclusion that this might be the most egregious misstep in the entire pilot. It distracts me from the entire expository monologue he drops about how Hickok is just the latest in a series of complications dating back to General Custer getting himself and his army slaughtered at Little Bighorn. Dan walks in and interrupts with news that “that New York dude’s downstairs, Al.”
(FINALLY! Now I can stop typing Swearengen every two sentences.)
Dan, Al, and Al’s weirdly-styled mustache make fun of the New York dude (“dude,” for those of us who only know the word from its surfing or Lebowski connotations, was once used as slang for a dandy, or a ‘city slicker’ type) and his preference for “sippin’ at” his whiskey instead of downing it in one go, like a real man. Watching this interaction led me down a dangerous path in college.
Al is running some kind of scam on the New York dude. He tells E.B. to go get a fellow named Tim Driscoll, who’s supposed to show up looking drunk and sorry for himself. E.B. tries to elicit a further reaction from Al about his talk with Hickok, saying “if I’d’a pushed him any harder on his plans, I was afraid he’d shoot me.” Al has about as much patience for E.B.’s bullshit as Bill and Charlie did.
Outside, Bullock and Star Hardware and Mercantile is opening for bidness.
Sol is trying to calm a nervous Seth, reminding him that they’re selling good, valuable stuff and not conning anyone. Then he tells him his fly’s down. It’s not. Seth goes out and half-heartedly tries to drum up interest in their wares, then Sol starts calling out prices, and Seth gets more comfortable when they’re working as a team.
Then, once they’ve drawn a crowd, a fellow who is actually trying to con people appears to brag about the five-dollar prize he just found in his fifty-cent bar of soap, and Bullock’s inner lawman is immediately on the guy’s case. “Front your game away from our tent.” Then they go back to selling, and it looks like they’re going to be just fine.
Meanwhile, Al goes downstairs to get next to the New York dude, “Brom Garret of Manhattan, scourge of the Deadwood Faroe tables,” played by the delightful Timothy Omundson. You know as soon as you see him that Al’s scam is going to go perfectly, and he looks (and, eventually, talks) like just enough of a self-important, pompous jackass that you can’t feel fully sorry for him. Timothy Omundson is great at playing this character. His weird, upward pointing dandy mustache is perfectly suited to him.
Oh, fuck me. It has just occurred to me, at this very moment, on April 10, 2023, around 8pm, that Al has perhaps done this weird mustache thing specifically to copy the New York dude’s style in order to implicitly draw him closer and gain his trust. Genius. Or I’m overthinking it because of how closely I’m watching for the several hundredth time.
Anyway, Al appears to be trying to sell Brom Garret of Manhattan a gold claim, or get him to buy it from this Tim Driscoll fellow, and E.B. is supposed to be the other potential buyer and drive the price up. It’s…whatever. Tim Driscoll appears, shitfaced, eliciting a perfect, gleeful delivery of the line “My God, he is shitfaced!” from Timothy Omundson.
Bill and Charlie walk out of the increasingly chaotic-sounding main thoroughfare into a different bar. The action all stops dead as soon as they appear. The bartender tries to play it cool, as do most of the patrons, but there’s one man in a fancy-ish suit who abruptly stands up and starts fidgeting, geekily mentally preparing to come over and introduce himself.
The bartender, Tom Nuttall, makes a point of respecting Bill’s privacy by not saying his name, but asks to buy the round. Charlie shakes his hand far more readily than he shook E.B.’s, at which point the goofball in the fancy suit breaks up the chill hang. “A.W. Merrick, Mr. Hickok, of the Deadwood Pioneer.” Bill, accepting the inevitable, makes it clear that if the newspaperman is going to be sitting with them, he’ll be buying the drinks.
Merrick asks Bill what he’s doing in camp, and Bill exposits that there’s a warrant out on him in Cheyenne, where they were last. Merrick makes almost as awkward a comment as E.B. did a few minutes ago about warrants being a “professional hazard” for a man like Bill, then doesn’t get Bill’s retort. The bartender breaks up the horrible awkward silence with a big fake laugh.
A few tables over, a few dimly-lit drunks are furtively watching Hickok. One of them decides to make a point of telling his companions that he’s “not impressed” by Bill, and he intends to “gut that son of a bitch at poker” whenever he gets the chance. Everybody, meet Jack McCall.
And Bill…immediately buys into their poker game. Uh oh. Charlie tries to warn him away from the game. “You feel like playing now, Bill?” Bill feels like playing now. As he walks over to their table and sits down, Merrick leans over and says the worst possible thing Charlie could ever ask to hear at that moment:
“A grand surprise. I never thought he’d live long enough for me to meet him.”
A woman with what looks like cerebral palsy is cleaning up a room. Trixie is holding a piece of jewelry in her hand. She says, stone faced, “I need another gun.”
The woman sweeping up behind her asks, “For in case they beat on you?”
“Never mind what for.”
Back to the Gem. Driscoll and his overdone Irish accent sell Brom Garret the claim for $14,000, with no small amount of prodding from Al to get the deal done. The two of them spit in their hands (gross), the customary symbol of a binding contract, and Al takes them over to the bar to sort out payment. Then suddenly E.B. comes in and goads Driscoll into re-opening the bidding. Al looks pissed that his underlings have pulled this stunt. Brom goes all the way to $20,000—exactly the amount of credit he’s got from the Bank of New York, as it turns out—at which point E.B. ‘backs down’ and Brom celebrates having spent an extra $6,000 to buy a thing he’d already bought.
And again I say, Al looks pissed.
While Bill is playing poker, Charlie unburdens himself to the bartender. “Goes to look for a business opportunity and sits there losin’ at poker.”
Tom peers over towards the poker table. “Is he having a bad run? I can’t see that far.”
“You’d have to see back to Cheyenne! He’s lost his patience, stays in hands whether he’s holdin’ cards or not.” But Charlie has an idea. “How’s your crowd in here tonight, anyway?”
Tom demurs for a moment. “It’s alright.”
“It’s better n’ alright and you know it. You can see that damn much. Bill Hickok’s an asset to any saloon. Any joint he frequents.”
Tom’s immediately onto what Charlie’s suggesting. “You got a say in that? As far as where he drinks and gambles?” He offers $50 a night if Bill will hang out at his bar exclusively.
Charlie’s unimpressed. “Fifty? What a sport you turned out to be.”
Tom’s down to negotiate. “Well, you quote a figure.”
“Well, let’s come to one understanding: any figure I were to come up with, part of that you’d give to him to gamble or piss away however else he’s goin’ do it, and that’d be the only part he’d know about. The rest you’d give to me to hold in trust for his future.”
Tom smirks, thinking for a moment that maybe Charlie’s playing Bill. “Well that’d be your affair.”
And Charlie immediately becomes the best person we’ve met so far: “Listen to me. That man’s recently married! He needs to put a stake together! That’s all I’d be in this for.”
Tom gets it, and his smirk is gone. “I’d work with you.”
“Banish all headaches. Spit in your hand, Alma!”
No, oddly, we’re not in a brothel this time.
Brom’s wife Alma (Molly Parker) is self-medicating back at their hotel room. Brom comes in and announces that he’s bought the gold claim, showing his wife the spit-in-hand ritual that sealed the deal. Alma, clearly not as excited by this news as her husband is (especially given that she’s probably been married to him long enough to know he’s a fool), responds, “And then did everybody dry their hands?”
He goes into further detail. We learn that he thinks that Dan Dority, Al’s henchman, is his “secret agent.” Oh, boy. This is going to end so poorly for him. He does tell Alma that he had to spend the whole $20,000 to get the deal done, and her non-responsive “Oh, well” speaks volumes. He complains about having to “contact Father” in order to get access to more credit, confirming that he’s playing around with family money. Which makes sense: anyone gullible enough to look at the likes of Al and Dan and see trustworthy friends is probably not savvy enough to have made his own massive fortune.
Alma plays the dutiful wife, comforting him with another non-response. He smiles insipidly, concerns forgotten. “Wild Bill Hickok is here. I’m sure he’s going to prospect, too!” What a maroon.
And now we’re at a funeral. Of sorts.
A Chinese man—Mr. Wu, from context—tosses the body of Trixie’s gunshot victim into a pigsty as Doc and Johnny (Sean Bridgers), Al’s other henchman, look on. The pigs…how to say this delicately? Oh, fuck it. The pigs eat the guy. Pretty eagerly.
Meanwhile, Al is putting the screws to Driscoll as punishment for his audible on the play with Brom Garret.
“How much do you want?”
“Well…thirty percent of the twenty would be six. I want the six thousand.”
“What’s thirty percent of fourteen thousand? Who told you to take him to twenty?”
Driscoll, intimidated by Al’s stony, calm anger, negotiates against himself—down from the originally agreed-upon thirty percent of the sale price all the way to $20 in cash “and a piece of fuckin’ pussy,” while E.B. looks on, totally (toadily?) unwilling to speak up for him.
Then E.B. tries to ingratiate himself to Al some more with some nonsense about how crazy the play just got. Al, again, does not dignify any of E.B.’s bullshit with a response.
Back at the Bullock & Star Hardware tent, they’ve hired a man named Smith to look after their goods for a few hours while they go explore the camp. Smith gives a little backstory and lets slip that he’s also a preacher, and waits for Seth and Sol to give a little of their own background. Seth goes first: “I’m from Etobicoke, Ontario.” He came to Montana at seventeen, where he met Sol, who’s from Vienna, Austria.
“Austria! Wonderful where people are from!” Smith is, in his own way, just as weird as Farnum and Merrick, but it’s endearing on him. His remark about how nice it is to have friends, complete with a “I know that from previous experience!” is as ham-fisted an attempt to befriend his new acquaintances as you can possibly imagine, but with his goofy, slightly cock-eyed smile, it’s hard not to like him. And you can tell Sol and Seth are, at least, not utterly disgusted by the attempt. Which, after what we’ve seen of other people making first impressions in this episode, has to go down as a huge win for Reverend Smith. Hat tip.
Seth and Sol leave their tent in the Reverend’s care and walk out into the now-quiet camp, where a different fellow is waiting in the thoroughfare to make a much, much worse first impression than the Reverend just made. He looks so shifty, from the jump, that it’s obvious that whatever he’s about to say is going to be bullshit. Bill might even be able to beat this guy in poker.
“I seen a terrible thing tonight.”
Seth is instantly suspicious. “What’d you see?”
“I seen white people dead and scalped…” (Um…is their whiteness what makes it terrible?) “men, women and children with their arms and legs hacked off.”
Seth is immediately Marshal Bullock again. “Where? How many dead?”
“It was a whole family on the road to Spearfish. Oh my God, it’s them heathen, bloodthirsty savages!”
Two things, here: first, this guy clearly did it, or was part of it. Second, he doesn’t even do a good enough job pretending to be upset to make it difficult to figure out. He says it’s a family: parents, and two children. Reverend Smith, who’s come out to hear what’s going on, suggests that it was the Metz family, who were taking the Spearfish Road on their way home to Minnesota (Jane will not be too happy about this). But, if memory serves…they had three children.
Which Smith points out.
And the guy gets even sketchier about it, suggesting he could have miscounted the bodies because “they was all hacked and spread around.”
Seth says, “You probably need a drink.”
Back at the poker table, Bill is (still) losing at cards to Jack McCall, the jackass who wasn’t impressed with him. In fact, the jackass is even talking some shit to him. “Here I am, thinkin’ I’m fuckin’ bluffin’ the third eight, and I mistakenly outdraw the greatest gunfighter in the world.”
For Bill, this strikes a nerve. “Meaning the third eight.”
McCall is not too stupid to sense the immediate change in the atmosphere. “What?”
Bill never takes his eyes off McCall. “Saying you outdrew me. You meant the third eight.”
“Well, what else would I have meant?”
Jack says it, realizing how close he is to the edge. “Jesus Christ, should we shake hands or something? Relieve the atmosphere? I mean, how stupid do you think I am?”
Bill refuses to let him off the hook. “I don’t know. I just met you.”
Across the bar, Merrick is doing a deeply awkward impromptu speech on current events, this one about how Custer’s defeat (and the finding of gold) signalled the death knell for the Sioux. “I believe that within the year, Congress will rescind the Fort Laramie Treaty, Deadwood and these hills will be annexed to the Dakota Territory, and we, who have pursued our destiny outside law or statute, will be restored to the bosom of the nation, and…that is what I believe.”
(This speechifying is, as far as I can tell, a historically accurate representation of a custom: it’s an attempt to emulate some sort of East Coast politician thing, or perhaps a holdover from the Enlightenment ‘salon’ era. But here in a camp with no laws, Merrick trying to make an impression that way emphasizes how out of place he is. It’s Charlie’s turn to not dignify nonsense with a response. We need to start doing that more, instead of arguing back at people: just look at them like they’re gross, then very slowly and explicitly turn away. Oh, wait, we can’t, because instead of people acting like idiots in public, they’re mostly doing so from behind a screen. In the words of Alma Garret, “Oh, well.”)
Then Bill asks one of his card-table buddies, “Does bosom mean tit?” The guy reassures him that it does.
I love this fucking show.
Anyway, Seth and Sol and the sketchy guy who seen something terrible tonight have just walked into the very same bar! The sketchy guy would rather go about his business, but Seth wants to make sure that he tells people what he saw first—especially since there may be a kid out there still alive. The sketchy guy pushes back, and Seth is in full Marshal Bullock mode, intensely cross-examining the guy as he gets more and more adamant that he’s not going back out there tonight, and Sol quickly gets tired of the guy’s bullshit and announces the news to the bar at the top of his voice.
“You’re saying a family’s massacred by Indians on the road to Spearfish and one child may still be alive out there, and it’s no one’s concern in this saloon?”
Sketchy guy is pissed and scared. “GODDAMNIT! I ain’t goin’ back out there tonight after I just made camp with my scalp by sheer, dumb fuckin’ luck!”
(By the way, as Sol and the sketchy guy escalate the situation, another, equally sketchy-looking fellow paying keen attention to the conversation. He’s spying for somebody.)
(…for Al, I mean. Was that not clear?)
Behind him, Bill stands up from the poker table. “Ride out and show us the place.” The sketchy guy, looking like he’s about to shit himself, does another shot as Bill walks over to him. “I’ll garn’tee your scalp.” He looks at Bullock. “You ridin’?” Bullock and Sol are in. Merrick, the newspaperman, who is, at least, not a jerk, says he’d be “honored to ride, infirmities permitting.”
(The guy who’s been listening in leaves the bar ahead of the riding party, ostensibly to go tell Al what’s up.)
Bullock claps his hand hard on the sketchy guy’s shoulder in a way that brooks no argument. “Here we go.”
As the riding party leaves, Jack McCall stares out after Bill. “Wild Bill fuckin’ Hickok,” he drawls, in a way that could be construed as a little bit Single White Female if it wasn’t uttered by a truly filthy-looking drunk dude who just took a lot of his quarry’s money at a poker table. Drunk White Male? We’ll work on this.
Meanwhile, Bill and Bullock are walking next to each other towards their horses. “You a Marshal in Kansas?” Bullock asks, politely trying to downplay his new riding buddy’s fame. Bill drops his head for a moment, remembering his pre-warrant days. “Yeah. You?” Bullock confirms it. “Montana.”
Bill smirks. “Come to your senses now?”
Bullock laughs a little. “Yes, sir.” Then he’s back to being serious. “That fella’s story on this don’t hold water.” Bill agrees.
Al is locking his safe when Dan comes in to confirm Tim’s payment: “Twenty bucks, free poke with Wanda.” Al is still grumbling over Driscoll’s decision to raise the price on the claim without consulting with him first. Dan asks Al how badly Driscoll fucked up. “[The $20,000 is] the dude’s case money. Dude only out here three days, how’s the dude ask his people back home for more? They’re liable to send the Pinkertons.”
The Pinkertons? Who are they, you ask? They were a private ‘detective’ firm used by super wealthy people in the 19th century to protect their interests, usually by whatever means they felt like. Al isn’t worried about ‘the law’ so much as he is worried about falling foul of some nameless rich person who has the means to get revenge—and who likely wouldn’t have to give much of a damn about the law himself, in this hypothetical.
This is the first indication of what the biggest conflict will be in this show: it’s not going to be between Al and other saloon operators who may (will) show up and compete with him for business, or between ‘the law’ (Bullock/Bill) and Al or some shadowy gang of criminals with Al pulling the strings. It’ll be between regular people trying to make the most of an opportunity to make something of themselves (by whatever means are at their disposal) and the unseen, shadowy hand of the already-wealthy.
Anyway, to keep that monkey off their back for as long as possible, Al tells Dan to “shut the dude down.” Make sure he doesn’t find any gold, and hopefully he’ll get frustrated, take his toys and go home. Dan doesn’t think it’ll take long. “I reckon he don’t have much sand.”
Al isn’t ready to laugh about this yet. “And Tim Driscoll needs to be seen to.”
Dan is taken slightly aback. “No kiddin’, Al?”
(We’re all on the same page here, I hope? I don’t have to explain that Al has ordered Dan to murder Tim, right? Good. Didn’t think so.)
At this point, Johnny brings in the guy who was at Tom’s bar before the riding party was being put together. “Jimmy says the Sioux massacred a family on the Spearfish road.”
Jimmy says what he knows: “A hand come into Nuttall’s ‘Number 10’ telling the story, Mr. Swearengen. I never seen him before.”
Al is on the alert immediately. “Can you get him back here? Is he still at Nuttall’s?”
“They’re riding back out to where it happened. Hickok and some others are ridin’ with him.”
Then Al asks, pointedly, “Did the hand look happy to be ridin’ back out with Hickok?”
Jimmy shakes his head. “He didn’t look too happy.”
Al walks over to the two of them. “How many people downstairs did you tell about this?”
Jimmy shrugs. “A few.”
“A few?” Al winds up to throw a vicious punch—and hits Johnny instead of Jimmy. “You let him tell a few people downstairs before you bring this to me? How many people do you think the people he talked to have talked to by now? I guarantee at this minute my entire fuckin’ action downstairs is fucked up! Nobody’s drinking, nobody’s gambling, nobody’s chasing tail.” He slaps the table with anger and slightly overemphasizes: “I have to deal with that!”
(This is the last of my nitpicks from the pilot; Al wouldn’t have wasted the extra three seconds stating the obvious. He might have hit Johnny again instead, but him saying “I have to deal with that!” is like Merrick saying the Sioux have been doomed ever since they killed Custer. We fucking know, guys.)
As he’s getting dressed to make a public appearance downstairs, Al looks over at his informant Jimmy: “You want ten dollars or a ball of dope?”
“Ball of dope, please, Mr. Swearengen.” Al tells Dan to give Jimmy a ball of dope. Dan looks down at Johnny, still on the floor from being decked, and says, by way of excusing his boss’ actions, “He’s got a lot on his mind, Johnny.” Johnny still looks a bit confused as to why he was the one who got hit. Johnny’s going to look confused for a lot of this series. I don’t think it’s from this punch.
The riding party has got horses and torches. Off they go! Bill is out front, as befits his reputation.
The camera cuts to Johnny watching the riders pass by the window downstairs at Al’s, and then there’s a gunshot.
Dan follows it up with some thunder of his own. “Quiet! Al’s got words.”
Al then proceeds to school us all in what public speaking is supposed to look like out here in the lawless wilds.
“So I guess when it starts pissin’ rain in here you’ll know who to blame, huh?” He gets a chuckle. “Now, I know word’s circulating: Indians killed a family on the Spearfish Road. Now, it’s not for me to tell anyone in this camp what to do…”
(which tends to be the most effective thing someone can say right before they tell everyone what to do)
”…much as I don’t want more people gettin’ their throats cut, their scalps lifted, or any other godless thing that these godless, bloodthirsty heathens do…”
(now he’s moved into playing up the racial fears, also very effective in a…well, it turns out it’s effective in a whole lot of places and times, isn’t it? Yeesh.)
“…or even if someone wants to ride out in darkest night! But I will tell you this: I’d use tonight to get myself organized.”
(he’s pointing to his head, here, exhorting the crowd to think for themselves—especially if, in thinking for themselves, they think what he wants them to think.)
“Ride out in the morning clearheaded.”
(unsaid: ‘after buying many more rounds of drinks at my bar!’)
“And starting tomorrow morning, I will offer a personal fifty dollar bounty for every decapitated head off of as many of these godless, heathen cocksuckers as anyone can bring in, starting tomorrow, with no upper limit!”
(And that, right there? That’s how you start a pogrom. Not that Al is expecting any of these guys to be sober enough tomorrow morning to follow through on his offer, but fucking yikes.)
“That’s all I say on that subject, except next round’s on the house.” The crowd cheers. Al interrupts the cheer with some brilliantly theatrical false piety: “And God rest the souls of that poor family.” The crowd goes quiet, genuflecting and muttering ‘amen’ in turn and giving Al enough time to stick the landing: “And pussy’s half-price for the next fifteen minutes.”
The crowd goes predictably wild, any plans to investigate the massacre further completely forgotten. Al is an evil genius, in every possible sense.
Outside, Jane has made it to camp. She is wasted, and alone.
Johnny opens the door on some of Trixie’s coworkers. “Okay, ladies, let’s go!” Time for the half-price rush. Yikes again. One of the girls mutters, “She must’ve done some fancy fuckin’ to keep Al from killin’ her!”
Trixie, staring off at a wall, the dark-red bruises on her face the only non-sepia thing in the entire shot, receives her new gun from the woman with cerebral palsy. She sticks it in her cleavage and heads into the main barroom to work.
Jane barges into the Gem, asking after Bill and Charlie.
Al cuffs Johnny affectionately across the face. Johnny says “It’s alright, Al, I know you got a lot on your mind.” Al confides that he actually suspects someone named “Persimmon Phil” of the Spearfish massacre. Johnny understands…relatively quickly, for Johnny. “Make it look like Indians!” Al nods. “That is his speciality.”
Jane has just heard about the massacre. “Is it true? Indians killin’ white people?”
Dan tells Al that Jane is “the sewermouth who follows Hickok around.” I will just leave that there without comment.
Jane hears about the plan to ride out tomorrow. “Really? Tomorrow? WHAT’S YER FUCKIN’ RUSH? I’m goin’ now. Even without Bill. Even without Charlie. I know the road to Spearfish, and I don’t drink where I’m the only fuckin’ one with balls.”
She storms out, angrily, to laughter and catcalls. Al says, “Let her go. She ain’t takin’ any business with her.” He turns to Dan. “And don’t forget to kill Tim.”
Out on the Spearfish Road, the riding party has found the massacre. It’s ugly.
A pack of wolves are tearing at the corpses as the riders approach, but quickly run off.
Bullock sees a couple of wolves poking around a bush nearby. He scares them away with his torch, and then pulls the little girl out of a hole she was hiding in. She’s unconscious, but apparently alive.
At daybreak, as the party is on their way back to camp, they run into Jane, who is on her way out to find them.
Jane recognizes the little girl in Bullock’s arms instantly, and without any words passing between them, Bullock hands her off for the rest of the ride back.
“The hand” still doesn’t look happy to be out there.
Back in camp, Brom is getting ready for his first day at his new prospecting gig. He’s got a big hat and looks like a big doofus, and he timidly clears his throat a couple of times to try to get his (not actually) sleeping wife’s attention before he leaves.
Now I feel a little bit sorry for him. I’m sure it’ll pass.
Back at the Gem, Al is closing up shop for the morning. Ellsworth is sitting next to Trixie. How Ellsworth is still conscious after starting his drinking as early as he did is a mystery to me.
Al and Trixie make and hold eye contact. Al says nothing as he walks back upstairs. It doesn’t appear he has to say anything at all.
Ellsworth sees the look pass between them, then offers to pay a dollar a minute simply to sit with her and let her talk. “Get anything off yer chest you feel like.”
Trixie smirks. “What I got on my chest don’t concern you, Ellsworth.” We get one more look at the butt of her new pistol poking out of her decolletage.
Ellsworth sighs and raises his shot glass. “Fuck us all, anyway, for the limber-dicked cocksuckers we are.”
Ain’t that the truth.
E.B. lets Dan and Dan’s Big Knife into Tim Driscoll’s room. Driscoll is groggy and doesn’t know what’s happening. Dan says “Hush, Tim,” covers Tim’s mouth with his hand, and stabs him with the aforementioned Big Knife.
Alma is at her window now, watching her husband wait downstairs for his ‘secret agent’ Dan, and sees the riders arrive in the main thoroughfare. Brom tries to use his prospecting pan to shield himself from the dust they’re kicking up. It’s exactly as pathetic and ineffective as it sounds.
Merrick has led the party to Doc’s office, and is shouting to wake the man up. Doc looks very, very hung over. He also looks shocked and horrified that someone had the terrible sense to let a child into Deadwood in the first place.
(Okay, fine, that may not be what he’s shocked at. But come on! This is the scariest theme park ever, is it not?)
He takes the kid into his arms and starts to walk inside when Jane, inexplicably, pulls a gun on him. “Wait for me, goddamnit!”
Doc’s facial expression and non-reaction is the funniest thing in the episode, hands down.
Charlie tries to apologize for her. “She don’t mean nothin’, Doc, she’s just excitable.” Jane refrains from shooting Charlie for this bit of condescension. Lucky for him, she’s preoccupied with the well-being of the child.
We pan to Bill and Bullock, who both look back at the sketchy bastard who started this whole sequence of events. Bullock looks at Bill first, then back at Sol, and finally hops off his horse to go talk to the hand.
(Yeah, I saw it. Too late to change it now.)
As they watch Bullock approach the hand, Bill asks Sol, “What kind of hand is your friend with a gun?”
Sol, understanding the seriousness of the situation, plays it totally straight. “I don’t feel qualified to say.”
Now Bullock is doing a high-noon walk towards the hand, who’s still on his horse. Alma is watching from her room. Brom is watching from the front porch area of the hotel. None of the other extras who glide through the scene seem to be paying much attention.
The hand starts to announce his impending departure. “Well, I guess I done my duty, and I was, uh, glad enough to help.”
Bullock starts with a charm offensive. He even smiles at the guy a little. “Stick around, see if she lives.”
The guy isn’t having it. “Nah, I was, uh, glad enough to’ve done my duty, and that little one’ll be in my prayers.”
Bullock pulls his coat aside to show the hand (and all of us) his gun. “Get down off your horse.” Behind him, Bill climbs off of his to come back Bullock up.
The hand knows he’s caught, but won’t admit defeat. “Listen to me. I’m an innocent man. Ittus them Indians, goddamnit!”
Bullock shakes his head. “Too much ransacking, and too many goods left behind. Someone was after money.”
The hand asks, if he had something to do with it, why he would come to the camp.
Bill has arrived on the scene to answer this one. “Maybe when it got thick out there, you ran. Maybe the others was goin’ to ground, but you had to have pussy, or get to a Faroe layout. I’ve felt that way sometimes after a kill.” Weird bit of empathy to show there, but it does strengthen the case that he knows what he’s talking about.
Bullock has come to the end of the page. “Get down off your horse, or face the consequences.”
And the guy pulls his gun. Or tries to. Bill is significantly faster than he is (or than Bullock is, for that matter), and the guy is dead before he hits the ground.
Bill stands there cool as a goddamn cucumber. “Was that you or me, Montana?” he has the good manners to ask. He knows already.
So does Bullock. “My money’d be on you.”
Around them, the camp goes back about its business. No law at all, in Deadwood. Nobody’s asking any questions. Dan and Brom go out to Brom’s claim, Sol and Merrick and a few others come out to look at the dead guy as Bill and Bullock walk away into the background. Upstairs, Alma is so shaken by what she saw that she does another shot of the liquid opiate she takes “for her headaches.”
Back at the Gem, Al is getting ready for bed when someone knocks on his door. He pulls a gun of his own off of his nightstand and hides it under his blanket, you know, just in case, and we see in his expression the fatigue that comes from not fully trusting anyone ever.
Trixie walks into the room, places her new gun on the night table next to Al, takes off her dress and gets into bed next to him, laying her head on his chest. Her face is as inscrutable as his is.
One down, thirty-five to go.
Don’t expect every one of these pieces to go this long, if only because I won’t need to dive deep into multiple thematic introductions in every episode, but as watching this show is not for the faint of heart, I intend to do my level best to make sure that reading about it isn’t, either.
Prologue: “Swedgin Doesn’t Give a F***”: Why I Would Rather Re-Watch Deadwood for the Three Hundredth Time than Watch Succession