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A Lie Agreed Upon, Part I (Deadwood, Season 1 ep. 1)
Al: “Welcome to fucking Deadwood! Can be combative!”
Ain’t that an understatement.
I’m covering one episode this week instead of two, because otherwise this column’d be 15 pages long. There’s that much to unpack here. When we return to the Deadwood camp after the unspecified length of time between the end of Season 1 and the opening moments of Season 2, there’s much that’s familiar but there’s also much that’s shifted, in the way that lives and places will shift when you’re not looking at them. The first season of the show stuck, more or less, to the notion of each episode portraying a single day in the camp. Suddenly we’re far beyond that. In the interim between seasons, Joanie’s purchased her new place and invited her new friend Maddie (Alice Krige, aka Queen of the Borg) to join her. Eddie Sawyer has skipped town without so much as a by-your-leave (which is the only disappointing thing about this episode – I enjoyed Ricky Jay’s bruised decency in the role, even if/especially since that decency was so at odds with Eddie’s chosen profession). Jane semi-returns to the camp in a brief, utterly hilarious cameo appearance. Alma’s employed Sarah Paulson (Studio 60, Martha Marcy May Marlene) to be Sophia’s tutor because, y’know, there weren’t enough characters on this show already. Why settle for over a dozen major players when you can go for several dozen?
And the camp’s progress isn’t limited to the evolution of relationships and the disappearance of a con man/card sharp. For one, there’s a stagecoach on its way to town – a form of conveyance that, up ‘til now, we haven’t seen before. It’s no Transcontinental Railroad, but it illustrates visually that the camp we know has opened itself further to outsiders in the time we’ve been apart from it; the coach connecting the camp with the outside world in a way its never been connected before. The same goes for the line of telegraph poles we see being erected along the road to the camp – like the veins of the larger Body Politic slowly creeping their way toward Deadwood.
Most significant, maybe, is the sight of Seth’s makeshift family traveling along the (what I assume is spearfish) road, in the company of the prostitutes that Joanie has summoned for her new business venture. Until now, Deadwood has been almost totally child-free. Sophia is the only child we saw for the entirety of the first season, and note that when we first see her she’s leaving the camp with her family. Sophia’s mother seems pleased to be headed back to Minnesota, and we can guess that it’s because Deadwood is not a place to raise a family. And yet, in some senses, it’s becoming that sort of place out of pure necessity. William’s arrival in town *VAGUE SPOILER* won’t result in a sudden explosion of cuddly puppies around these parts, and will result, ultimately, in some hard, painful moments, but it *END VAGUE SPOILER* presages the ultimate future of any burgeoning community – the inclusion of families and the construction of ever-more-elaborate societal niceties to cater to those families. Al’s Deadwood is no place to raise a child, but Al isn’t the only person deciding what happens in Deadwood any longer. Not by a long shot.
Seth: “Will I find you’ve got a knife?
Al: “I won’t need no fuckin’ knife.”
Season 1 left us (and by “us” I mean “me”) with the impression that Al and Seth were arriving at a kind of truce together sparked by the greater good of the camp. A Lie Agreed Upon Part I explodes that notion swiftly and surely, making it crystal clear that, while Al and Seth are indeed similar men and may desire similar things for the camp, they still share a penchant for hot-bloodedness and a simmering anger toward one another. It’s darkly funny to watch as Al mouths off to Bullock about Alma when it was Al, just last season, who found his behavior dictated by Trixie’s actions. It serves nicely to point up the qualities that these men share, without erecting any (figurative) neon signs. Milch and Co. don’t want to hold your hands – they’re interested in exploring the complications of these characters, not in patiently explaining why a given character is acting in a given way at any given time. Put simply, they rile each other up and they do it by reminding each other too much of themselves. Seth and Al’s tussle, which sends the two characters over the Gem’s balcony and into the muddy street below, has no grandeur to it. It’s ugly, messy stuff and it serves to make a thematic point about this season as a whole: Al’s never been afraid to perform dirty work in the service of his own prosperity, but he’s always done it at some kind of remove – whether that’s from the safety of his own saloon or through proxies like Dan Dority. This season will see Al getting down into the figurative mud, and so its only appropriate that Al descend into the literal mud here at the beginning.
And with that, Seth’s wife and child arrive.
Al: “Cow-eyed kid looking from that coach; that’s what fucking unmanned me.”
The arrival of Martha and William Bullock saves Seth’s life, an irony considering that their arrival also effectively ends the life he’s lead in Deadwood up to this point. Seth is a stalwart man of honor (mostly), and so his move to take on his brother’s family obligations makes perfect sense for him as a character. Brilliantly, Milch and his writers allow that honorableness to coexist alongside Seth’s basic, messy humanity, and so we get scenes like the one in which Alma and Martha meet for the first time in an effort to set a world record for Sheer Awkwardness, or the movingly melancholy ending to the episode, in which Seth’s letter to Martha is read out loud to us as we watch him going to effectively say good bye to Alma. And speaking of Alma…
Al: “Does she cast her lot with the camp, furnish others here a chance to develop what they got? To hang on or even prosper?”
Seth: “You pie-faced cocksucker. Get in here and account for your insult.”
Al: “Or, with you at her ear – among other points of entry – instead of doing your civic duty, does she ship her fucking loot to Denver?”
Seth: “Civic duty? Opposed by her own and her dead husband’s family, to put her assets at play in a camp with no law or government worth the name?”
Al: “See as here where she lives and struck lucky, civic duty? Yeah.”
Once again Al is right, even as his motives tack purely toward the self-interested. What is community but a shared place each person invests themselves in? Alma has the chance to invest her considerable wealth in the community around her, and instead she’s shipping said-wealth off. That gold, put to use in building new structures, creating new employment opportunities, purchasing materials and paying laborers and etc. et al ad nauseum, could make a difference to the people of the camp. Sure, Al’s point is basically that it would profit him to see some of that wealth stay – but Al isn’t the only one who’d profit by a long shot. And more generally, this little exchange of dialogue speaks particularly forcefully at a time in our history when so many are protesting their economic plight in this country. One could argue that such a plight is the result of shipping metaphorical gold – in the form of labor jobs, decent living wages, and availability of opportunity – elsewhere.
Life is getting away from Seth and Al as surely as the camp is getting away from its inhabitants – growing and evolving and becoming a new, strange thing to those who know it. We can feel and even empathize with Al’s frustration as he learns that Commissioners have been appointed over Deadwood’s fortunes, and that all of them are from Yankton. These are men who’ve never spent a day in Deadwood’s streets, and who now presume to claim political ownership of them. This sense of uncontrollable evolution is a theme that the show will continue to play with – to great and lasting effect – as it goes on. Al’s feelings of loss of control start to externalize themselves here as a pain in his belly. This’ll grow into something genuinely important this season.
The camp’s evolution from something these men can control into something these men have to accede to is also illustrated in Bullock’s story here. He came to Deadwood as a man wanting to establish a new sort of life for himself. Over the course of the first season the demands of the growing camp and the demands of his own violent blood drew him back to wearing the symbol of the law. Here, after having essentially hidden his formalistic marital obligation to the widow of his brother, that unwanted life of obligation comes barging into the life he’s carved in the camp. In a real sense Bullock moved to a place without law to escape himself, but his self – the sense of (self) righteousness, the duties he feels the need to perform – comes clawing back to him. The camp’s evolution has forced Bullock into a position he clearly doesn’t want to be in.
But as Al remarked back in Sold Under Sin, he does a lot of things he doesn’t want to do. Like, as for instance, allying himself with Bullock. As Dan remarks wisely in this episode:
Dan: “Al’s gonna be calling numbers to the fold now that he can’t trust like us. Some he don’t even like. We’re joining America. And it’s full of lying, thieving cocksuckers that you can’t trust at all – governors, commissioners and whatnot. By God, that’s just the new way of things. And you just gonna have to get used to it, Johnny.”
That this line comes from a man whose first acts on this show were to (a) defraud a man and then (b) kill him via cliff-dropping is hilarious. If you ever want to understand why it is that human beings end up giving control to monsters over and over throughout history just ask yourself this question: where would you rather spend an afternoon? In Bullock’s hardware store? Or Al’s Gem?
For many of us, the answer to that question is likely to be the Gem. We may lie about that fact – to ourselves and to each other – but the facts of history tell the truth to us regardless. We all lie when we attempt to convince ourselves of what we’d like to be true, and Deadwood’s characters are no exception. Martha and Seth wordlessly agree to lie about her knowledge of Alma, Seth arguably lies to Martha again in the letter describing the house he’s built for her in terms that suggest he welcomes their arrival, when as we can see that arrival means the severing of the relationship that has blossomed between Seth and Alma, who wordlessly agree to lie about their budding intimacy.
They’re all lies agreed upon.
- Jane’s sole contribution to this episode: Rising up drunkenly from her horse to yell “cocksuckers” at the passing stagecoach.
- Sol’s pistol is laughably tiny, and functions nicely as a wordless comment on the kind of man he is.
- Cy’s barely-contained fury over Joanie’s new independence is genuinely frightening to behold. I’ve heard it said that David Milch wanted Powers Booth to play Al, but that Booth took ill and McShane took over. I’m exceedingly glad this happened – because McShane is gloriously good, but also because I can’t imagine Booth conveying any kind of veiled or grudging warmth in the role, so convincing is he as a man who’s ice all the way to his twisted core.
Alma: I was raised believing dereliction of duty is the one sure way to happiness.
- That’s exactly how she was raised, as we’ve now seen. That she can giggle about such a thing says much about how thoroughly Alma has fallen for Bullock.
- Al’s impression of E.B. Farnum is glorious to behold.
- Slippery Dan is played by Channon Roe – otherwise known as Jack O’Toole from the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Zeppo.” Haven’t seen it? Rectify that immediately. It’s available on Netflix instant.
- As always, all screencaps are courtesy of Magic Hours