One of the biggest challenges of a show or movie that depicts real historical figures is managing the space between the audience’s understanding of who those people were and how the other characters see those historical figures in their context. Thus far, one of the reasons Deadwood feels as powerful to me as it does is because of the way it deals with the myth and death of Wild Bill Hickock. There are characters like Calamity Jane and Alma Garret, who are at least partially bought into the idea of Hickock as a hero. “I don’t know if you ever should learn English,” Jane tells Sofia Metz, around whom she’s trying, and failing, to avoid cursing around. “But then I couldn’t tell you about Bill sleeping in the hallway out of thought for others.” Bill’s able to pull himself together around people who don’t, or can’t, or refuse to see the cracks in him, tickling Sofia, commissioning Seth Bullock to stand in his place to help Alma.
Then, there are people who see the gap between the myth of Wild Bill and the reality of the self-destructive man, like Charlie Utter, and they are those it’s most uncomfortable for Bill to be around. “I’m doing what I want to do,” Bill tells Charlie in one of the most touching scenes in the series so far. “Some goddamn time a man’s due to stop arguing with himself. Feeling he’s twice the goddamn fool he knows he is because can’t be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime without fucking it up. I don’t want to fight it no more. And I don’t want you pissing in my ear about it. Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?”
And then there’s the person that Wild Bill seems to be most comfortable with in Deadwood, Seth Bullock, a man of action, someone who isn’t disappointed by Bill’s failure to be a legend and is happy to see him as a man. That Wild Bill will ride out to see what happened to the Metz family, that he’ll shoot a road agent, that he’ll help with construction, seems to be enough for Bullock. And Bullock’s the one person who is seen by Wild Bill as much as Bullock sees him — Wild Bill sees before Sol, or anyone else, does that Bullock isn’t going to be happy running a hardware store. “Pretty quick you’ll have laws here and every other damn thing,” Bill muses when he finds Seth hammering frame beams together in a fit of insomnia. “I’ll settle for property rights,” Seth tells him, only to have Bill respond with a skeptical “Will you?”
That convergence between reality and myth is what makes the final squence of “Here Was a Man” so surreal. There are enough people who believe in the legend of Wild Bill Hickock for him to feel unkillable, for Jack McCall’s shooting of him to feel like an almost science-fictional act — if a man’s too big to die, who’s to say that the roomful of witnesses will behave in a normal way? It’s only when Bill is slumped over his hand of cards that normality reasserts itself, that the mob tracks Jack down in a howl accentuated by a man riding into town brandishing the head of a Sioux, who were wrongly blamed for the attack on the Metz family. There is no justice in Deadwood yet, just madness and accident.
Wild Bill’s death feels, to me, a bit like Ned Stark’s, though he’s less clearly set up as the main character, so I suppose it must have been less shocking when it happened. His murder is a necessary death of ideals, particularly for Jane, who is shaping up to be my favorite character in the series. Without her to stare down folks like E.B. Farnum, a twitchy little rat of a man who questions Jane’s gender, then, when Bill proposes that he and Jane share a room to take care of Sofia Metz, objects that “It might raise questions of decorum,” only to back off and admit that those questions would only occur to “No one of consequence, I suppose” under Bill’s withering gaze, Jane is going to have to figure out her own way to fit into Deadwood — or to decide that she can’t live in the burgeoning society growing up there. Alma’s relationship with Seth won’t be mediated by Bill anymore — and Seth’s left as the most credible law enforcement figure in town.
And a spur to Al Swearengen’s paranoia is removed, though that doesn’t stop him from painting dark visions of the situation in Deadwood. “Deep fucking thinkers in Washington put forward that policy,” he tells Cy and Joanie when he pays a visit to his new rivals at the Bella Union. “This year, though, so many soldiers deserting to prospect they gave up the ghost and let us all back in. And of course, Custer sorted out the fucking Sioux for us, so we’ll now safe as in our mothers’ tits.” And he’s still trying to hammer out agreements to preserve his advantages. “Women? Would we want to agree on rates?” he asks Joanie, trying to limit the chance that the Bella Union will steal his business. “As far as pussy,” Joanie tells him coolly, “we’ll want to let the market sort itself out.” With Hickock out of the picture, the real lines of battle in Deadwood are drawn.