‘Deadwood’ Late Pass: ‘The Trial Of Jack McCall’ And ‘Plague’

One of the reasons I think that there’s a case to be made that Deadwood is superior to the other television shows in its class is how committed it is to exploring the various ways that women fight for their self-determination. In The Wire, we have Kima and Snoop, but they’re fairly similar in their gender expression and the amount of status they hold in the organizations of which they’re a part. In Mad Men, the main female characters are fairly tight variations on a theme, our three graces being a non-working housewife, a wife in a low-status, gender-bounded job, and an unmarried woman pushing the boundaries of what jobs are appropriate for women. Skylar and Marie are tightly-wound opposite faces on a coin in Breaking Bad. Carmela Soprano is a fantastic, richly textured character, but her circumstances are not precisely relatable. None of this is to say that these other women are not important, and sometimes immortal, creations, but none of these shows have as broad a conception of womanhood as Deadwood.

The show’s done a beautiful job of bringing together three of its female main characters together in protection of Sofia Metz, the one survivor of the raid by road agents. Jane is her initial, rough-hewn protector, who may be a drunk, and drunker than usual due to Bill’s death, but is together enough to leave Sofia with Alma, who may be a laudanum addict, but at least has her own room rented up for the time being. And Trixie, who until now we’ve mostly seen as a victim of violence at her johns’ hands or at Al’s, joins Alma initially as part of Bill’s scheme, but decides to help Alma get clean and to take care of Sofia. The ties of gender and addiction are stronger than fear. “First I was afraid I was going to die,” she tells Alma about her withdrawal. “And then I was afraid I wouldn’t. And then one day I woke up free.”

It’s fascinating to me how the show is handling Doc’s approach to addiction varies based on each woman. “I don’t know that this is the time for you to stop taking the laudanum,” he tells Alma when she reveals that she’s broken her bottle and doesn’t want more from him, effectively telling her to drug away her grief and get out of town rather than woman up and stick it out in Deadwood. But to a certain extent, he respects Jane’s drinking. “I’ve been drunk awhile, correct,” she tells Doc after she musters up the courage to wait in his office in one of the most touching scenes in the episodes I’ve watched, a coward constantly combating her fear. “What the fuck is that to you?” “It was kindly meant,” he tells her. “I’d ask a farmer how his crop is doing.” Perhaps Doc’s more understanding of Jane’s addiction because it’s alcohol rather than opium (he’s more understanding of Trixie’s request for powders once she explains that she took them to help beat her addiction), or because she presents herself as more like a man than a woman. But he also respects her potential skills as a doctor, hiring her to help him nurse smallpox victims and encouraging her to drink outside working hours “like I do.” But in any case, addiction is a powerful manifestation of women’s dependence in a world where you may not have a steady man, but you can still have a jones.

Then, there’s Joanie, whose story has yet to converge with that of the other women. I actually find Kim Dickens’ character on Treme profoundly frustrating because Janette’s simultaneously dependent and a defiant ass, but she’s so wonderful as Joanie that it’s making me retroactively like Janette more. Part of what I find compelling about her character is the particularity of her situation, a lesbian in a long-term professional relationship with a man that’s clearly cemented by personal affection. But she also has a particular role in the camp, as the one person there who doesn’t quite seem to see the potential in it. Cy can’t understand why she’s still depressed given that they’ve moved from a place she didn’t like to one where she could get a fresh start, but she tells him he can’t know “how it feels when there isn’t one,” not really. Even though she’s a wrangler of whores, there’s a purity to Joanie, something in her that rebels at turning out a man with smallpox to die in the woods. Of the women in the show, she’s the one with the most concrete power, but it’s not clear to me that she is actually tough enough to survive in Deadwood.

I realize this meditation is a substantial diversion from the main event of these two episodes, Jack McCall’s trial and flight from town, and Seth Bullock bowing to the needs of his community and his conscience, despite snapping, “I’m not supposed to do anything, can we agree to that. Not one fucking thing that I don’t decide that I’m gonna,” and going after the coward who escaped justice himself. Al Swearengen’s cussed eloquence on the whole situation is, of course, a masterpiece of education on the subject of what makes a nation and state recognition:

For outright stupidity, the whole fucking trial concept goes shoulder to shoulder with that cocksucker Custer’s thinking when he headed for that ridge…We’re illegal. Our whole goal is to get annexed to the United fucking States. We start holding trials what’s to keep the U.S. fucking Congress from saying ‘Oh, excuse us, we didn’t realize you were a sovereign community and nation out there. Where’s your cocksuckers’ flag? Where’s your fucking Navy or the like? Maybe when we make a treaty with the Sioux, we should treat you people like renegade fucking Indians?’

Somebody really needs to get McShane a job teaching American history classes or political science or something. American test scores would go through the roof. But I also really appreciate the emergence of A.W. Merrick in these couple of episodes as a journalist and as an architect of the community. He’s a wonderful character, a bumbler who sneezes through Wild Bill’s funeral but recognizes the failure of the trial and what it means for Deadwood’s readiness for law and justice, a renewed drinker who also knows that you don’t cross Al Swearengen on wording in an advertisement. There’s a low-key nobility to Merrick, who is a lovely and long-forgotten argument for why journalism should be civically engaged rather than coldly aloof.