"Deadwood Late Pass: Courting Rituals In ‘No Other Sons Or Daughters’ And ‘Mister Wu’"
When you’re building a new society from the muck and outside of established law, it turns out you don’t just need to make rules and appoint officials: you have to establish some norms as well. And it turns out in a world where women are a scarce commodity, where a Chinese settler plays a key role in a certain kind of trade, some of the rules are going to suspended, even as some characters cling to outmoded conceptions of honor.
In these couple of episodes my favorite interactions were those between respectable men and the whores who have caught their attention. Sol’s set apart from the rest of the camp by his Jewishness, though not necessarily in an aggressive way. “Centuries of fucking inbreeding attune him to the necessities of the times,” Al declares, embracing a positive stereotype to praise Sol and Seth. “You did a fucking good job here.” So perhaps that’s what draws him to Trixie, insisting in an earlier episode that she be allowed to visit the store whenever she pleases in the face of E.B. Farnum’s snobbery, and finally stating his intentions to Seth and then seeking her out. “I don’t want what I can’t have, Mr. Starr,” Trixie demurs, having recently experienced the stress of rising above what she believes is her station in helping Alma. “If I did come, I’d buy an ax, a hammer, and a saw.” But Sol isn’t letting her go that easy. “All fully stocked,” he promises her, ceding the conversation but not the campaign. “And we never ask the purpose of a customer’s purchase.”
By contrast, Charlie and Joanie meet at a moment of mutual insecurity, as Charlie’s opening his freight business and Joanie’s looking for a place to open a business of her own, but really just trying to stay away from Cy. Their conversation starts beautifully formal, with Charlie treating Joanie like a lady, no matter her profession. “You off some place where you need an escort or the like?” he asks her. “I’m pretty much just walking around,” she confesses. Emboldened by her honesty, Charlie admits that he picked his frock coat “for a good appearance and all but it’s pretty much out of my path,” while Joanie confides that “I’m just a whore, though. I run the whores for this man, but as far as being ready to run a place…I don’t know what got into me.” On the verge of great adventures, of potentially momentous changes in their status, both Charlie and Joanie are a little shy.
Al, by contrast, is brash, but he’s willing to be flexible. He kicks off the meeting at the Gem establishing Deadwood’s government, with a hearty “I’m declaring myself conductor of this meeting, as I have the bribe sheet,” but he’s willing to let E.B. stand as mayor even as he wishes someone else would object. That new post of course doesn’t stop him from warning the new first citizen of the community “E.B.: steal none of this money,” while they’re stuffing bribe envelopes. “Gratiutous, hurtful, and unnecessary,” E.B. mumbles. Later, he lays down a marker, marching the amnesiac Reverend out of the Gem both in the name of improving his business and preserving the Reverend’s reputation. But even though Cy insists that Al shouldn’t kill one or both of the addicts who stole Mr. Wu’s shipment because “A white dope fiend’s still white,” Al deviates from that norm, killing his own man to avoid offending Cy but giving Mr. Wu his satisfaction. Capitalism is a great compulsion to flexibility.
Not all courtships end so happily, though. The Reverend is increasingly an abandoned lover, mourning that “Now the Word does not take me when I read. Nor do I feel Christ’s love…This is God’s purpose. The not knowing the purpose is my portion of suffering.” Jane leaves town out of her own sense of disgrace to Bill’s memory, declaring that “I will not be a drunk where he’s buried, and I cannot stay fucking sober.” And Alma and Seth are practically vibrating with the tension of an attraction that can have no satisfactory or honorable resolution.