As an organizations nerd, I’ve felt a certain amount of impatience over the last few episodes of Deadwood as Al Swearengen’s machinations have kept the law at large at a distance from the careful little government he’s building in the camp. But I will admit that I’ve been glad to have the breathing room to see the emotional relationships on the show develop. And boy were these two episodes rollercoaster rides of emotion, to quote the honorable Tracy Jordan.
It’s totally fascinating to see the odd and specific and unexpected gender dynamics of Al objecting to Seth Bullock’s affair with Alma Garrett not because he objects on moral grounds like E.B. Farnum, who snarks that “While little Sofia is off with her tutor, Mrs. Garrett consults with Mr. Bullock,” but because he thinks that it’s distracting the sheriff from his duties. And he has a point. Seth’s having time making veiled conversations with Alma — “Is that my worth?” she asks him at one point. “That’s the amount on deposit,” he tells her. “Your worth is considerably more.” — before falling into bed with her, and he’s short-tempered and ineffectual in dealing with crime, much less establishing himself as an alternate power center in town. That said, Al’s preferred means of rectifying the problem, fighting with Seth until both of them pitch themselves over the balcony, is not a particularly convincing piece of community organizing.
And even worse than the physical aftermath is watching Alma and Martha realize that they’re not the only women in Seth’s life. Especially in a season of Breaking Bad where Anna Gunn’s increasingly taking center stage as Skyler, it’s fascinating to see her in a similarly repressed role, just 120-odd years earlier. Whether it’s her clipped address to Seth as Mr. Bullock, or the look on her face when A.W. Merrick tells her, “The readers of the Black Hills Journal would be interested in your journey and your first impressions of the camp,” only to have Doc note that “You don’t have to give ’em all,” she’s a marvel. And while Alma and Seth are both naive to think that he’d ever walk away from his responsibilities, it’s still some beautifully vulnerable acting by all the parties involved.
Then there’s Jane’s return to town via what she refers to as “a rigging contraption of my own devising against repeated accidental falls that has temporarily malfunctioned.” It is an utterly glorious comedic moment, and the whole thing illustrates why Jane and Doc may be one of my all-time favorite male-female friendships on television. He can call her an “entangled inebriate” and talks her not just out of her militant insistence that everyone in town should “Keep your fucking distance. Remain on your side of the street. Do not interfere with me in any way.” And he can get her to take off her shirt, an act of extreme vulnerability for a woman who can see being courted by a Finnish man who thinks she’s another man as a joke. Doc may be the only person she’s comfortable being a woman with.