A lot of the pleasure of the early episodes of Deadwood was the way the unsettled gender politics of the frontier meant that women both have the opportunity and are forced into roles beyond the ones they expect of themselves. There are all these glimpses of the country that we’re going to become in Deadwood, and so it’s tremendously powerful to see the way the community is distant from our own in a moment of tragedy.
I knew William Bullock’s death was coming, but that spoiler (as validated by science!) actually made the run-up to that horrifying moment when the horse got loose, doubly tragic. The formal tenderness of Seth asking William, “Are you sometimes permitted coffee?” the tentativeness of their negotiation towards their first real conversation, shows what might have been between them. There could have been a world where Seth really felt like William was his son, where that affection was the basis for something solid and lasting between Seth and Martha. William is, as I suppose most doomed fictional children are, a little too good to be true. “Mr. Bullock’s been missing Father,” he tells his mother on the morning of his death, engaged in an act of kindness. “He talked to me about it this morning. If Pop liked a sunflower, I figured Mr. Bullock might as well.” But that doesn’t mean his loss doesn’t feel any more wrenching when it comes.
Before that, though, we see another tentative connection take another step forward, as Jane finds herself drawn, in a drunken stupor “Keeping half-assed vigil after the fact” outside of Joanie’s place. Jane is fragile about the blooming sympathy between herself and her new friend, snapping at Charlie when he inquires after the nature of their relationship when he finds that she plans to move into Joanie’s house. “Yeah, I’m gonna be Queen Hooker,” she tells him when he asks if they have a business arrangement. “You’re a keen fucking student of the human scene, Charlie.”
But it’s amazing, for a moment, to see the camp swept up in the tragedy of what befalls Williams when a horse gets away from Hostetler and the Nigger General and tramples him. The way the knowledge moves across the characters is a bravura set of shots, and it works beautifully because even given how crowded the cast is, we know these characters so well, and we can see the momentum of William’s death build. And it brings out the humanity in those we don’t know well. The sight of Richardson praying, holding up the antlers that he believed kept Alma Garrett safe on her nighttime, unaccompanied walk, is to me one of the most beautiful and distant images of the series. Before this, he is a victim, a stump, colorless in both body and personality. Now, he’s an embodiment of the wildness of the frontier, where old beliefs may not be as powerful as new ones. And yet, there’s also something lovely in the return of Jane’s patient, newly a minister, staring down E.B. Farnum in his determination to do service to the grieving Bullock family: “Knowing this camp’s without a minister I come to be on call to the family. Shall I ask elsewhere or will you tell me the name?” Jane’s soul and body may be in danger, but she’s saved something good by virtue of her cussedness.
And then there’s the heartbreak of the failure of the frontier as Hostetler and the Nigger General flee Deadwood in not unjustified fear of their lives. “There isn’t a white man on earth gonna stand against ropin’ us up now is there?” Hostetler panics in the moment after the stampede. “John Brown would have,” his friend replies. “Sheriff got a kid?” “And a wife,” Hostetler grimly replies. “I sold them the plot they built their house on.” A black man may be able to hold and sell property in Deadwood. But property rights aren’t the only ones that matter.