Season One, Episode Five: “The Trial of Jack McCall”
Note: each writing will spoil the episode in review but will not discuss any future episodes.
There’s a specific meditation for times of woe that goes, “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself; may I give myself the compassion that I need.”
More than a few of Deadwood‘s characters would do well to memorize the lines.
As the episode begins, people form a queue in the thoroughfare for a glimpse of Wild Bill’s body, partly to pay some respect for a man shot down in his prime but mostly to gawk at and to brush with celebrity; celebrity being what it was in 1876. Seth Bullock here seethes over the murder of a friend as well as the gall of others who try to capitalize on Wild Bill. Bullock is in misery and his common response to any type of hardship is anger. Even Cy and Al, they being the chorus from above and laying their competition at rest for the time being, note that Bullock is quick to temper.
From that vantage point, Al then pontificates to Cy on the camp as he illuminates Cy on fears that the U.S. will see Deadwood as a sovereign nation if they try and hang Jack McCall for the murder, or worse, that they’ll come along and rebuke all the land claims and the gold that goes along with them. Al Swearengen, never one to let an opportunity of control slip by, has the trial at his saloon so that he can sway the judge and jury into letting Jack go free, all of which may keep the United States government at bay or at least let them consider bringing in the territory to statehood. It’s one way to keep the hoopleheads with their money, and even better for Al, spending it at his joint. Combine these actions with Jack’s lawyer suggesting vengeance rather than cold-blooded murder for Wild Bill’s death and Jack is one step closer to freedom. One juror with animosity towards Hickok and another being Ellsworth looking to stay in Dan’s good graces, and Jack McCall is found innocent before episode’s end.
That outcome only multiples the suffering of Bullock, who already threatened to kill McCall himself and who feels as though he should do something more. It’s the calm, reassuring, and level-headed advice of Sol Star, his partner in business, that spurs Bullock into chasing down McCall for revenge, justice, or both to end “The Trial of Jack McCall.”
I haven’t mentioned enough about John Hawkes and his performance as Sol, a character who’s so great at seeing injustice, having the serenity of when to act, living in wise choices. A revelation on just how great Hawkes is in the role would come clearer after noting his turn in Winter’s Bone, where he’s all but the opposite of Sol Star.
Also in anguish is Jane, as to be expected. Rather than pure anger, she’s turned to a deep dive into the bottle and a trip to the woods. It’s there in her binge that she encounters Andy Cramed, left to die by Cy Tolliver simply for being sick with an illness that could spread like wildfire in the camp if Cy doesn’t send for the medicine needed to combat it. Poor Andy can do little in his state of feverish delusion except to moan apologies — for what, no one knows, though it’s likely to do with swindling people out of their money with Cy in years past — which prompts Jane to yell “Shut the fuck up!” Classic Jane.
Before leaving camp, Seth was given proxy by Alma Garrett to handle her claim. Her reasoning isn’t solely on seeking truths but she’s planning on the difficult task of kicking her laudanum habit. Luckily for Alma, she’s now got Trixie by her side to see her through her physical and emotion torment (as well as take care of the “that little one,” as Jane still calls her). Even though Trixie is there by Al’s command to get Alma on an even worse type of dope, it’s apparent early in their encounter that Trixie sees in Alma a sort of sister. Trixie has no plans on getting the widow deeper in addiction having been there and back herself. She even seeks the doctor’s help for the widow. If Al were to find this out, there will be hell to pay and a lot more worrying to be done.
It’s an episode of agony for most and their actions point to attempts at solutions: good, bad, and somewhere in between.
- Jane used the near-dead Andy as a sounding board to let him know that she wasn’t in any shape to help with the “little one,” but not to worry: Jane left her in good hands. Did she? Alma acts like a child is an benign alien.
- William Sanderson (as E.B. Farnum) has always been a “that guy” actor, from his days on Newhart, up through Lost, and even in True Blood. His work with David Milch’s writing, especially some great one-liners, is worthy of any award. In another moment of pity and hardship, he bemoans his state as a underling of Al Swearengen in an exquisite monologue: all he wants is to live in relative comfort, which includes but isn’t limited to regular bowel movements. Don’t count on it, E.B. But that speech is absolutely Shakespearean.
- Instead of sending Jewel, “the gimp,” whom Al wants around to berate, Al sends Trixie. Al even tells Jewel to sweep where he can’t see her. Everyone suffers!
- The reverend has some suffering of his own: he saw and could not answer for the death of so many in the Civil War, but he’s struck with a seizure in his tent. He pitifully shakes on the ground alone there.
Quote of the episode:
E.B. Farnum, whilst scrubbing bloodstains from his hotel floor and near tears: “You have been tested, Al Swearengen, and your deepest purposes proved: there’s gold on the woman’s claim! You might as well have shouted it from the rooftops. That’s why I’m jumping through hoops to get it back. Thorough as I fleeced the fool she married, I will fleece his widow, too, using loyal associates like Eustace Bailey Farnum as my go-betweens and dupes. To explain why I want her bought out, I’ll make a pretext of my fear of the Pinkertons. I’ll throw Farnum a token fee. Why should I reward E.B. with some small, fractional participation in the claim or let him even lay by a little security and source of continuing income for his declining years? What’s he ever done for me, except let me terrify him every goddamn day of his life, ’till the idea of bowel regularity is a forlorn fuckin’ hope? Not to mention ordering a man killed in one of E.B.’s rooms so every fucking free moment of his life, E.B. has to spend scrubbing the bloodstains off the goddamn floor to keep from having to lower his rates!”