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One Vile Rewatch: Deadwood Season One Episode 6 – “Plague”

(Deadwood: The Movie premieres on May 31st, nearly 13 years after the show’s original cancellation. In anticipation for the new film, Randy’s re-watching the entire series, in a new column titled One Vile Rewatch.)

“The Trial of Jack McCall” was an interesting test run for Deadwood’s infantile civilization, though it proved ill equipped for the rigors and complexities of an advanced society. The town assessed an internal conflict, made a plan, got some jurors, and even a magistrate; but the corruption of a lawless land offered a particular type of democracy that left a bad taste in the mouth. Regardless of the outcome, Deadwood explored the possibilities of bringing Deadwood’s many fragmented entities together for a shared cause – a dry run that would prove to be of prescient importance in “Plague,” when it becomes clear to everyone outside the Bella Union that small pox has arrived to the South Dakotan camp.

“Plague” may not be the most dynamic, moving hour of Deadwood – but with so many threats lurking just on the fringes of the camp, it is able to conjure the same kind of kinetic tension seen in the series’ best episodes.

“Plague” doesn’t begin in Deadwood, though: it begins in the mountains, where Seth is quietly making his way back to the camp after his attempt to hunt down (and mostly likely kill) Jack McCall. But with the knowledge of the brewing smallpox situation back home, the opening shots of “Plague” feel much more sinister than reflective; the more air and land is visible in the frame, the more oppressive and frightening those opening shots feel: part of being a “free” land means it is free from the protections of society, and everything from the plants, to the native inhabitants, to the fucking air could kill you unexpectedly; there’s a certain fear (and in many ways, excitement) that comes from that knowledge; too bad Seth barely has time to reflect on it before my point is being proved, and a Sioux comes out of nowhere and nearly kills him.

In one of the show’s more unsettling moments, the camera lingers on Seth as he bashes in the Sioux’s head with a rock, a rather disturbing release of the stress building up inside him since Bill’s death. Once again, Deadwood draws parallels between the Montana marshal and the English-bred saloon owner (two men willing to go to brutal lengths to survive), even though they aren’t even in the same zip code in “Plague”; Seth brute forces his way through a fight with another human, and Al carefully ballets around his unseen enemy, a fight more deadly than anything Seth might run across in the woods. We don’t spend a lot of time with Seth out in the woods (for good reason; he’s unconscious for most of it), but his scene opening the hour is quite important, because it posits a question Deadwood, as a town, is about to face: how does one survive a surprise onslaught, especially when its invisible and viral?

The more important parallel drawn in “Plague,” however, is the one drawn between Cy and Al, the two businessman who find themselves tasked (by the good Doc) to formulate a plan to deal with the impending smallpox outbreak, before it envelops the camp in fear, sweat, and painful, ugly sores. Their appearances beget their approaches to the situation; though Cy is purportedly more high fashion and high class than Al Swearengen, he is surprisingly hesitant to get involved in the relief efforts. Where Al sees the potential income lost as a byproduct of everyone being sick and dying, Cy’s seemingly content to let things wash out the way nature decides; being a variable that he can’t control with intimidation and slick talking, Cy’s noticeably shaken by the potential damage that could be done, if it were to be revealed he was the culprit behind the camp’s impending demise.

The evolving dynamic between them is fascinating; Cy’s buttoned up approach to hustling everyone in Deadwood makes a wonderful companion to Al’s no bullshit, put the fucking cards down on the table approach to life. The meeting called in the Gem is the highlight of this in “Plague”; when Cy reluctantly mentions he has a lot in the Chinese neighborhood he’s sitting on, Al immediately calls him out for his savvy business ways. Al, never one to turn down a new stream of revenue, is almost impressed with how quietly Cy’s become a major force in this town – if he wasn’t so threatened by his presence, the kind of Euro-inspired business and fashion aesthetic Al’s so openly rejected since the earliest days of his life. Cy provides a strange mirror for Al to view himself through; and in “Plague,” he is clearly left wanting by what he sees in the reflection.

Al’s primary concern in the hour isn’t the threat of the Bella Union; it’s making sure the camp doesn’t empty out from the plague – even though it’s already there, and they are at least a week away from anyone even getting to a place where there might be a vaccine (poor virgin Joey didn’t even make it to Nebraska before the small pox hit him). The last thing anyone wants is a public panic; and so, they help Merrick craft the language of his article, massaging the truth of the situation to fit a specific narrative where smallpox was just a little nuisance, one already on the path to being extinguished.

Now, the quickly growing body count in the pest tent suggests otherwise; but “Plague” is less concerned with the human cost of small pox in Deadwood, than it is observing so many of its characters massaging the truth to fit their needs. Alma faking being high, Farnum showing concern, Jane screaming at everyone – all of these characters are acting in specific self-interest, taking convenient paths around the truth without straight-up lying in anyone’s face – in an episode where Al is acting less and less like himself, the rest of the camp is picking up the slack, the script for “Plague” an elaborate menagerie of characters obsessed with perception.

The one person who is struggling to keep up this facade, however, are Cy’s business partners; in the wake of Andy’s unceremonious dumping in the woods (which he survives from, as we learn from Jane this episode), both Eddie and Joanie appear disillusioned with Cy’s brutal, uncompromising approach to his business. Joanie’s fumbled grift of Ellsworth is a new sticking point, too, a tough pill for both of Cy’s associates to swallow: after all, Ellsworth isn’t just another douchebag with some money and a penchant for being an asshole. For all intents and purposes, he’s about as close as Deadwood can get to a good, honorable person – and because of that, the manipulation we see in the episode’s opening moments is empty for both Joanie and Eddie.

Cy stepping in to try and patch things up is the bedrock of “Plague”; though the newest power player in town, Cy’s ruthless cunning has quickly turned him into the camp’s lightning rod. Ever an intimidating presence, Cy looms over everyone, his sharp skills of deduction only matched by the intoxicating (and misleading) gleam in his eye when he smiles. Powers Boothe does not get the credit he deserves for this performance; in every scene of “Plague,” Boothe is tasked with capturing Cy’s hardened personality from a different angle. When it comes to massaging the truth, Merrick’s Deadwood Pioneer has nothing on Cy Tolliver; unfortunately, both Eddie and Joanie are beginning to see through the facade, the only thing holding them back from revolting being the clearly vindictive, dangerously violent streak running through Cy’s core, which we’ve gotten but a few glimpses of early on.

For both Joanie and Eddie, massaging away that truth gets harder every day; Joanie’s clearly struggling in her role at Cy’s side, the one plot point of “Plague” that feels a bit underdeveloped. Where we get the haunting image of Eddie practicing his dice rolls, clearly reflecting on his place in the world, all we get with Joanie is a scene of her lying in bed, depressed to the point she isn’t bring the atmosphere Cy so pointedly demands the Bella Union maintain. She’s starting to slip – and unlike the Pioneer, Cy doesn’t mince words when he tells Joanie to button her shit up.

Cy’s not a person to be fucked with; like Al, he understands the depths of his own evil, and is perfectly content with their existence. Where Cy gets more interesting as a character, though, is the conflict between his personality, and the appearance he projects on the world. Cy thinks himself better than Al, by the way he dresses and the way he goes about his business; where Al dresses like he talks (plainly and to the fucking point), Cy represents the more hypocritical, modern capitalistic sensibilities, the idea that you can sell someone on a lifestyle, even if it’s one they’ll never be able to actually afford.

In a lot of ways, Cy is the evolution of Al, the embodiment of early capitalism come to life; but with that, comes internal conflicts and contradictions Al never has to face, being the simple, straightforward man that he is, Al still maintains the upper hand. It informs their very different approaches to the small pox problem; where Al never runs from a complication, Cy shies away from it, just wishing to mold the world to fit his needs. Al, lets the world dictate terms to him; and it’s there where “Plague” ultimately finds its footing, helping shape the many interpretations of truth the people of Deadwood constantly tell each other and themselves, using Al and Cy as its two philosophic pillars.

The one thing that unites us all is death, however – and it’s that unifying tension that gives “Plauge” some much-needed dramatic propulsion. The unseen enemy is the most dangerous, after all, and “Plague” plays with that in fascinating ways, from Seth’s sudden ambush in the woods, to the withdrawals Alma just can’t seem to shake (except just long enough to convince Al she’s still doped up), to whatever is causing the seizures afflicting the Reverend. “Plague” may not be the most dynamic, moving hour of Deadwood – but with so many threats lurking just on the fringes of the camp, it is able to conjure the same kind of kinetic tension seen in the series’ best episodes, the added dash of the show’s poetic scripting rounding out a rather impressive, if understated, hour.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Sol and Trixie briefly chat in the thoroughfare, a wonderful little moment that continues to build out the layers of Deadwood’s many interwoven relationships.
  • “Declare or shut the fuck up” is another all-time great Deadwood quote.
  • When one of Al’s prostitutes begins feeling unwell (and paranoid that she’s going to catch smallpox), Al tells her to “stick to handjobs for a few days,” about as forgiving and empathetic as you’d expect from the old prick.
  • Charlie’s new job has bought him some new clothes, a touch of impressive costuming work that really helps inform how Charlie’s stature has changed in his short time away from the camp.
  • “You could’ve just said amen” Al says to the Reverend, after witnessing him have a seizure on the Gem floor.
  • Farnum is now renting Wild Bill’s room out for $2 extra a day. This is the same son of a bitch who tried to put in $2 for the smallpox efforts, until admonished severely by Al in front of everyone.
  • “Be brief.” “Be fucked.” Never change, Jane.
  • Dan wants to know why the Pioneer doesn’t “have news of the baseball.” After all, Chicago’s starting a team, and there’s this new baseball league everyone’s talking about.
  • Farnum curses himself as he walks through the thoroughfare, noting to himself that Al is a cue ball, while he is stuck as a regular billiard ball, bouncing around the town as Al sees fit.
  • “bill’s dead, Charlie.” is there ever a moment where Seth isn’t so… well, Seth?
Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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