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One Vile Rewatch: Deadwood Season One Episode 5 – “The Trial of Jack McCall”

Wild Bill’s murder certainly wasn’t the first suspicious death in Deadwood – shit, it wasn’t even the first murder of the week in South Dakota’s renegade camp. But as a man of “reputation,” Bill’s death holds a different weight in the ramshackle camp – in a strange way, it brings the whole camp together at the beginning of “The Trial of Jack McCall”, if only to get a glimpse at a dead legend. And it was foretold by Bill himself just an episode ago, the forging of a community is a catalyst for all “that other damn stuff” that comes with a forming society, the other parts of the body the good Reverend makes so many bumbling references to in Deadwood‘s fifth episode.

“The Trial of Jack McCall” poetically observes an uncertain world on the precipice of change, an astute reflection on how the powerful, the meek, and the downtrodden alike respond to such uncertainties.

Deadwood’s identity is slowly shifting, and “The Trial of Jack McCall” is like a metaphorical dry run for Deadwood assuming the role of an annexed community; and also, a chance for so many other characters to try out different roles for themselves, to varying degrees of the effect. Some don’t work out so well: the Gem proves to be a poor location to hold a trial, and the population’s laughable lottery approach to assigning  judge and litigators certainly doesn’t seem a fair and just way to hold a murder trial (which again, is being staged in a brothel). But it also speaks to a number of characters on a personal level; “The Trial of Jack McCall” projects some of the show’s protagonists as a mirror image of themselves; Bullock the vengeful hunter, Trixie the mother, and Cy, a man suddenly in charge with the camp’s literal survival.

These mirror versions are layered and fascinating; Alma doesn’t want to be known as a drug-addled widow, walking back to her father an indignant failure. But that doesn’t mean she fancies herself an effective mother to the orphaned child left in her care (when Jane disappears on a depression bender), nor does it mean she’s ready to be the face and muscle of her own interests around town.

This creates a ripple effect; not only does Alma have to be sober and hyper attentive to the world around her, but she also must rely on other people, trying to fit into shoes they may not be comfortable in themselves. Bullock’s time as a marshal made him an effective proxy for the government in Montana, but in South Dakota, it remains to be seen whether he has the patience, or the foreknowledge, to manage the widow’s affairs regarding the gold claim.

The more fascinating transformation we see in Alma’s presence, however, is Trixie, who gets out of the muck and cum-littered halls of the Gem when she’s assigned to help Alma take care of the orphan. Though her face is still bruised (remainders of her old identity still hanging around), Trixie is a completely different looking and acting person when she’s outside Al’s influence, a woman who shows great empathy and care, when dealing with the two lost souls sitting in the fanciest room of Farnum’s shitty establishment. She’s also a former drug addict herself, drawing distinct parallels between herself and Trixie whenever they share a scene together in “The Trial”, a strong moment of shared strength found in an unexpected place (the upper class widow and the low class hooker; it’s a rom-com friendship made in heaven!).

But The Gem isn’t a courthouse, just like the Bella Union isn’t a hospital; Deadwood’s feral streak still runs strong as the through the creek behind the town (where bodies are kept cool for transport, a public health headache I can’t even begin to think about), and it shows in times of crisis. Deadwood’s so-called magistrate is a sucker for booze and women like any other, and Cy Tolliver is no doctor, unceremoniously throwing Andy Cramed out in the woods to die, when he realizes he’s brought a nasty epidemic to a town without advanced healthcare (Doc encourages Cy to send someone four hundred miles south to Nebraska, where the nearest vaccination exists).

“The Trial of Jack McCall” is focused on a particular miscarriage of justice, yes, but it is but a window into a world of half-measures and warped intentions that make up the establishments of Deadwood – and more presciently, its inhabitants. It raises a number of salient questions for the young town, none of which anyone is prepared to answer; except Al, who has already once had the government rip Deadwood from his grasp, and understands the political stakes of a murder trial being held in the camp. Once again, Al looks the future directly in the eyes, and is terrified by the prospect; as long as he can hold onto his little square of power in the world, he’ll do whatever it takes to protect it – even if that means a murderer walks free (after all, if there was an organized society in Deadwood, would he still be alive?).

After a number of moving, crowded opening hours, “The Trial of Jack McCall” slows Deadwood down to a crawl (an arguably necessary move), the events of the episode taking place over no more than half a day’s time, and focused on but a few central stories. The two biggest events, Jack’s acquittal and Wild Bill’s funeral, take place at the same time, the clearest marker of the episode’s place in Deadwood’s history and the crisis of identity the townsfolk find themselves in (not to mention small pox infiltrating on the fringes, as visceral a metaphor for the government’s potential influence on the area as you could imagine; in his eyes, Al is the Andy Cramed of this equation).

It is a much-needed opportunity for the show to breathe, if only for a moment, while continuing to build on the overarching themes of identity and civilization. Using characters like Trixie, Alma, and Al as thematic anchors of the hour really help visualize these ruminations, turning “The Trial of Jack McCall” from one of the more superficially dramatic hours of Deadwood, into the kind of careful mediation the show’s already established quite a reputation for. Jury boxes and small pox are but signs of a larger shift, and “The Trial of Jack McCall” is a poetic observation of an uncertain world on the precipice of change, an astute reflection on how the powerful, the meek, and the downtrodden alike respond to such uncertainties by adopting new roles, new identities – and some, like the post-war Reverend, new views on the world and how it operates.


Other thoughts/observations:

  • legendary television director Ed Bianchi is behind the camera for “The Trial of Jack McCall,” and wastes no time putting his stamp on the episode, with an expert sequence moving from the furlough full of mourners, over to Al’s porch, then back across to Alma’s hotel room, across the street.
  • The great, passionate bromance between Bill and Seth is over, and boy, is Seth bummed throughout this episode. Jack even catches him with tears in his eyes when Al goes to visit him in his cell… which is just Wu’s slaughterhouse.
  • at the end of the episode, the poor Reverend has a violent seizure, while alone in his tent.
  • Al shouts to the prostitutes to “get fuckin’!” the minute the jury leaves for deliberation. Ahh, America.
  • Al wants Trixie to get Alma addicted to heroin, in the hopes she’ll just overdose and save everyone a series of headaches.
  • E.B. flips out to himself while cleaning the bloodstain off Tim Driscoll/Charlie Utter’s old room: “what has he done for me?” he yells, while angrily scrubbing the wood floor.
  • There was precisely one rule the judge established before Jack’s trial began: “no nonsense”.
  • Give me a ten-hour long loop of Ian McShane saying “hooves”, please.
  • yet another example of people stepping outside the boundaries of their identity: Seth trying to play vigilante, leaving town to hunt down and kill Jack McCall as vengeance.
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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