Review by Andrew Bloom

Deadwood: Season 1

1x12 Sold Under Sin

6.5/10. It's a finale that focuses significantly on Bullock, and his trite "Am I a good man or a vengeful man?" business. I don't care whether or not he becomes sheriff. I don't care whether or not he and Alma admit their feelings to one another. I don't care if he finally decides to be on the side of justice or gives into the lawlessness. It's just such a fallow theme to build a character with, or at least it's done in a very shallow manner that leaves me cold.

I appreciate that they're trying to put his various principles at odds with one another. He can't cotton the bought and paid sheriff enacting Cy's plan to stir up a racist outcry to shoo the Chinese from the camp so that he can take their land for a song. He also can't deal with Evil Alan Matthews trying to take his daughter's claim from her (or rather, borrow against it because he's in debt again) and bring the force of the law to frame her for her husband's death if he has to. But he also can't deal with killing a man, so he beats Alma's dad into a bloody pulp, but stops himself at the last minute.

And the Daredevil TV show comparisons follow. Yet again, you have someone trying to stand up for the people without power in this dingy corner of the world who is trying not to take things too far but worries that he has the devil in him and can't stop himself from giving into it. There's something to that, and the most interesting the episode gets is when Bullock can't stand to get his hands dirty, but tries to goad Al into taking out Alma's dad for him, and Dan calls him out on his hypocrisy. There's commentary there about those who believe in justice and the law and yet require others to grease the wheels that they won't dirty themselves with.

But of course, Bullock has a change of heart, and calls off Swearengen. But he needs a release valve, and if he can't let out the devil in one part of his life, he's going to let it out in the other. So we get the inevitable Bullock-Alma love scene, and good boy marital fidelity be damned. The whole thing is a bit of a thin thematic point, but the show's been trending this way with Bullock for a while, so it's not like it's a surprise.

As usual, Al's stuff is more interesting, especially as he crosses paths with Dr. Cochran. The whole deal with the magistrates who are shaking Al & Co. down never did much for me, but at least we get some bloody finality to it. The same goes for Cy's attempt to create trouble with the Chinese and get the law, whether it be a puppet sheriff or some paid of soldiers, to drive them out at his behest. (And we get the general to throw in some heavy-handed dialogue about how Bullock's the good guy and Cy's the bad guy, go figure.)

But the most interesting part comes in the juxtaposition between him and Doc and how they respond to the terminal Reverend. The doc reiterates to Jewel that he is bound to first do no harm, so he can't bring himself to snuff out Reverend Smith despite his clear suffering. But in a powerful scene, he can lament to the Almighty why he would let the Reverend's torture go on, and lament his own pain at the same time. Why would a caring being with unlimited power allow his humble and devoted servant to endure so much before he leaves this mortal coil? Why would he take away doc's leg? Why won't that powerful deity do something to end it?

Maybe he does. It's hard to call Al Swearengen an instrument of God, but immediately following Doc's screech of a prayer, the episode cuts to Al euthanizing Reverend Smith. It seems like an act of mercy, one that shows he is the opposite of Bullock, someone who gets their hands dirty, whether it be killing a magistrate who gets in his way or ending the pain of an ailing man, whether he takes pleasure in or not, because it's what needs to be done.

The end of the episode cuts to many of the denizens of Deadwood as things close, but it also juxtaposes three pairs of people. After Bullock and Al have their inevitable, underwhelming heart-to-heart that firmly underlines Bullock's new position as sheriff, Seth looks across at Alma and they share a moment. Then we see Doc, who is crestfallen by what the Reverend went through, have his spirits lifted by his boot actually helping Jewel. The lame will walk. Maybe one minor miracle doesn't make up for a bout of severe suffering, but seeing the two dance together shows that his heart is lightened, and maybe the scales are leveled, at least a little, by giving a beautiful creature like Jewel a little more in this world. And finally, Al shares a look with Trixie, who smiles at him, turns away, and then Al, his expression unchanged, looks down at his hands.

It's hard to parse out what all of this means, whether these visual comparisons are meaningful or just neat camera work, but the season closes with an encapsulation of what is great and terrible about the show. It's a hamfisted rumination on a man being unable to ignore his sense of justice and a bog standard tortured romance; it's a vicious pragmatist who nevertheless has heart and soul that he's willing to display from now and then, and it's joy and solace and maybe even grace in unexpected places, right when and where it's needed.

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