‘Deadwood’ and the Mortal Hope of “Sold Under Sin”

This essay is part of our new series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great.


The first time I watched Deadwoods “Sold Under Sin,” I was acutely aware of the tenderness of my new tattoo, fresh but healing. During my latest watch-through, just this week, I found myself subconsciously focused on my own persistent cough, measuring the feeling in my chest against the news’ incessant coronavirus outbreak warning signs.

It is impossible not to think about one’s body when thinking of Deadwood, because more than controlling Cy Tolliver or ruthless George Hearst or any number of self-professed scoundrels, the unbeatable villain of David Milch’s masterpiece Western series is the human body and all its vulnerabilities. Don’t let the cowboy boots fool you; Deadwood has as much medical drama and body horror as it does Western ethos. Years before both Milch and his most beloved mouthpiece, Al Swearingen (Ian McShane), began grappling with dementia, the series was already preoccupied with the ways in which communities — even lawless ones like the real-life town the series is based on — must react to failings of mortality. To the inevitability of blood on the floor.

And blood there is. While Milch’s series is most remembered for its eloquent, labyrinthine language — the series puts a near-Shakespearean spin on the foul-mouthed men of the wild west — the script of the first season finale is most often punctuated by terse threats and patent reminders of life’s fragility. A throat is unceremoniously cut. A delicate white napkin is unfolded to reveal a handful of glistening, bloodied teeth. A beleaguered stranger interrupts a heroic military story to reveal that he and his fellow soldiers ate their horses to survive.

Episodes earlier, the settlement of Deadwood had a plague of its own, and while the town was overwhelmed by swiftly spreading sickness and scarce resources, it was a crisis that outed some men and women as cowards, others as helpers, and yet more as beholden to capitalistic self-interest. Deadwood’s social microcosm, it’s clear, has only become more relevant with age. As the first season comes to a close, post-plague and with the death of Wild Bill Hickok already far in the rearview, we as viewers know which townsfolk we’re rooting for, but we’ve also learned that death in the West can be as unpredictable and dangerous as a drunken stranger at a card table.

Early on, Deadwood set itself up as a kind of Hobbesian period drama about a place where life could be, as the philosopher said, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Yet almost immediately the show disrupts its rough exterior by introducing a cast of characters who are sympathetic, funny, and often outright loveable. Milch forgoes neither the hard reality nor the kind one, regularly allowing us glimpses of humanity — or at the very least good manners — from even the worst the town has to offer. “Sold Under Sin” is an episode rife with mud and blood, but it also lays bare the beating heart of the series with satisfying moments, like Seth and Alma’s (Molly Parker) consummation and Seth’s acceptance of the law badge, that reward our love for this burgeoning town.

Also in this episode, Al finally dispatches the local reverend (Ray McKinnon), who had been deteriorating as a result of a brain tumor for some time, his suffering a sort of unbearable yet steady background noise to the show’s foregrounded local politics. To some, Al’s act — the smothering of a man who was already gasping for breath in the throes of his pain — may appear to be a metaphorical extinguishing of innocence, a killing of the only god the camp knew. Yet it’s also a twisted act of mercy, bringing tears to Al’s and his henchman’s eyes alike. Al’s a stubborn man, unafraid of a fight, but he knows the body can’t be bested.

Later on, Al himself will be beset by kidney stones and, petrified by the pain, will have to witness those around him unable to easily decide on the best course of action. Years after Deadwood

aired, Cinemax’s Steven Soderbergh-directed series The Knick would go on to address the terrors and moral dilemmas of developing healthcare systems more directly, often with an even bleaker approach. But in 2004, under the guise of a gunslinging Western, David Milch wouldn’t let us forget the endless fragility of our lives, and the gutting decisions everyday people must make that could either save or end them.

If the hopeful heart of Deadwood is ever fully visible, it’s during the short final scene of the first season finale. Doc Cochran is perhaps the series’ best supporting character, carrying the throughline of logic during any emergency, woefully bearing witness to the existential pain of the sick, and keeping a sliver of fury-tinged optimism alive, all thanks to an indelible, lovely performance by Brad Dourif. Doc’s constant commitment to his job often goes unnoticed by the more lofty-minded businessmen of Deadwood, as when Al makes an offhand joke about the reverend and Doc grounds him with a boldly shouted curse. No one makes an enemy of the doctor, because everyone needs him, and when it comes to beating that biological villain, he knows more than the rest of the town combined.

Meanwhile, Jewel (Geri Jewell), the Gem Saloon’s disabled cleaning woman, is one of the series’ most winning presences even as she’s one of the town’s least valued. People around the saloon often don’t really see her, or if they do, they see her as less than others, but her emotions come easily and often skew toward happiness. To the audience, she’s easily one of the characters most worth rooting for.

As Deadwood’s major players argue and scheme and shoot one another dead in the streets, Doc makes Jewel a leg brace that will make her more comfortable. And as “Sold Under Sin” comes to a close, Jewel decides to dance. She gets Doc to join her, and their exchange closes out a near-perfect first season while others in the Gem look on. “Say I’m as nimble as a forest creature!” She commands Doc, not hesitant to move despite his warnings that her mobility may fail. “You’re as nimble as a forest creature,” he answers warmly. “No,” she corrects him, “say it about yourself!” As the music plays us out, their bodies are working as well as they ever will. They’re happy. In Deadwood, as in reality, death may be inevitable, but life is there, too, just waiting to be shared.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.