Part of the initial premise of Deadwood is that the title town is a lawless territory. That doesn’t necessarily mean “anything goes” even if it clearly does. Instead, it means that the United States government doesn’t exactly claim the land. It’s Native American country as it stands.
So what happens when the closest the town has to a celebrity is murdered in front of a crowd of witnesses?
That’s the dilemma here. Wild Bill Hickok is dead, Jack McCall did it, there were many, many witnesses, and that should mean a trial. Now, as it is, Swearengen and his competition Cy Tolliver both don’t necessarily like the whole “no laws” thing, which makes no sense given these guys run brothels where there’s plenty of drinking and gambling. But as Swearengen explains, he wants to be under the United States government, but holding a trial and convicting a man obviously guilty of murder might make that harder, not easier. They’d be establishing their own laws and customs. Short term: Jack McCall would have to pay for his crimes. Long term: it’s better if he’s found innocent.
As contradictory as that sounds, that is more or less what happens. Al explains a few things to the man drafted to be judge, and everyone just looks the other way at the blatantly false story that McCall was avenging a brother Wild Bill had shot and killed in Kansas. Nobody believes it that counts, but it works and McCall is found not guilty by custom since avenging a family member’s death is A-OK.
Sort of. Swearengen threatens the guy just right to get him out of town. And Bullock? Well, he skipped the trial to assist at Wild Bill’s funeral. Jane’s missing, on a bender, and the only company she’s keeping is some poor bastard dying of smallpox out in the woods. Tolliver had him dumped there, and only arranged to send a man off for the nearest vaccine under threat from Doc Cochran. That vaccine would be in Nebraska, a bit far from Deadwood’s South Dakota location. Bullock also signed a paper to assist Alma Garret in the maintenance of her husband’s claim, making it more difficult to buy back for Swearengen, but he sends Trixie to make nice and keep the widow pliable.
Does McCall make a clean getaway? Not quite. Maybe Swearengen will look the other way, but there’s a man in town with a much stronger moral fiber who won’t just sit there and let a murderer get away.
That’s right. Once Wild Bill’s in the ground and the verdict is know, Bullock is riding after him.