does apt-get always resolve dependencies, or can I pass a flag to tell it not to?
The primary package management tool in Debian is called dpkg -- it is used for installing and removing packages and it manages dependencies automatically. If you want to install or remove some packages without their dependencies, you can use dpkg with the "--ignore-depends=packagename" option. Dpkg has an ncurses frontend called dselect.
Another frontend to dpkg is called apt and the command line interface for apt is called apt-get. Debian sorts dependencies into three categories: depends, recommends, and suggests. Depends are the necessary dependencies without which the package won't work. Recommends are dependencies that are not exactly necessary but they often add important functions to applications. Suggests are not really dependencies at all, they are just remotely related or alternatives to the package in question.
AFAIK, apt-get only manages depends, not recommends or suggests. There are also other apt frontends, like aptitude and synaptic, and these can manage also the recommends in addition to the necessary depends.
If you decide to stick with Debian, you'll find out that there are always many alternatives to choose from in Debian. For a beginner this abundance of choices may make things difficult at first, but when you get some experience you'll also realize that all these choices will give you the kind of freedom that some other distros with less choices cannot offer.