Why you should catch up with Deadwood
Martyn Conterio | On 19, May 2019
We look back at the first three seasons of David Milch’s modern classic. Read our review of Deadwood: The Movie here
Sometimes, we don’t fully appreciate things until they’re gone. Deadwood suffered a fate not unlike Wild Bill Hickok: shot down in its prime and well before its time, going into that good night after a 36-episode, 3-season run, airing between 2004-2006. Background politics, ratings consistently heading south of the border and creator David Milch’s experimental method of working and running the set led to the hoopleheads at HBO offering the option of six more episodes or nothing. In a take-it-or-leave-it situation, the showrunner declined. Season 4 never happened.
What made Deadwood so special? A revisionist tale of the Wild West boasting a lot in common with New Hollywood’s subversive portraits of America’s gore-soaked history, Milch and his writers asked thoughtful questions on the topic of the country’s past – the pioneer spirit and a verdant heyday so full of notorious incident and memorable individuals that these years developed into a romantically glorified and heavily mythologised genre of cinema and literature. In culture, Old West legend became established as truth. Touching on how a country was uniquely founded and built on a creed and how its insatiable capitalist impulses ran riot over unspoilt lands, Deadwood is both a colourful depiction of the classic pioneer town far from Washington D.C. and a microcosm of America rising and setting forth on the path to becoming a global superpower.
Focused on the struggle to create order and stability in the wilderness, Deadwood vividly re-examined now-classic themes such as the battle between individual need and destiny versus the demands of community, and how these opposing, powerful forces became cemented in the fabric of American life, in its national psyche. Here, in Deadwood, and places like it, Milch reminds us, the crucible of the American Dream was birthed.
Like Presbyterian Church, the mining camp in Robert Altman’s masterwork, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deadwood grows from a hodgepodge of makeshift tents into a more structured and recognisable entity as time goes on. The transformation is subtle but steady. From empty lots and disorder to the establishment of general stores, saloons, dope dens, brothels, crap joints, stagecoach office and residential properties. From the mud and blood springs a semblance of order and a determined striving for legitimacy, which is ironically countered by the historical fact Deadwood was built on land meant for the dispossessed Lakota tribes. The political backdrop and the town’s illegal status powers much of the overall storytelling.
Altman’s guiding influence is there, too, in Milch’s own subversion of archetypes and stock characters associated with the genre, while the consistently brilliant writing – brimming with pathos and humour at every turn – is matched to wonderful casting. Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, Ian McShane, Dayton Callie, Robin Weigert, Powers Boothe, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, William Sanderson, John Hawkes and Paula Malcolmson inhabit their characters so fully that they practically disappear into them. The supporting cast – featuring Michael Harney, Sarah Paulson, Leon Rippy, Garret Dillahunt, Brian Cox, Richard Gant and Gerald McRaney – are no slouches, either. Everybody involved brought their A-game.
Deadwood especially gave McShane the role of a lifetime. An imperious performance from the get-go, Gem Theater owner Al Swearengen standing on his front balcony, coffee cup in hand, master of all he surveys, is an iconic image. In Season 1, he is the undisputed villain and a man who sells female bodies and sex like Sol Starr (Hawkes) sells pots and pans and mining gear. A shady snake who thinks nothing of murdering his fellow Deadwoodians, including children, Swidjin (as Mr. Wu famously calls him) is a first-class swine, but that isn’t the entire story. Swearengen, here reimagined as a Manchester-born immigrant to the New World, changes over the course of time like the face of the camp – not softening, exactly, but transforming into something of an antihero. Milch isn’t pleading sympathy for a devil, either. Far from it. Al is complex and not defined by any one impulse or expression or course of action, however problematic and distasteful to our modern sensibilities we find him. Self-preservation rules his thinking and that is consistently his primary instinct. Al is a murdering, thieving varmint, but straight-up delineations between good and evil, black hats and white hats (the staple of old Hollywood westerns) are repudiated as simplistic, unrealistic and anti-dramatic.
Seth Bullock (Olyphant) arrives in Deadwood as an ex-lawman turned hardware store merchant, with his partner, Sol. A very reluctant participant in camp life, Bullock is the antithesis of the John Wayne or Gary Cooper hero. He’s closest maybe to James Stewart’s tortured gunslinger in the string of 1950s westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, with an added splash of glint-eyed Clint Eastwood cool. The townsfolk look to Bullock as a man of upstanding morals and natural authority. Yet Bullock is vain, his temper set on a short fuse, and this leads him into all kinds of trouble and frequent run-ins with Al. The truth is that Bullock sucks at his job and, while certainly a reluctant type, he’s no hero. Time and time again, Bullock makes the wrong call or feels used by people he looks down upon socially. America prides itself on pretending it doesn’t have a class system, that anybody can get along with anybody else, that wealth doesn’t matter, but Bullock’s prickly attitude and his barely concealed snobbery smartly subverts the figure most associated with hero mythology in the Wild West; behind the respectability lies a man of savage heart and volcano temperament.
Another noted feature of Deadwood is its use of profanity-laced dialogue. The swearing, though, is far from authentic. Milch used 20th century cussing anachronistically because mid-19th century’s bad language wouldn’t have worked or been too obscure. Elevating F-words and C-words to heights of pure poetry, Deadwood’s richly atmospheric loquaciousness, littered freely with swearing, and the circuitous way of making a statement, tends to irritate folk; on more than one occasion, a character in conversation becomes exacerbated and tells the other bluntly to “get to the fucking point”. But the flowery speech forces us to pay attention to what’s being said and, more importantly, the verbosity rests upon a tension – a tension mercilessly toyed with by Milch and his writing team – throughout all manner of scenes. The struggle and search for articulation, the longing to find the right words, a way of seeking perspective on any given situation, provides many scenes with dramatic underpinning. When it comes to the underclass of Deadwood, the attempt is timid and occasionally heightens their economic status. Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) swears and loses her train of thought in countless scenes, because she cannot express herself clearly. Among the posher citizens, articulate speech comes across as haughty and pompous. The writers, too, take delight in coarsely puncturing interactions and attempts at civility, the conventions of address, and so forth.
Watching people desperately trying to avoid any offence in a world where tempers are lethal and triggered by slightest insult (unintended or perceived) is one of the show’s greatest aesthetic achievements. The mellifluous, albeit blue and crude, language allows characters to ruminate on their individual and collective plights and innermost ponderings in poetic and cod-poetic turns of phrase (William Sanderson’s E.B. Farnum is an expert in the latter).
How rarely has a television show sort to portray differing levels of intelligence and education in its creations? Nobody here really talks like anybody else. It’s another example of the show’s painstaking attention to detail, in bringing a world alive and making it fully immersive. Some characters struggle with the basics and other rattle sentences off with full-force clarity. Much of the dialogue edges towards the shores of the Shakespearean. Take Al’s existentialist observation: “Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.” Hamlet, if he were are a mean and moody cowboy, might have said something similar.