Deadwood: Looking back at HBO’s true masterpiece.

by | Jun 9, 2022 | All, Opinions

Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or f***ing beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you’ve got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man… and give some back”

This could well be the mission statement for Deadwood, David Milch’s masterpiece of television drama, a singular, unforgiving, and yet incredibly humane piece of television that has never been bettered. With a powerhouse performance from Ian McShane as the saloon owner Al Swearengen, and possibly the most impressive ensemble cast ever put together, it’s a series that is just as rewarding on your fifth or sixth rewatch.

Famously, Milch wanted to make a series set in ancient Rome for HBO, but was told that they were already making… well, Rome! Instead, he went for the story of Deadwood, a town of “order without law” full of rich gold claims and separated from the United States, that proved a dream for trailblazing types, people looking to set up businesses and put down roots, others who come looking to prospect for gold, and yet more looking to fleece them for every last cent. As he put it himself: “The men who came to Deadwood craved a new beginning, a chance to break their ties to civilized institutions and forms of meaning”.

Deadwood is often listed along with The Sopranos and The Wire as one of the best dramas of all time, and has the stamp of prestige television all over it, but despite this it feels like the outlier of the three, perhaps because it’s perceived as genre television. I’ll admit I am a big fan of westerns, and this is what initially drew me to the series, but the similarities are all superficial – the aesthetic, the language, the costumes, the violence etc. Beneath the surface, Deadwood is more concerned with the way communities are formed, through compromise and cooperation, however grudgingly. The old west is here represented by the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, past his prime and looking to “go to hell the way I want to” – his unceremonious death both proves a definitive step away from the mythic past, and galvanises the camp into organising an unofficial trial for his killer – a crucial step towards civilisation.

Milch expertly sets up all the disparate parties in the first couple of episodes, only to slowly bring them together organically. The ostensible heroes, Seth Bullock and Sol Star (Timothy Olyphant and John Hawkes) arrive in camp to set up their own hardware store, on a lot owned by Swearengen, the proprietor of The Gem saloon and resident crime lord. Also arriving in camp are Hickok (Keith Carradine) and his companions Jane Cannary (Robin Weigert) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) while already established in Deadwood are the various businesses, among them the hotel run by EB Farnum (William Sanderson), the camp doctor (Brad Dourif) and the newspaperman Merrick (Jeffrey Jones).

As Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon) puts it in his customary obtuse way: “If the foot shall say, because I am not the hand, I’m not of the body, is it therefore not of the body?” The town forms itself and the characters are inextricably connected to it, whether they want to be or not. Take Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), Swearengen’s rival in town and secondary antagonist throughout the series. We never get a real read on Tolliver – as Boothe put it: “Cy is the only character whose hole card hasn’t been revealed”. He keeps his vulnerabilities hidden from everyone, cloaking them in a vicious ruthlessness that often spills out into bursts of violence, that ultimately leaves him isolated and alone. Tolliver is self-serving and clearly sees himself as separate from the township, but finds himself inextricably part of the town nonetheless. When a universally loved character is killed in the final season, the whole town is devastated, and we see the shocked, saddened reactions of most of the main characters, including Tolliver, who is clearly sickened but doesn’t know how to articulate or process this, instead lashing out at his subordinates. He is part of the town whether he acknowledges it or not.

“God bless you Mr Swearengen!”
“Not likely… but my short term prospects just improved”

In her excellent episode write-ups for The AVClub, Emily Van Der Werf points out that Deadwoodunderstands better than any other series both the complexities of the human heart and how people can change.” It’s a distinction that differentiates Deadwood from something like The Sopranos or Mad Men. Most characters in The Sopranos are not sympathetic. At best they are just corrupt, at worst sociopaths and murderers. David Milch has an affection for all of his characters, and even the worst of them is shown to be redeemable – to a certain extent. Swearengen exemplifies this – he’s a murderer, a pimp and a hustler, self-serving and ruthless, but he’s also a pragmatist, and his character serves as a microcosm for the show’s themes. When outside forces threaten the community, he puts aside his own self-interest for the good of the camp.

Beyond the violence and the sex, (this is HBO after all) there is a warmth and humanity that permeates through the entire show, and which is evident in each of the characters – Swearengen might end the series as a somewhat softer character, but this aspect of his character is there in the first season, shown in his treatment of the ailing Reverend Smith, and in his affection for the defiantly forthright Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) one of his prostitutes.

While there are venal, corrupt characters, there are also characters who are the embodiment of decency. Characters like Charlie Utter, Doc Cochran and Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) all demonstrate acts of selflessness in a way that belies the show’s violent reputation. There are very few truly evil characters – Tolliver comes close, but the main antagonists come in the form of the gold magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) and his chief geologist Francis Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt, who also plays Jack McCall). Both these performances are perfectly judged – they are both abhorrent characters but all too human in their weaknesses. This might elicit sympathy in places, but humanising these characters only serves to make them even more loathsome. Hearst is a force of nature, a terrifying manifestation of capitalism, bulldozing through all pleasantries in his pursuit of “the colour”, simply ordering the murder of anyone who gets in his way. Wolcott is a more curious character, a softly spoken, witty, well-dressed monster. He gleefully toys with Farnum, commits atrocities worse than any other character in the series, and yet you get the impression that no one detests him quite as much as himself.

Milch has said the show can be viewed as the story of a man falling in love with his wife, as former Marshal Bullock severs his connection with the woman he loves, Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) out of deference to his brother’s widow (Anna Gunn) who he has married out of a sense of obligation. Timothy Olyphant is incredible as Bullock, a character who is filled with barely suppressed rage. He is the ostensible protagonist, and the first season largely follows his long-winded route to becoming sheriff of Deadwood, but the show quickly turned into more of an ensemble. I’ve heard a few people over the years say his character in Justified is just a 20th-century version of Bullock, but the characters are very different – it’s true that Raylan is similarly angry, but he hides this using his natural charisma and a facade of southern charm. Bullock wears his emotions on his sleeve, too often allowing his temper to get the better of him. Sometimes this works in his favour, such as in the case of Alma Garrett’s chiselling father, but other times, like when George Hearst arrives in town, it’s Swearengen who must act as the voice of reason over the hot-headed Bullock.

Molly Parker is also excellent as Alma Garrett – introduced as the cynical, opium addled wife of a naive city prospector, she is quickly revealed to be much cannier and strong-willed than she initially appeared. Alma is an often frustrating figure, veering between imperious and vulnerable, but her actions are all entirely in keeping with her character. The characters in Deadwood are all full of contradictions, from the obsequious, but constantly scheming EB Farnum to the imposing yet childlike Dan Dority (W Earl Brown).

It would be churlish to pick out the best performance in a cast this impressive. Everyone and I mean everyone, gets a moment to shine. The unfailingly decent Ellsworth putting himself forward as a viable suitor for Alma while talking to his dog; (“When a boulder needs hauling, I will haul a boulder”) Doc Cochran praying and raging against God about the dying preacher (“what conceivable Godly use is his protracted suffering to you?”); Alma talking to her dead husband, stating her reasons for marrying a man she doesn’t love for the sake of propriety as she wanders through the camp (“He is a good man, and he whom I love is here as well”) Most affecting of all is Calamity Jane’s grief over the death of Wild Bill Hickok. It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes of any television show, and it’s not the crying or the performance itself that generates this response, but her attempt to distract herself from her grief by caring for plague victims – Robin Weigert’s broken line reading of “Well there’s a bird I ain’t never seen before” breaks me every time I see it.

“Some ancient Italian maxim fits our situation, whose particulars escape me”
“Is the gist I’m shit out of luck?”
“Did they speak that way then?”

Of course, it’s impossible to write about Deadwood without mentioning the language – byzantine, elliptical in nature and incredibly poetic, it’s a mixture of the lyrical and the profane, or as Milch described it: “The cohabitation of the primitive obscene with this ornate presentation”. The swearing itself is a bit of an anachronism (I seriously doubt anyone back then would refer to anyone as a “c**ksucker”) but this is a concession to modern-day sensibilities. Words that would be offensive in the late 1800s would lack the weight they carried back then, so we have this wonderfully serpentine dialogue with foul language slipped into it.

The dialogue is of course this way by design, as Milch puts it: “Language, both obscene and complicated, was one of the few resources of society that was available to these people, it’s of the essence of our identity as human that we speak”. As such, pretty much every character gets these wonderfully florid monologues, full of meticulously layered dialogue that almost serve as soliloquies. These speeches explicitly tell you the inner thoughts of the characters, yet they are so obscured in metaphors and allegories that these can often completely pass you by on a first watch.

Something that Milch absolutely nails is characters talking about one thing when they clearly are really talking about something completely different, and Milch never holds the audience’s hand for any of this, making repeat viewings incredibly rewarding – you notice something new every time, from Bullock talking about morning “conversations” with his wife, or pretending to be his brother in the most downright upsetting episode of the series. On the opposite end of the spectrum tonally is the comic Greek chorus that is Farnum and his browbeaten assistant Richardson, making Shakespearean observations about the comings and goings about the camp.

Season one is about as perfect a first season as you could hope for, and its final image, of Doc dancing with Jewel in the saloon, is among the most touching images of the show. The second ends on a more jubilant note as Alma Garret and Ellsworth are married, albeit with a sense of the devastation that George Hearst would wreak on the town, as he disrupts the celebration by smashing a hole through the hotel wall. The third (sadly the last) ends on a muted note, reflecting the compromised moral position the town’s representatives have put themselves in, murdering one innocent to save another.

Unlike many, I don’t even have a problem with the final season – it’s well documented that the show was cancelled before its time and while I could have watched these characters endlessly, the three existing seasons tell the perfect story of the forming of a community, and the progression is just perfectly paced. It ends on a quiet, personal moment which seems strangely fitting, and the final episodes make textual what had up to that point been subtext. Characters from disparate sides of the camp finally unite to face off against the outside threat that is George Hearst. Small, pointed moments like Charlie Utter finally sitting down for a drink with Dan and Silas feel earned, and the fact that Alma seeks refuge in The Gem is telling, considering Al had been working against her in the first season.

Of course, this wasn’t the end. HBO released a feature-length film that serves more as an epilogue than an ending, reinforcing the point made in the third season finale rather than doing anything wildly different, although it still retains the ability to delight, shock and move the audience, and it ends on a beautifully poignant note.

There has never been a series quite like Deadwood, and I don’t think there ever will be again. The dialogue, the performances, the characters, the setting, all are just perfect. Every member of the cast talks effusively about their experience on the show, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one of the few dramas I can watch the entire run repeatedly and find something new to enjoy every time.

Nick Bartlett

Nick Bartlett



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