Deadwood Season One (HBO)
Written by David Milch, Malcolm MacRury, Jody Worth, Elizabeth Sarnoff, John Belluso, George Putnam, Bryan McDonald, Ricky Jay, and Ted Mann
Directed by Walter Hill, Davis Guggenheim, Alan Taylor, Ed Bianchi, Michael Engler, Dan Minihan, and Steve Shill
On one level, Deadwood operates as a white dude character actor showcase. I guarantee you will spend time proclaiming some variation of “It’s that guy from that thing.” I have always been a huge fan of character actors, which is why The Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are some of my favorite filmmakers. They can find great actors with unique looks and give them fantastic scripts to perform. The exact same could be said of Deadwood, one of the early “children’ of the success of The Sopranos on HBO. Once that series made its big splash, the network invested a lot more money in developing unique dramas with some of the most substantial writing in the industry. David Milch honed his skills on Hill Street Blues & experienced a controversial hit with NYPD Blue. Deadwood would serve as a tribute to his love of the Western genre, populating the television series with actual figures from the historical Deadwood but infusing it all with an air of Shakespearean gravitas.
The opening of Deadwood introduces Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a Montana state marshal who relocates to the titular mining town with partner Sol Star (John Hawkes). They plan to open a hardware store supplying needed tools and amenities to the people of Deadwood while Bullock leaves behind his lawman ways. The world is too dark & violent anyway, he convinces himself, better to make a peaceful way and avoid unnecessary conflict. Unfortunately, Bullock will come to butt heads and form a terribly uneasy alliance with Al Swearingen (Ian McShane), the unofficial boss of the town.
Swearingen carved the beginnings of this place out of nothing and now runs The Gem Saloon, where he provides the tired, weary miners with drinks, gambling, and women. Swearingen’s worldview is that everyone is in it for themselves, so he’s not some outstanding bad person for always centering his own self-interests above all others. Bullock sees through Swearingen the minute they meet, and the latter respects the former to a certain degree knowing this former lawman will never bullshit him.
There are many more characters populating this town. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is one of the stand-outs, a medical professional who genuinely cares for the sex workers at The Gem and views his relationship with Swearingen as a necessary but contemptuous one. We eventually learn that Doc is a veteran of the American Civil War, and his experiences as a battlefield medic left him full of hate for the U.S. Army and PTSD that troubles him in his darkest moments.
E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) is another exceptionally fascinating character, the proprietor of The Grand Central Hotel and another of Swearingen’s lackeys. Farnum is about as weasely as they come, and both fears & hates Swearingen. In private, he expresses hatred for having to go sniveling to his boss all the time and often tries to swipe cash off the top in hopes no one is noticing. When a position of import is handed to Farnum mid-season, it inflates his ego immensely and creates someone to blame if federal authorities investigate the shiftiness of businesses in Deadwood.
Trixie (Paula Malcomson) is a sex worker at The Gem who seems to be held somewhat in higher regard by Swearingen. That doesn’t mean he treats her well; in fact, she’s often treated like a child and punished as such. But there is an unspoken agreement that she shares a bed with her boss, and he becomes fantastically jealous of her when Sol Star begins making his affections known. While many of the male characters are based on real people of the same or similar names who lived in Deadwood, Trixie is an amalgam of many sex workers that worked at The Gem. The name itself is meant to be a pun on the slang for a prostitute.
Like all the characters in the series, the more we get to know Trixie, the more complicated she becomes, someone who was sold into this lifestyle and yearns for a better life. Yet, she understands that charity is often given out of pity and makes recipients feel entitled to spend the rest of their lives in perpetual thankfulness. Or that’s what she perceives. As a result, Trixie is determined to claw her own way out of the nightmare she was born into, which is not very hopeful when you think about how dire life was for women in the Old West.
Aside from the core cast members, some visitors pass through Deadwood and the new ongoing cast that gets introduced a few episodes into the first season. An inciting incident that feeds the main plot of the first season is an attack by road agents on a family of Norwegian immigrants headed out of Deadwood to go back East. It’s initially blamed on Native Americans, but that’s quickly seen as a lie being spread by one of the attackers. Bullock forms a bond with Wild Bill Hicock (Keith Carridine), who is coming through town with plans to prospect, accompanied by Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Only one Norwegian survives, a little girl Jane is adamant she wants to protect. Through this story, each of the key players in the series can have their values highlighted without heavy-handed exposition, simply choices & actions that show how much they value (or devalue) human life.
Another batch of newcomers shows up to open The Bella Union, a high-scale saloon & brothel, that immediately raises Swearingen’s hackles. They are in direct competition with The Gem but provide gambling options he doesn’t. The Bella Union is overseen by Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) and his madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), as well as Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay), a card shark who helps rig the tables in the house’s favor. Tolliver is a foil to Swearingen, with Joanie acting as his Trixie. The couples are paralleled in the narrative, revealing how Swearingen uses a lot of bluster to hide his more vulnerable aspects. He’s no angel, though; he and Tolliver are capable of murder, the caveat being that Swearingen typically goes after people who “deserve it,” and Tolliver eventually murders a pair of thieves in a ferocious & brutal manner.
Milch’s intent with Deadwood is to explore how humans forge civilizations out of what appears as chaos on the surface. They do this by adopting shared symbols that connect them; in the case of Deadwood, this is gold. The first season explores many ideas, but the nucleus is always about these people trying to keep everything together, believing that Deadwood could be something more one day. Ethics are a massive part of this, with characters questioning themselves & others about the right way to resolve disputes. Violence is one of the most common tools, but not always killing. Although Swearingen is a deft practitioner of violence, he knows you don’t have to kill; sometimes, a terrified person still in the land of the living can be far more helpful. Bullock struggles a lot with lashing out, almost always seething at some injustice going down in the street, but unwilling until he has to dish out violence.
A new status quo is being set up by the season’s end. The major players in town have formed a rudimentary government, assigning titles and roles. Swearingen sees this as a necessary evil as pressures from the federal government to take the indigenous land Deadwood was built on increases. So when the feds come rolling in one day, having a “respectable” governing body already established will take some of the pressure off.
Deadwood is undoubtedly one of the best-written shows I’ve ever seen. There’s a brilliant moment where Farnum is cleaning up a bloodstain on the floor of one of his hotel rooms while grumbling about how Swearingen keeps him in check. This is a perfect example outside of Shakespeare of the dramatic device of a soliloquy. He’s expressing every internal emotion & thought externally, with his physical actions serving to add nuance & complexity to the performance. Sanderson, who you might know as J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner or Larry from Newhart, does an incredible job pulling off this scene. The series is full of these moments, where Milch & company are clearly communicating this is not meant to be a beat-by-beat recreation of historical moments but a theatrical interpretation of the myths & ideas bubbling beneath the surface.
If you’re searching for a television drama that respects your intelligence, refuses to speak down to you, and puts characters first above plot or sensationalism, Deadwood is a solid bet. I prefer to avoid binge-watching a series when I review it here, but instead, I wait until I’ve written a review before starting the following season. That was a hard deal for Deadwood because I wanted more immediately. However, in the long run, this method will be perfect for this show as it is something to be savored & appreciated one episode at a time, reflected on, and thought about.