In The Catch-Up, a longtime fan and a newcomer have a discussion about a TV show, movie, book, music, or other pop-culture item. In this installment, Erik Adams and Todd VanDerWerff kick around the first season of David Milch’s mud-and-dust-caked Western epic Deadwood.
Erik: This is hard for me to admit, given my position as assistant TV editor for The A.V. Club, but I’ve never subscribed to HBO.
That isn’t entirely true. The network was part of my family’s cable package at some point in my teens, and the management company for one of my college apartments dangled free HBO in front of its residents in an attempt to distract us from some of the complex’s less-alluring aspects. Nonetheless, I’ve never paid a bill that included Home Box Office as one of its line items.
As a result, I’ve missed every single one of the landmark series that aired on HBO since The Sopranos made premium cable a haven for smart, cinematic TV fare that’s free to toss around nude body parts and profanity with reckless abandon. Of the network’s “big three”—Sopranos, The Wire, and David Milch’s rough-and-tumble Western Deadwood—I’ve only seen the second end-to-end. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to see all of The Wire to get a job at The A.V. Club, but it’s awfully lonely if you haven’t.) I caught several stray episodes of The Sopranos while living with a roommate who’s absolutely mad about David Chase’s mob epic, but up until the tail end of 2011, Deadwood was completely unknown to me.
What was keeping me from Deadwood? Why didn’t I immediately tear into it after finishing The Wire a few summers back? You mean aside from the utter grimness of spending a hot Texas July with two of the most morally complicated, brutally violent dramas in television history? To my uninitiated mind, there was an air of the philosophically esoteric hanging around Deadwood. Sure, its cowboys (a term which I’m sure would cause Milch tremendous consternation) curse like sailors (make that “fuckin’ tremendous, cock-suckin’” consternation), but Deadwood seemed like the definition of “homework” television. And unlike The Wire, whose fandom came with in-jokes, Internet memes, and other bizarre, cultish outgrowths, Deadwood’s cultural impact was quieter and less insistent. Deadwood was a project for some other summer down the line, once Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad were out of the way.
Having seen the first season of Deadwood, I feel like an idiot for sitting on it for so long. Sure, these initial 12 episodes are an undertaking, but once I processed the rules and rhythms of the world within its lawless Wild West settlement, the show was as addictive as any vice peddled in The Gem Saloon. Those 12 episodes are daunting—they tell their stories patiently, there are a ton of characters to keep tabs on, and for all the filmic grandeur Milch and his creative team bring to the series, its “everything in earth tones” visual aesthetic is rough on the eyes—but nowhere near the inscrutable oddity I feared. (Is it possible I was conflating Deadwood with its dust-covered contemporary, Carnivàle?)
Deadwood is also masterfully written, Guinness Book Of World Records-worthy levels of profanity and all. Reflecting on the first season, I consistently return to “The Trial Of Jack McCall,” where credited writer John Belluso puts his prior experience as a playwright into a stunning, Shakespearean script. Several characters work out the episode’s proceedings via soliloquy; innkeeper E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) is cast as a temporary Lady Macbeth (no matter what century it is, it’s hard to get blood off your floor and your conscience); and two of the series’ most fascinating figures—saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and his soulful heavy, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown)—form a quick Greek chorus during the titular trial.
Todd, you’re on record as calling Deadwood your favorite TV series of all time. Is that a proclamation you were willing to make at the end of the first season? What is it about the show you love so much, and how do you convey that to newbies without scaring them off?
Todd: Weirdly enough, I have far less trouble convincing people to watch Deadwood than I have trouble convincing them to watch The Sopranos. (Everybody thinks they know what to expect with that one, and thus can put it off for a while.) But when telling people they should watch it, I usually do my best to convey what a delight it is to watch this show. Unlike the other two members of the HBO Trinity, Deadwood is positively filled with signs of hope and humanism amid the dirt, grime, profanity, and general cynicism. This is one of those things that takes a while to build to, since the first episode, after all, opens with a man carrying out justice himself because he sees it as his place, and not the place of a lynch mob. But by the end of the first season, when Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is waltzing sweetly around The Gem with Jewel (Geri Jewell), it’s a show that readily embraces all that’s good and bad about humanity.
Ultimately, that’s why I prefer it to The Wire and The Sopranos, much as I love both of those series. Those two shows are, in some ways, about how people and situations never change, about how the system is rigged to make it, if not impossible to change, at least so difficult that nobody would ever really want to. But Deadwood is all about the birth of something, and that means everything is always in flux. In some ways, this is difficult to talk about with you having not seen the other two seasons of the show, but I think it’s even evident in season one that several of the town’s less savory residents are already realizing that there’s something to be said for a common good, for coming together as a community to build something stronger than the sum of its parts. (This is a common theme in the works of David Milch, and I’d caution you against attributing any script on the show to the credited writer, as Milch heavily rewrote everything on the show, as he’s done on every series he’s worked on.)
That said, this show didn’t take the status of my favorite of all time (well, it’s either this or The Simpsons) until after its second season, which I would easily proclaim my favorite season of television ever made. I love season one, but it’s still a little too wedded to the show’s Western trappings to truly transcend its basic setup. In season two, the show moves beyond frontier justice, gunslingers, and murderous saloon owners and settles in to become a series about a town, about the ways small impulses within the organism of a larger community can be reflected in unexpected ways in entirely different corners of that organism.
Or, hey, look at that scene in the first-season finale—perhaps my favorite in the series—where Cochran bows low before God, asking him to end the life of Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), who’s suffering from what’s likely a brain tumor. He doesn’t want to see a fellow human being suffer. He left the war behind hoping he would have less of this. And then that prayer is answered, not by God, but by Al Swearengen, who sees a fellow human being in pain and takes rare pity on him. It’s a moment that boils every single thematic notion in the show’s head down to one action, and if I had to pick a single, five-minute chunk of Deadwood to convince someone who’d never seen the show before to watch the series, it would be that one.
What moments in this first season stood out to you? And do you agree with my oft-stated thesis from my TV Club Classic reviews of the show that the main character of the show isn’t Bullock or Swearengen, but rather the town itself?
Erik: You could point to any scene from that finale as the best of the season, but that’s some mighty exemplary work from Brad Dourif during the Doc’s tearful entreaty. And that’s hard for me to admit, since every time Dourif opens his mouth, my easily startled inner child hears the voice of Chucky and lets out a tiny yelp.
As far as other individual moments go, I’m partial to the scene near the end of “Bullock Returns To Camp” where “Calamity” Jane Canary (Robin Weigert) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) meet at the grave of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) to “talk” with their departed friend. Jane and Charlie’s relationship is several steps beyond strained when they arrive in Deadwood with Hickok; (spoiler alert for a plot point based loosely in historical fact) Hickok’s murder only serves to exacerbate this. When they inadvertently meet up at the grave, it’s the first time Charlie’s allowed himself to confront Hickok’s death, and the first scene of the series where Jane treats her traveling companion with any modicum of warmth or compassion. It’s a touching scene, made more so by the way Hickok’s grave marker initially stands between the two characters, only to be left behind as the camera moves forward and brings them together.
In answer to your second question: I agree 99.9 percent with that thesis. As much as Bullock or Swearengen drive most of the plot for the first season—and while the characters stand as embodiments of Deadwood as it was and as it shall be, respectively—no one character is ever bigger than the settlement that gives the series its name. Bullock’s arrival sets off a reaction that sends the camp toward becoming an incorporated town with a government, laws, and other indicators of civilization, but it isn’t the only reaction of that type. And besides, for much of this first season, Bullock outright refuses to consider stepping into a position more prominent than health inspector. It’s not like he could’ve built his shared pillar of the community, Star And Bullock Hardware, by himself, either.
Of course, a lot of that’s easily missed if you’re not reading up on the overall arc of the series, or Milch’s goal to tell the story of a civilization forming around a powerful, elusive symbol. (As the story goes, he originally conceived a series set among early Christians in the Roman Empire, but HBO was already developing Rome.) There’s a lot of gunfighting and frontier justice in the early episodes of Deadwood, but around the time Swearengen calls a meeting at The Gem to discuss the creeping threat of smallpox, the larger themes at work come into play. Eventually, Bullock pins the soiled (literally and figuratively) sheriff’s badge to his chest. The fact that he does so in Swearengen’s office carries a lot of weight. Order has come to Deadwood, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of residents who are of a like mind with the sheriff don’t soon outnumber those aligned with Swearengen.
My .1 percent dissent with the “Deadwood’s main character is Deadwood” theory revolves mostly around Swearengen. Taking the less-sunny perspective on Deadwood, a lot of the first season revolves around the drastic measures powerful figures will take to maintain their power. We spend a lot of time watching Swearengen as he arranges his chess pieces to guard against any number of attacks on his kingdom of impropriety. He doesn’t know it yet, but even the best defensive moves and most willing pawns won’t prevent that kingdom from sinking into the mud; in keeping with Milch’s initial conception for the series, Swearengen is certainly the Nero figure. He’s also a lost soul seeking to compensate for the control that was taken from him the moment his mother left him on the steps of a Chicago orphanage. I don’t see any redemption in Swearengen’s future, but I do see a lot more bad behavior stemming from the rough childhood Swearengen divulges while clearing his mind (among other organs) at the end of “Jewel’s Boot Is Made For Walking.”
I’m obviously going to continue on with the rest of Deadwood—I’m looking forward to seeing how this whole “westward expansion” thing works out for the post-Civil War United States—but the first season has also piqued my curiosity about the show’s creator. I’m not just new to Deadwood—I’m new to the television work of David Milch in general. Any recommendations on where to go after Deadwood, Todd? I’m at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with Milch’s latest, Luck, but I probably shouldn’t be watching that before I’m better acquainted with, say NYPD Blue, right? And at what point is it safe to approach John From Cincinnati?
Todd: Oddly enough, Luck might be the best place to start. If this were a David Milch Gateways To Geekery, I’d almost recommend the pilot as pure, distilled Milch. It has all the touchstones: the weird lingo that seems shipped in from another world entirely; the giant, sprawling ensemble cast that doesn’t always meet up; the plot machinations that don’t seem to make sense to the audience, but still work in spite of themselves; and the heady preoccupation with philosophy, spirituality, and other matters. But this is all balanced out with strong emotional moments, of the sort that Milch excels at but often seems not to trust himself to toss out there without some additional high-minded philosophizing. Luck, at least from what I’ve seen of season one (which is quite a bit), is all Milch, and those who don’t like him won’t like it.
That said, it’s always worthwhile to dip back into Milch’s pre-HBO work, particularly on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. The man’s first produced script for television—HSB’s “Trial By Fury”—won him an Emmy. That one’s readily available on streaming services like Hulu, and it’s compelling and easy to watch, even for people who have never seen the show before. (It comes in the series’ third season.) He’s done quality work on a number of shows since then, and created almost as many that didn’t take, but NYPD Blue, which he created with Steven Bochco, and then ran for seven of its 12 years, has to be his crowning achievement—at least in terms of keeping a show going for as long as he did using his method, which tends to eat up budget and time. (Milch is famous for rewriting scenes right before shooting, eating up the shooting day, which is costly. NYPD Blue was a big enough hit that he could buy himself that time.) NYPD isn’t as good as its contemporary, Homicide: Life On The Street, but it’s been sort of unjustly forgotten. Befitting Milch’s style, it’s a more overtly theatrical tale of life in a big city in the ’90s, but it’s packed with compelling characters and often moving storytelling. There are moments and grace notes within it that still stick with me, years after seeing it in first-run. (It’s also the rare show to have run long after its creator left, stretching on for five more seasons past Milch’s departure.)
But I suspect Milch will have trouble topping Deadwood in my eyes. It just does too many of the things I love about TV so well that it’ll probably always be my favorite series. I find returning to it weirdly comforting, in the way the best TV shows are, even though the things I’m finding “comforting” are men committing vile acts in the middle of mud-soaked streets. There’s something intensely moving about the show and its views of humanity and civilizing influences (and I’d argue that all of Milch’s intentions become very clear in seasons two and three), and it’s the rare show where the plot is terrific (most of the time), but also largely beside the point. It’s for this reason that it doesn’t bother me that the show didn’t come to an ending agreed upon by Milch and all involved. The ending Milch wanted for the show, though historically accurate, would have gone against too much of what he’d built, and I think it would have hurt too much of what came before. Better to believe that Deadwood still exists as shown here, just waiting for someone to stumble upon it out in the Black Hills.
But let’s talk about what doesn’t work about this first season, because we’re all nitpickers here. What do you think, Erik? That Kristen Bell mini-arc never worked as well as I hoped when she came in talking about having a plan, then was swiftly revealed to not have much of one at all.
Erik: Yeah, Kristen Bell’s sudden appearance (and startling disposal) as half of a brother-and-sister flim-flam operation is certainly one of the wonkier aspects of the first season—one that made me immediately think 1) “Is that Kristen Bell?” and 2) “How long until she’s forced into prostitution?” The answer to the second question won’t surprise you.
In terms of other, minor nitpicks, I could’ve spent less time with Brom Garret (Timothy Omundson), whose fate is sealed as soon as he buys a gold claim in Al Swearengen’s presence. No offense to Omundson—whose blustery straight-man routine is frequently the most enjoyable element of Psych—but it’s torturous watching his “New York dude” shuffle toward the inevitable. And despite having Swearengen’s dirty fingerprints all over it, the story of the Garret claim doesn’t get interesting until Wild Bill and Bullock come into the picture.
In the “extremely subjective gripe” column, I’ll register a protest against William Sanderson’s performance as E.B. Farnum. I have many a fond memory of Sanderson as garrulous Newhart bumpkin Larry (of “Hi, I’m Larry. This my brother Daryl, and my other brother Daryl” fame), but he never seems to rise to the level of his fellow Deadwood players during the first season. (That’s painfully evident any time he’s placed in a scene opposite Ian McShane and W. Earl Brown.) There’s a nervous energy about Sanderson that suits the bumbling innkeeper-cum-mayor, but it comes off as a lack of confidence that tends to pull me out of Deadwood’s carefully constructed illusion.
Of course, none of those complaints is going to keep me from indulging in the final two seasons. (And hey, there’s always hope that Sanderson’s performance will grow on me with time.) And the way the first season closes, with civilization ready to claim Deadwood from within and without, I can’t see how anyone could give up on the series at this point. Hell, it just might be enough to get me to finally make the pay-cable plunge—if only to stream the next two seasons on HBO Go. And maybe keep up with Luck.