Before we start this insane attempt to blog all of Deadwood over the course of one summer, I thought it best to make room for some general introductions to the course work, as it were. There will be a couple of very mild spoilers (all dealing with character arcs), so if you want to go about the series unspoiled, you may want to skip to the section marked “Episode 1. Deadwood.”
Deadwood is my favorite television series of all time, despite the fact that because of a dispute between HBO and Paramount, the studio that produced the show, it pretty much just ends, never reaching the closure that series with similar qualities managed to get (chief among them The Sopranos and The Wire). Saying Deadwood is your favorite series of all time seems a bit of a joke now that the rest of the world seems to have pretty much settled on The Wire for that title, but I think Deadwood does a large number of things better than any other series. While I’ll return to these points again and again as we work through these three seasons, I thought it would be best to bring up the main three points here at the start of things.
1.) Deadwood is better than any series I can think of at portraying the formation and purpose of human communities. Creator and series mastermind David Milch remarked more than once that the main character of Deadwood was “the human organism,” and that provides a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the show, which had dozens upon dozens of regular characters by the end of its run (and was going to add even more in what would have been its final season). American cinematic narrative tends to be about how one striking individual steps out from the mass and takes charge or how groups of people come in conflict. Deadwood and a few other series are about the antithesis of that – how groups of people can compromise and come together to work towards a shared goal. To that end, the show’s finest season is its second, when the characters we thought to be leaders in season one are brought low and forced to deal with the people surrounding them.
2.) Deadwood understands better than any other series both the complexities of the human heart and how people can change. The central core of the series’ characters doesn’t change, but all of them shift into new versions of themselves to make way for the new civilization being born in their backyard. Al Swearengen begins the series as a ruthlessly corrupt businessman and ends in a very different place (without spoiling too much), but none of this ever feels out of character or as though Milch and his directors and writers have softened the character very much at all. He’s a man moving with the times, one of many who must deal with the hand they’re dealt throughout the series’ run.
3.) Deadwood uses its microcosm as a symbol for the whole universe better than any other series. The series, in its run, touches on everything from how we build a lawful society to the existence of God to the ways people do grievous harm to each other without knowing it and yet never makes those points the reason it exists. This is a series with big ideas in its head but one that never belabors those points.
So, yeah, I have a lot to say about this show. And while I love it, I haven’t watched it in a number of years, so I’ll be coming to a lot of it fairly fresh. I’ll try to keep the spoilers pretty light, and we’ll see if I can keep up the three-episodes-per-week pace and not get too long from week to week. If the pace gets too fast or the pieces get impossibly dense, we’ll re-evaluate, but for now, we’re going to go three episodes at a time. (I should also say that I’m going to gloss over a lot in the interest of not having these pieces be 10,000 words – as I’m sure I could rattle on about this show at that length. Your comments, points and quotes are practically required in the comments section, and I’ll be a frequent visitor.)
So now then …
Episode 1. “Deadwood.”
The opening scene of Deadwood’s pilot may just encapsulate the entirety of the series, which is about clawing out a civilized place for people to live from the raw muck of nature. Living in the town Deadwood is only ambiguously legal (as one of the men in the mob at episode’s open points out, Deadwood lies in what is technically Indian territory), so the town is something of an oasis from the encroachment of American society. What stands between civilization and chaos, then, are individual men. We’ll meet some of them throughout this episode, but the first we meet is Marshal Seth Bullock, soon to abandon his post and go off into the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory to open a hardware store.
He has one last task to accomplish, though, while he remains in the Montana Territory. A prisoner under his guard attempts to cut him a deal in exchange for his freedom, figuring Bullock is ready to leave the job behind, but Bullock won’t listen. He’s also unwilling, however, to listen to the mob gathering outside the jail, ready to lynch the prisoner themselves. Bullock, then, who is ostensibly our hero, takes matters into his own hands. Since he knows the prisoner won’t make it through the night with the mob gathering, he lynches the man himself, carrying out all of the proper protocol, even though the action is also ambiguously legal. This scene sums up the character of Bullock almost better than anything in the series to come – he’s a man with an almost ruthless devotion to the rule of law, who can’t be swayed by the temptations of crime but also won’t be tempted by utter mob rule and chaos. This tenacity speaks well of him here, but we can also see where it might get him in trouble down the line.
The big question of Deadwood season one is the first big question in the formation of civilization: Of what use are laws? Could people just live as they pleased and mostly get along? Since the town of Deadwood is so brutal, this seems unlikely, but having law requires placing your trust in lawmakers, and as we can see with Bullock, the men who would seize power usually have one or two of their own issues.
The first three episodes of Deadwood are probably the series’ weakest, since the characters are deliberately kept in their own separate spheres, and the series works best when all of its characters are pulled together by forces they don’t fully understand. Still, this pilot lays out where everyone stands in relation to each other fairly well. We meet our major players – Al Swearengen and the gang at the Gem, Bullock and his friend Sol Starr, Alma Garrett and her husband, Wild Bill Hickock and his crew – and we come to see how they’ll form alliances and come in conflict with each other (already, Bullock and Swearengen seem to be destined to come to blows). By keeping all of these players apart and slowly building their connections beneath the surface of the series, what comes later is all the more impressive, but it can feel a little strained to keep cutting between storylines like this.
That said, the main plot of the episode – where the slaughter of a Minnesota family headed back to their home state is investigated by Bullock and Hickock while Swearengen tries to keep tensions battened down, lest a massacre of the Sioux population take place – seems to play out the microcosm of the first scene in the macrocosm of Deadwood itself (this is another thing the series will do repeatedly and do very well – using smaller moments to stand in for larger plots and themes of the whole series). Here, again, Bullock takes justice into his own hands when he and Hickock gun down the presumed murderer, but this time, righteous as it seems, it feels wrong. The rest of the first season will hinge on this twisty question: What right does a single man have to mete out justice?
Episode 2. “Deep Water.”
“Deep Water” turns its focus from Bullock somewhat, deepening many of the other characters in the show’s tapestry, like the childlike and foul-mouthed Calamity Jane or the stalwart Doc Cochran, as we start to learn just why Hickock is in Deadwood and watch as Swearengen (whose nastiness was introduced much more quickly than I remembered) attempts to cover up his role in the murder of the Metz family, even stooping so far as to attempt to remove the ailing little girl under Cochran’s care and Jane’s guardianship from the equation altogether.
All of these characters, of course, were present in “Deadwood,” but that was also very much a typical pilot in at least one respect: We saw nearly everything through the eyes of people new to town, namely Bullock and Hickock. While Swearengen played a major role in “Deadwood,” he was also something of an enigma, a man capable of great violence (as when he beats Trixie) but also someone with the political wisdom to keep things from turning so violent that any higher authorities would have to get involved when it looks like the town is mobilizing an ad hoc posse.
This episode deepens the duality within Swearengen – he’s a man who has no problems utilizing his many right hand men to take care of his problems via murder, but he’s also got a real sense of how to play the politics of the situation. (It doesn’t hurt that Ian McShane’s absolutely astonishing performance both enhances and embraces these contradictions.) Swearengen’s nothing so simple as a sociopath, we start to realize in this episode. He’s a man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it, but he’s also a man who manages to realize that sometimes the needs of other people must be met to get him what he wants.
Bullock, meanwhile, doesn’t have as much of this political knowhow, and he and Swearengen are tussling already in this episode (another thing I had remembered coming much later in the show’s run), as much because of their genuine dislike for each other as because of Bullock’s bullheadedness. The series seems to be going out of its way to play up these two men as opposite sides of the same question of what to do within a lawless society. Bullock’s ready to introduce law, even by his own force of will, while Swearengen is more comfortable to play all of the angles, dance around the edges of what’s acceptable and carry out heinous acts via proxy (except for the final loose end he ties up himself).
Hickock, meanwhile, seems to be in Deadwood because it’s one of the few places he can stay. He’s got massive gambling debts (one of the things referenced in the title), and the company of Jane and the unfailingly loyal Charlie Utter doesn’t seem to be enough to disperse the cloud hanging over his head. Too proud to sell his fame, he’s stuck, unable to move, waiting for something to break. Again, he operates on his own when he kills a man he says means him harm at the end of the episode, further questioning the right of one-man justice.
“Deep Water” is a needed episode in that it lets us spend time with characters we didn’t get to know as well in the pilot (again, the scenes with Cochran racing from citizen to citizen, trying to keep them all alive, are exceptionally moving, particularly when he shares scenes with Jane, who did not seem she would be this open and caring in the first episode), but it’s also very much a transitional one, which moves the plot and characters into the places they need to be for the big events to come.
Still, the show is staking out the territory only it is going to reside in, staging scenes like the lovely and unlikely funeral for the man Bullock and Hickock killed at the end of the last episode or the terrific little scene where Al goes to see the ailing Sophia (the show’s one innocent, who, fittingly, can’t communicate with anyone) and comes across Jane, who offers her life in Sophia’s place (“Why would I do it to you?” Al asks, ever the pragmatist). If Deadwood is a show about building a community, we need to see these nascent stages.
Episode 3. “Reconnoitering the Rim”
Now things are starting to happen.
Through the first couple of episodes, Brom Garrett and his wife, Alma, who sequesters herself in her room and watches the town of Deadwood wander by in the street below through her window, have been played as a rather broad couple of types. Brom’s the city slicker who’s way in over his head among the uncivilized country folk, while Alma is the beautiful society woman who’s been taken to the ends of the Earth against her will and tossed out among the wild world. Now, Brom’s lucked onto one huge gold claim, and he’s killed by Al’s man Dan while the two men search for the gold strike Al knows must be there. (The almost impossibly noble Ellsworth sees this from the shadows.)
There’s a beautiful series of shots and cuts at episode’s end, as Al tells Dan to go and bring Brom’s body back to camp, the camera tightening in on just the men’s eyes as they talk, then stopping to follow the still-bruised Trixie out onto the balcony of the Gem, where she looks across the way to see Alma, looking back at her, two women trapped by circumstance, about to be linked by even more horrible ones. (The series will make great use of these shots tying together citizens within the town as they stand alongside Deadwood’s central street throughout.)
The Bullock and Swearengen tension continues to be how the series organizes itself, as the arrival of the Bella Union and its proprietor Cy Tolliver convinces Al that Bullock is somehow the first of a new wave of saloon proprietors who will drive him out of business (Al’s paranoia doesn’t always serve him well). Cy, Joanie Stubbs and his right-hand man Eddie Sawyer make up the final party in Deadwood’s complicated little society, and at first glimpse, they seem to promise a newer, more professional future. Al can have the miners and prospectors, Cy says, while he’ll take the higher-class clientele, with his upscale gambling operation (run by Eddie). This leads to a terrific little scene where Al, Bullock and Sol work out the particulars of just how their store is going to operate on Al’s land. The tension roiling here is more than enough to power the future events of the season.
Meanwhile, Hickock is falling asleep in the hallway while Sophia sleeps in his bed and coming clean about why he’s in town (there’s a warrant out for him in Cheyenne, so Deadwood is one of the few places he truly can hide). He seems like a man headed for some sort of disaster – he’s a quick draw, but it’s becoming apparent that that can be a liability as the so-called Wild West begins to civilize. Deadwood is, as mentioned, a series about how civilization (specifically American civilization) is born, so Hickock is here less as the Western hero he was and more as the relic of a disappearing age he had become, an age that is going away slowly, passing out drunk in the hall, making dangerous bets in poker games.
There’s a sense of impending tragedy that hangs over this episode that seems to explode when Dan takes care of Brom. Obviously, there will be more tragedy to come for the citizens of Deadwood, even in this season, but this is the first moment when our world is upended, when the series removes one of the people that seem to be a lynchpin for us to keep our eyes on. The episode’s also a good one for deepening character. One of the best things about this series is the way that no one on it is all bad or all good, the way everyone has hidden and unexplored depths to examine. This will be a recurring theme in the series, but it’s in this episode that we first start to grasp that everyone – even the Gem’s maid Jewel – will have depths to plumb.
- I, obviously, haven’t even touched on Deadwood’s greatest claim to fame, its byzantine and intricately structured dialogue, laced with crude profanity throughout, which is utilized in a way that makes it oddly poetic. The curlicues of dialogue in the series will often prove to be the things that keep new viewers from wholly embracing the show, but stick with it. It eventually becomes fairly easy to decipher, and wandering around your home, calling those you meet hoopleheads is oddly enjoyable.
- Please, in comments, discuss whether you want more or less in these posts. I could, quite conceivably, go on for 5,000 or 6,000 words about this show, though we try not to get things quite that long here. Or, alternately, we could bump things down to just one or two episodes per week and get into them much more thoroughly. I’d like to get through the series this summer, but I don’t want these pieces to be impenetrable or lacking in analysis.
- This week’s fun fact: David Milch originally conceived this show as being about police officers in the Roman Empire, but HBO’s development of, well, Rome nipped that in the bud. (Speaking of Rome, that should get the TV Club Classic treatment someday, no?)
- Having grown up in South Dakota, I was already aware of most of the major events of the first season of this show, to the point where I was always amused by how shocked people were at certain plot twists. Visiting the actual Deadwood was a staple of family vacations when I was young, and, believe me, the actual town (which is now a gambling paradise again, oddly) will come up more as the season wears on.
- The series never really made the most use of the Sioux society. We always knew that the citizens of Deadwood were encroaching on land that didn't belong to them, but the series really skewed away from the questions of what happens to everyone a new society displaces (though that may have been to keep the traditional Western trappings to a minimum).
- “Don’t forget to kill Tim.”
Next week: A notable murder, a big trial and the plague.