(Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.)
All right loopy cunts, limber-legged limp-dicked cocksuckers and hoopleheads, it’s time for Recurring Episodes to take on HBO’s foul-mouthed, dead-before-its-time foray into the Old West, Deadwood.
The Show: Deadwood, created by former NYPD Blue writer David Milch, is the most unconventional show among the triumvirate of HBO’s great dramas. Though The Sopranos redefined the American mob story, and The Wire became a lot more than a typical cop show, Deadwood did more to stretch the conceptions of what was and was not acceptable television fare, not only through its subversion of that most American of filmic genres, the Western, but through the language its characters spoke. Deadwood is likely the most profane show in the history of television, nearly every uttered sentence containing some of the most florid swearing anyone will ever hear. The profanity’s not necessarily the thing, though, because the characters speak in such a way that Shakespeare would have been proud; beautiful eloquence for the nobles in the rafters and filthy humor for the groundlings, often in the same sentence. Deadwood is probably the most writerly show in TV history as well as the most profane, which might be why it, of the three HBO greats, was the only one that didn’t get to truly finish its run.
But what a run it had while it lasted. Deadwood is the story of the titular town, a gold rush destination in the lawless lands of South Dakota, populated mainly by characters that are present in the historical record, though the show happily diverts from history where it best serves the truth of the story. Its most prominent characters are bartenders, whoremasters and their whores, lawmen, and fortune-chasers, not too different from your typical western, though Deadwood doesn’t spend much time on the typical quick-draw showdowns, horse-rustling, and iconic strong silent type heroes. Instead, it is more the story of how a society comes to be, the good and bad in the men and women who create that society, and the ultimate cost that so many of those people must pay. It is also alternately tragic, bloody, hilarious, depressing, and uplifting. It is a show about America, and it is deeply American, but does not deny all the conflicts that entails.
Deadwood has a broad tapestry of important characters, but there are some main figures who were the “stars” of the show. Timothy Olyphant is Seth Bullock, a lawman come to Deadwood to run a hardware store alongside his Jewish business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes). Molly Parker plays Alma Garret, a laudanum-addicted wife of a rich Easterner come to strike it rich in gold. And, early on in the story, one of the most compelling characters is its most historically notorious, Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), who arrives in town alongside his fellow gunslingers Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert, strikingly the most foul-mouthed of all).
As striking as all of these characters are, though, the show really belongs to two people: Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon, criminal mastermind and the town’s true ruler, and Paula Malcomson as Trixie, the troublesome prostitute he can’t seem to control. As they go, so does the show, and the town. McShane’s performance is masterful, and rightfully the focus of much of the show’s praise (beyond the Shakespeare-and-the-seven-dirty-words dialogue), but Malcomson’s Trixie should not be undervalued—she is as much the heart and soul of the show as he is.
Why Deadwood? Deadwood was the least-watched of HBO’s three, and, I must admit, I had trouble getting into it at first. The Sopranos was compelling from minute one, and The Wire had the cops and crooks aspect to it to keep a viewer interested early on as it found its footing. Deadwood is an entirely different animal. Its pilot throws a huge cast of characters at the audience quickly, the dialogue is initially hard to parse until one has become used to it, and though the actors are great, there’s no one to really root for, at least at the beginning. Its most likable character early on is Wild Bill, and he’s a murderer who has to lay prone during daylight because he’s so dependent on alcohol. My first attempt to get into Deadwood was a failure; I watched two episodes then quit.
A year or so later I gave it another shot, knowing it would be slow-going, but still intrigued, and I was glad I did. The second time around, the pilot made more sense, and as I had the whole season on DVD to work through, it was much easier to get involved. It’s no surprise that Deadwood never got to truly finish its run, cancelled after three seasons without a true series-ending resolution; it’s a very niche show, created for a dedicated audience willing to work for its enjoyment. But for those who are willing to put in the time, it really is worth it. “Here Was a Man,” the show’s fourth episode, is where it truly hits its stride, strangely by concluding with the death of one of its central characters.
The Episode: Spoiler alert right here for those of you who know nothing about the Old West: Wild Bill dies, shot in the back of the head while playing poker, shortly after his arrival in Deadwood. “Here Was a Man” seems to take for granted that knowledge in its viewers, as the episode rightly seems like a long, slow death, up until the moment, at its end, when one of the Old West’s most notorious gunslingers meets an untimely end.
Deadwood is a complicated show, full of twists and turns, double-crosses, and the machinations of its many criminal minds. To this point, Al Swearengen has been behind the lot of them—the cover-up of a slaughter by road agents leaving only a little girl who cannot speak English alive; the murder of Brom Garret, husband to Alma, after a scheme to sell him a fradulent gold claim; the subsequent attempts to reobtain the claim after it’s found to have gold in it as well. Al’s willing pawns in his schemes, his muscle man Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) and hotel owner EB Farnum (William Sanderson, most well known for being Larry “this is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl” on Newhart) are always a few steps behind.
As the episode begins with the reveal to Alma and the town of Brom’s death, it also begins with the action that would seal the death at its conclusion. Wild Bill faces down Jack McCall, an ugly, droopy-eyed camp layabout, at the poker table. When Bill takes all of his money, McCall, who’s been trouble before, seems defeated. But Bill slides one dollar over to him, for breakfast, an act of kindness and emasculation in one. It is there that the ominous tides begin to roll in.
The show’s many storylines progress, but this is mainly an episode about Bill, and Keith Carradine is masterful in it. He carries both the burden of Bill’s troubles and his obvious charisma in equal measure. In two speeches near the beginning of the episode, we can tell he’s already come to terms with death, because he’s no longer very good at living life. “I’m tired,” he tells Seth Bullock, who he’s come to regard as a friend and a man to be trusted. Later, he tells Charlie Utter, truly his best friend in the world, that he knows he won’t succeed in the camp, trying to prospect for gold or run a business. He’s a gunslinger who drinks and loses his money at poker. “Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?” he begs his friend.
Before he dies, though, there’s still some life left in him on what would be his final day. The widow Garret implores him to investigate into the matter of her husband’s death by confronting Al about the gold claim. He not only cleverly elicits the answers he needs in simple conversation with the man who’s seemed cleverest of the lot, he tricks him out of some cash for his trouble.
From there, he enlists Bullock to help Mrs. Garret with the ins and outs of the claim, and whether or not Al and Farnum are trying to fleece her in trying to purchase it back. He warns Alma, as he did her husband, to leave town. He has a heartfelt conversation with Calamity Jane, and sits down to write a letter to his wife. From there, he heads to the saloon, sitting down with a smile on his face to join a game. It is there that Jack McCall bursts in, shooting him from behind, and Wild Bill is gone.
I wrote earlier that the heart and soul of Deadwood were the characters of Al and Trixie—as they went, so the show. In watching again, it almost seems as if the show had to place Hickok’s death at this point to let that happen. The first four episodes are as much about Wild Bill as they are about anything else. From here on in, the show is about the town of Deadwood, with Al and Trixie as stand-ins, at least in part, for the community as a whole, Al its scheming mind and Trixie its conflicted heart. In this way, it almost seems like “Here Was a Man” was the show’s true pilot, everything up to that point just a prologue, and with this excellent episode laying the groundwork—setting up Bullock and Alma, pitting them against Al—the show was ready to go.
Odds & Ends: In focusing on Keith Carradine as Wild Bill, a good portion of the rest of the episode, the characters’ schemes and interactions, got short shrift. I’ll try to take care of them here.
We learn that Ellsworth, a fellow miner having success on his own claim, saw Dan push Brom to his death. He agrees to stay out of it, telling Dan as much. Dan is not sure what to do, so he talks with Trixie about it, whether or not to kill Ellsworth. In Paula Malcomson’s best scenes of the episode, she in no uncertain terms gives Dan her answer.
William Sanderson is such a weasel as EB Farnum, it’s fantastic. He’s given the task of offering $20,000 to buy the claim from the widow immediately (using Al’s money). Of course he lowballs her and offers her $12,000 instead.
This show is also perhaps the greatest collection of grizzled, tough character actors in one series ever. In addition to Ian McShane in the show’s most prominent role, we have Powers Boothe as rival whorehouse operator Cy Tolliver, Brad Dourif as the town’s creepy (but eventually lovable) doctor, Ricky Jay as Cy’s casino dealer, and later on, Gerald McRaney (Major Dad!) strangely enough playing the toughest, most evil man of all.
Timothy Olyphant is currently wearing the cowboy hat again, as another conflicted lawman, on Justified.
Jack McCall, the droopy-eyed, dirt-covered murderer of Wild Bill, is played by the normally very dashing Garret Dillahunt, recently of TV’s Raising Hope. In a strange turn, he would return in the second season to play another character, minus the ugly makeup, a man far more polished yet no less murderous.
Since so much is made of the dialogue, no review would be worthwhile without a few quotes:
- Al’s philosophy, as told to Wild Bill: “I got a healthy operation here, and I didn’t build it brooding on the right and wrong of things. And I do not need the Pinkertons descending like locusts […] My visions of locusts return. I see Pinkertons coming in swarms.”
- Cy Tolliver, to an old friend who’s just returned: “How about a nap, a bath and sex with an unfamiliar woman?”
- Bill, warning Alma to leave: “You know the sound of thunder, don’t you Mrs. Garret? Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to? Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn’t say it in thunder.”
Weird note to wrap things up: Pete Dexter wrote a very good novel, also called Deadwood, involving many of the same characters in very different fictionalized versions. Charlie Utter is that book’s hero, and is described as handsome and irresistible to women. No matter how awesome Dayton Callie (now on Sons of Anarchy) might be, handsome is not a word I’d use to describe him. Though his strange bayou-inflected voice may make him irresistible. Instead of the town’s Machiavelli, Al Swearengen was an ineffectual gay crook, and Sol Star was a murderer of whores. It’s funny what different works of historical fiction do with characters in the record. It’s a good read, but the definitive Deadwood story for me will always be this show.
Recurring Episodes will conclude the triumvirate of HBO drama greats next week in Ballmer with The Wire.