I’m fairly certain that if it wasn’t for a subscription TV channel, I would have never given Deadwood past its first episode. In fact, I think it’s fairly safe to say that there’s never been anything quite like Deadwood.
Created by David Milch and running just 3 seasons (from 2004 – 2006), Deadwood is set in the 1870s in South Dakota, before (and after) the area’s annexation by the Dakota Territory. It shows the town’s growth from camp to town, covering broad themes like law and order, government and politics, business, and power. A huge ensemble cast breathes life into the grime and grit of the camp, with Timothy Olyphant’s Sherriff Seth Bullock and Ian McShane’s saloon owner Al Swearengen leading a charge of wonderful performances by terrific character actors. Deadwood is populated by true historical figures, including Bullock and Swearengen, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Charlie Utter, and George Hearst. The historical truth of these characters is served up by Milch with a healthy dose of artistic license. And here is where Deadwood’s genius lies.
Sol and Trixie
I had the chance to see Deadwood, all three seasons, back to back on Australian pay TV channel Showcase. Deadwood was on each weeknight at 7.30, and when the advertisements came to my attention, I was reminded it was one of those shows I’d always “meant” to see. You know the ones, we all have them, but late-night TV scheduling, or the failure of commercial networks to air the great HBO shows at all, conspire against us. The advent of TV-on-DVD has certainly helped with series’ many of us would have otherwise missed out on. Deadwood on each weeknight was as good as a DVD for me! So I settled in for the first episode… and couldn’t understand a word they were saying. These people were speaking in some bizarre bastardisation of Shakespeare, with sentences and words inverting and swirling in on themselves, making a kind of peculiar poetry from phrases sometimes so vulgar I couldn’t believe my ears. The cursing and swearing was confronting (despite my knowledge of Deadwood’s reputation for foul language), but in the setting, made a sort of perfect sense as part of the lawlessness of the show. I’ve since read that Milch intended for his cast to use the curse words of the time, but they seemed to our modern ears to be more blasphemous than anything, and so the decision was made to give the words their full modern impact. And thus, C-bombs and F-bombs scatter the script like raindrops. And so it wasn’t the language in that sense that confused me. The show was going to take some getting used to, and I vowed to keep at it. Boy, am I glad I did.
The men of Deadwood
Deadwood fast became my favourite TV show. It is ugly, grimy, and offensive. The depth and smell of the place almost reeks from the screen. The characters are, with a few exceptions, deceitful, selfish, anarchistic, and so very human. The storyline is compelling and sometimes shocking. Death, mud, gunshots, scheming, drinking, and whoring are relentless. Deadwood has perhaps 40 speaking characters, and only about 5 of them are women. Two of those women are prostitutes. The acting is, almost without exception, first-rate. Milch has trusted his actors to deliver his precious and wholly original script, a script that often brought me to tears. The trick, I learnt after that first episode, is to watch with subtitles. To truly appreciate and love Deadwood is to truly appreciate and love language. For as gritty and foul as that language may be, it is also poetry in motion. The machinations of the script have been written like a sort of concerto. No television program, before or since, has had such an impact on me. I bought the DVDs, and have watched them countless times since. I’ve memorised sections of script and my favourite quotes, like I’d do with Tennyson or Dickinson.
Jane and Charlie. Probably thinking about Joanie.
It’s not just the beauty of the screenplay, but the fantastic performances that sell you on Deadwood. A cast of characters to break your heart. Such perfect moments from such perfect actors: Robin Weigert’s drunken and kind-hearted Calamity Jane. Brad Dourif’s Doc Cochran, doing what he can under extreme circumstances. The burgeoning relationship between John Hawkes’ Sol Star and Paula Malcomson’s Trixie. The not-so-subtle rivalry between Al’s go-to men, W. Earl Brown’s Dan Dority and Titus Welliver’s Silas Adams. The scenes between the reformed madam, Kim Dickens’ Joanie, and the compassionate Charlie Utter, played by Dayton Callie, he boyishly in love with her, she so tentatively branching out on her own. The moments as Molly Parker’s Alma Garret makes critical choices like starting her bank, for the good of the camp, only to come up against the pure evil of Gerald McRaney’s George Hearst. The pathetic worm-like moments of attempted scheming from William Sanderson’s E. B. Farnham. It’s the people that make the town, and Milch knows it.
I’m so glad I gave Deadwood a chance. Re-watching offers even more rewards, as subplots and line readings you may have missed the first time around suddenly come into focus. In the end though it’s this simple scene, featuring a pep talk the incomparable McShane's Al gives newspaperman Merrick after Merrick's been beaten, that is my favourite of all 3 Deadwood seasons. It still brings a tear to my eye. “Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings..” Sublime. Comments below!