It’s time once again for this year’s summer DVD rewind here at What’s Alan Watching? In summers past, I’ve dealt with the likes of “Freaks and Geeks,” “Firefly,” “Sports Night” and the first few seasons of “The Wire,” among others. This year’s candidate is a show whose existence straddled my career as a blogger (you can find my season three reviews here), and is one of a handful of shows with a legitimate argument as the best drama ever in the history of American TV.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to bleeping “Deadwood.” It can get combative, and the language can get salty. (And after the jump, the real swears will be featured.)
After giving it some thought, I’ve decided to divide these reviews up, in a similar but not identical fashion to the way I did “The Wire.” There will be two identical copies of each review, posted at the same time. The content of what I write will be the same in each most weeks, but in one, commenters will be free to discuss events from the life of the series (plus stray historical details about Swearengen and company), while the other will be designed for a discussion among people who are watching the show for the first time and don’t want to know what’s coming next. This is the former version; “Deadwood” newbies would be well-inclined to click here for the safer post.
Thoughts on the series’ premiere, also titled “Deadwood,” coming up just as soon as I spit in my hand…
“I tell you what: I may have fucked up my life flatter’n hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and holdin’ a workin’ fuckin’ gold claim, and not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m trespassin’, or the savage fuckin’ red man himself, or any of these other limber-dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.” -Ellsworth
I start this review with that eloquent bit of gutter poetry for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is because the first thing that stood out to most people upon watching “Deadwood” was the language – and the first thing (but not the only thing) about the language that stood out was the heavy, creative use of profanity. David Milch spent a large chunk of his first TCA session defending the historical accuracy of all that cussing. He talked about how he’d gone back to primary documents and found ample evidence that the miners of the 19th century frontier – particularly a lawless spot like Deadwood – used far, far saltier language than we think of today. I know other historians (and some dramatists) contended that he took it too far.
But whether it was 100% accurate or not, it set the tone for the savagery of this place. When you hear Ellsworth give a speech like that without eliciting so much as a shrug, or when Clell Watson leaps off the hangman’s stool with a defiant “FFFFUCK YOOOU!,” or when Calamity Jane calls the other people in her wagon train a bunch of “ignorant fuckin’ cunts,” it helps prepare you for the almost primitive, savage quality of the Deadwood camp. The first time I watched the pilot, I had no idea just how many characters beyond Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were historical figures(*), and found it a sly joke that Milch had given one of his main characters a last name that sounds like “swear engine.”
(*) City slicker Brom Garrett and his opium addict wife Alma are the only significant characters in the pilot who were invented by Milch, for reasons we’ll get into down the road. And for those of you coming to the series for the first time, Google can spoil some things about what ultimately happened to Bullock, Swearengen and company, but know also that Milch changed certain historical details, and also that the show ended at a point in time well before many of these characters’ stories had come to a notable end.
But no, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock were as real as Wild Bill, and these three men for now represent a kind of continuum of the state of law – or the lack thereof – in Deadwood at this particular point in time. As discussed in the pilot (mostly by Jeffrey Jones as local newspaperman and expositional tool AW Merrick), Deadwood was an illegal white settlement on Indian land, and not technically part of the United States. No law at all, which is where we come to the second reason I opened with Ellsworth’s speech.
The concept of a community with no law sounds like paradise to a doomed thief like Clell Watson, and like a haven for a stubborn individualist like Ellsworth, but the reality of Deadwood is a far uglier, scarier thing. Deadwood is surrounded by America, but it’s not a part of America yet, and that journey from complete lawlessness to civilization – the imposition of order on chaos – will be the chief story of the series.(**) It’s all well and good for some to have no boundaries or restrictions when the gold’s coming in, but who’s to stop an Al Swearengen from running a brutal long con on any poor dude from back east, to provide defense of either the whores or johns at the Gem when things get rough, or to keep Al from assassinating troublesome underlings?
(**) And here’s the one veterans-only note I’ll add. As you can see in my review of the series finale on the old blog, I actually think the show ends kind of perfectly. Deadwood is absorbed into the rest of the country, there’s an election for sheriff, evil corporate interests triumph over plucky individualists, etc. I’m sure Milch had grand plans for the hypothetical fourth and final season – and hopefully would have justified all that time spent on the theater company – but if we didn’t know about his intentions and had been told all along that this was a three-season series, I think the ending stands up beautifully. What better final image could the show have than Al scrubbing blood out of the floor one last time, again showing how history is a lie agreed on, and how civilized societies often spring from acts of unspeakable violence.
As with most HBO shows, “Deadwood” took a while for viewers to latch onto. I recall many readers and critics saying they didn’t really feel connected to it until the fourth episode (which is at or close to the same point where “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” developed a similar bond with their audience). And I can see that it’s hard to keep track of all that’s going on, learn the names of all these men with dirty, mustachio’ed faces, not to mention to make sense of Milch’s stylized dialogue even beyond the profanity. (And we will very much talk about that in the coming weeks.) But the show opens with such a dynamite sequence – one that I would argue is the best opening scene for any of the HBO dramas (yes, including McNulty’s discussion of Snot Boogie) – that I was hip-deep in whatever else Milch threw out there from that point on. Not only is Timothy Olyphant’s performance so fierce and commanding and weary – you can tell how tired Seth is of killing men, and how eager he is to be a simple shopkeeper (even if his temper and his sense of justice keep getting him into trouble in Deadwood) – and the scene such a great evocation of the series’ key themes, that I was hooked instantly.
Why does Bullock do what he does? Watson is due to hang in the morning, and when Byron Sampson insists on moving up the timetable, Bullock obliges, insisting that he’ll be doing it “under color of law.” It’s at once a meaningless distinction and an enormous one. If the law steps aside in favor of drunken mob rule in this one instance, then where does it end? If Bullock lets Sampson’s men have their way, they have a fine old time stringing up Clell and perhaps look forward to their next opportunity to lynch someone who troubles them. Done Bullock’s way, and with Clell given the chance to dictate his goodbyes to his sister and estranged son, it shames every drunk SOB in that crowd, reminds them of exactly what’s involved when you take another man’s life, and again maintains the veneer of civilization that is wholly absent in Seth and Sol Starr’s new home in the Deadwood mining camp.
So in one corner of our initial triad of main characters, we have Bullock, the weary ex-lawman who acts like he wants no part of a badge or enforcing the law, but who can’t stop himself from chasing away the con man with the “soap with a prize” scam, and who absolutely can’t resist teaming up with Wild Bill to form a posse to investigate the alleged Indian massacre. In another, you have Wild Bill himself, older and even more weary – of the expectations and constant threat of violence that come with his legend – than Bullock, but also with enough sap and pride left to go right along with Bullock to find the girl, after he spends his early days in the camp drinking and gambling his way to ruin.
And in our third corner is the show’s breakout character – and one of the greatest performances you’ll ever find on a TV show – in Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. In a town without law or government, Al seems to be the unofficial king. The Gem is the busiest joint on the thoroughfare, he has a finger in every scam and crime going on in and around the camp, has a fairly efficient (if graphic) means for eliminating unwanted bodies (by feeding them to the pigs of his Chinese contact Mr. Wu), and can calm down an entire barful of rowdies itching to join Wild Bill’s posse, working the crowd as expertly as any real politician would. Al can be brutal but also oddly sad and tender, and it’s never clear exactly what’s going to set him off. (Trixie makes the mistake, for instance, of trying to instruct Al on exactly how and when to punish her for shooting the abusive john, when in other circumstances he might have shrugged off the activity from his favorite whore, or at least given her a lighter beating.)
It’s an interesting contrast of men, and of philosophies. The episode climaxes with a very traditional Old West showdown, as Bullock and Wild Bill face down the bad guy, slap leather and then share some friendly banter about who actually shot him. It should be a comforting scene, and yet it feels oddly behind the times in a place like this – and on a show like this. This is not a series, or a community, where many matters are going to be settled by quick draw.
As to how they will be settled, and how Deadwood will make the slow, painful transition from outlaw settlement to a part of the Dakota territories, is what we’ll explore as we spend the next few months visiting this great, great series.
I can’t fucking wait. Oh, also? Cocksuckers. (Sorry. Just gearing myself up for what’s to come.)
Some other thoughts:
• Milch brought in a heavy hitter to direct the pilot in Walter Hill, who already had an armful of Westerns on his resume – including 1995’s “Wild Bill,” which was also about the time Hickok and Jane spent in Deadwood, and which even featured Keith Carradine (who’d also been in Hill’s “The Long Riders”) as the Wild West’s other famous Bill, Buffalo Bill Cody. The visual template he sets here will be faithfully followed throughout this first season by Davis Guggenheim and company, and in the later seasons by Mark Tinker and company.
• Visually, the one part of the show I’ve never loved is the main title sequence. It’s not that it’s bad – it looks pretty, it establishes the setting, etc. – but that there’s nothing all that remarkable about it as compared to some other classic HBO opening credits like “The Wire” and “Six Feet Under” used.
• The show’s set – several blocks of the town constructed on historic Melody Ranch, where many of the old Gene Autry Westerns were filmed – is probably the most impressive one I’ve ever visited in person. (“Boardwalk Empire” is the only one that comes close, though I obviously never made it to Europe to see the “Rome” set.) It was also, therefore, one of the most expensive sets ever built, and one of the many high-ticket items that ultimately brought the show to an early end after season three. Also, most of the sets were practical, so the interior of
the Gem was several business were on the other side of the wall that spilled out onto the thoroughfare. (UPDATE: For more on this, see the comment below by “Deadwood” actor Jim Beaver.) It was a very theatrical set-up that allowed for those frequent sequences like the one at the end of this episode, where most of the characters are watching the action on the thoroughfare from storefronts and windows. And it also made things a bit easier when Milch was late with script pages – as he was for pretty much the life of the series. (Perhaps more on that in an upcoming review.)
• I like that even as we see the long con that Al is running on Brom Garrett, and the short con by the soap salesman, we get a somewhat kinder con game, where Wild Bill’s pal Charlie Utter contrives to keep a percentage of Bill’s earnings to protect the hero from himself.
• There have been many, many, cinematic and literary retellings of the life of Calamity Jane (born Martha Jane Canary), and Milch and actress Robin Weigert’s take on the character is among the least polished, and probably true-to-life, of any of them. It’s hard to imagine that Doris Day ever played a version of what Weigert’s doing. And yet this Jane isn’t just a drunken, profane cartoon. Just look at the way this Jane melts whenever Wild Bill showers even the tiniest bit of attention on her, or how vulnerable she seems when Bullock hands her the little girl.
• Speaking of which, Milch is famous (or infamous) for his dialogue, but the man knows when it’s time to step back and let the actors’ faces speak for him. That whole sequence with Bill telling Seth to give the girl to Jane is just marvelous, and completely wordless.
• What an eclectic cast. You have some Western veterans like Carradine and William Sanderson (as unctuous hotel owner E.B. Farnum), a few promising young turks like Olyphant, John Hawkes and Molly Parker, European imports like McShane and Paula Malcomson, and then some recognizable actors who’d been marginalized at different points in their career, like Geri Jewell (best known at that point as Blair’s cerebral palsy-afflicted cousin on “Facts of Life”) as Gem cleaning lady Jewel, Brad Dourif (who’d just finished playing Wormtongue in the “Lord of the Rings” films) as Doc Cochran and Jeffrey Jones (who had seemed on the verge of unemployability after a child pornography arrest not long before Milch hired him for the series) as Merrick. And that’s just a small sample of the people appearing in this first episode. Not surprisingly, most of the major players have worked pretty much non-stop since the show ended, with “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy” alone having some sort of unspoken competition to see which show can hire the most “Deadwood” alums.
• I have to say, McShane does such a good job of sounding American that the whole exchange where Ellsworth asks about his English accent has never quite worked for me. Obviously, they needed to establish Al’s backstory (and also set up Tim Driscoll’s later rant about the Irish vs. the English), but the man doesn’t sound like a Brit.
• The language wasn’t the only part of the show that took some major getting used to. This was a show that didn’t glamorize any aspects of Old West life, and would use gore when called for, here with Cochran taking the long way around the dying john’s skull to fish out the bullet, and then with the body being eaten by Mr. Wu’s pigs.
Coming up next: “Deep Water,” in which Jane tries to protect the girl while Al tries to figure out the best way to contain this mess.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com