Summer Binge Watch: Deadwood


By Scott McNee

Early in Deadwood’s second season, Al Swearengen (immortalised by Ian McShane) tumbles from his saloon balcony locked in a struggle with his arch-nemesis. The two roll around in the mud, already winded and bloodied, before Swearengen rises up, unsheathing one of his many knives. He advances, muttering obscenities… and stops. Everyone in the town of Deadwood is watching, silent, including a carriage of newcomers to the camp, sophisticated ladies, small children, prostitutes and miners. Swearengen looks around. Eventually he points at the people gawping from the carriage.

“Welcome to fucking Deadwood!” he snarls. “It can be combative!”

Deadwood initially aired in the midst of HBO’s creative renaissance, a sibling show to the earlier, more famous Sopranos, and The Wire, which had quietly aired two seasons by the time of Deadwood’s arrival in 2004. It deserves the company – but Deadwood is a markedly different show than its spiritual predecessors. Series creator and writer David Milch quickly gathered a small, dedicated fanbase with a gift for a unique dialogue – flowery Shakespearian-esque speeches laced with anachronistic profanity. Ian McShane’s performance as Al Swearengen, far more depraved than Tony Soprano and yet somehow more endearing, swiftly gained a popularity not unlike Peter Capaldi would later gain as Malcolm Tucker. If the show ever has a true star it is McShane, dispensing violence and wisdom in equal amounts: “In life you have to do a lot of things you don’t fucking want to do. Many times, that’s what the fuck life is… one vile fucking task after another. But don’t get aggravated… then the enemy has you by the short hairs.”

Beginning in 1876, the show at first pretends to follow its advertised lead – Timothy Olyphant’s perpetually angry Seth Bullock, as he first arrives in the ungoverned town as the latest gold rush sweeps the Black Hills. Quickly, however, the grotesque and poetic inhabitants of Deadwood rise to prominence, and Bullock is revealed as only one of the attractions in a circus of violence and black comedy. Saloon owner/crime lord Al Swearengen makes his plays for Deadwood’s eventual annexation by the US government, while preying on his customers, running opium with his Chinese partners and delivering the performance of McShane’s life. Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) arrives intending to drink and gamble himself to death, followed by Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert), who is far more drunk than Hickock could ever hope to be. Blade Runner’s William Sanderson runs the hotel as the slimy, incompetent EB Farnum, a man who believes himself to be Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder despite repeatedly proving himself to be Baldrick. Alma Garret (Molly Parker) struggles with an opium addiction and a gold mine claim while Doc Cochrane (Brad Dourif) struggles to deal with the sheer volume of injury that passes under his care. Kim Dickens’ brothel madam Joannie Stubbs plots to open her own franchise away from the eys of her increasingly unhinged boss Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe). Above all of them and more lurks the shadowy Hearst Company, headed by a gold-crazed robber baron (Gerald McRaney) and heralded by a disturbed ‘geologist’ (Garret Dillahunt) who intends to survey the town and its people.

For three seasons, all of the above arcs intersect and battle for prominence. Stepping back and examining Deadwood as a whole, the Hearst Company plot and the scheme for annexation are the main focus of the series, but it is the sprawling nature of the characters and their individual stories that defines the show. Milch and his crew created a fascinating, lived-in encampment with Deadwood, populated by terrifying, hilarious and vulnerable characters. Where the story goes is interesting, but Milch’s series is such a grand study of the town as a whole that it’s easy to get carried away with the incidental moments. Perhaps this is most relevant with Calamity Jane – after her initial arc she does not have much relevance, but the writers continuously bring her back as comic relief and an apt Greek chorus, and her presence never becomes forced. The only time the series stumble is with season three’s theatre group, headed by Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox). As the Hearst Company begins to strangle the town, the theatre group’s arrival seems pointless and disassociated from the reality the other characters inhabit. It has been guessed that some of the wheel spinning in season three was intended to pay off in the fourth season that never arrived – but as they stand, the theatre group proves a minor irritant in a powerful show.

Cancelled too early, though not without a powerful ending, Deadwood is consistently surrounded by rumours of a revival. HBO has recently admitted being in early discussion on the prospect of a movie, but the deal has fallen through before. The prospect of more saloon conversations, W Earl Brown following behind Swearengen like a lost puppy and yet another corpse thrown to Mr Wu’s pigs seems too good to be true. As it stands however, there are three near-perfect seasons still standing.

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