TV Dungeon: Deadwood

(2004 – 2006, USA)

Creator: David Milch
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Brad Dourif, W. Earl Brown, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson, Powers Boothe

3 Seasons (36 Episodes)


’Some Fortunes Are Better Left Unclaimed’

Sheriff Seth Bullock, pimp and saloon owner Al Swearengen, prostitute Trixie, and alcoholic Calamite Jane. Just a handful of the colorful characters that inhabit the raw and lawless frontier town of Deadwood. In the midst of Indian land, the late 18th century laws don’t apply. The power lies with Al Swearengen and his cronies. Through deceit, intimidation and murder he controls the town. Al Swearengen is Deadwood. But new opportunists arrive that all want their share of the wealth that the trade and the earth in Deadwood generates.

This is certainly one of the most ambitious productions ever by HBO. Not only ambitious in scale but in storytelling as well. These characters are not your average gunslingers. Creator David Milch wanted to show the west as it really was; dirty and corrupted. Filled with people scheming, swearing and double-crossing their way through life. There were no gunfights every ten minutes. Entrepreneurs operated sneakily to be able to fully profit from the rising economy. Although the show reminds of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, it is something we haven’t quite seen before.

Deadwood breaks with the typical western tradition. Vicious killers dominate the setting and famous western figures such as Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp are not the legendary characters they are generally made out to be. They are as human as the rest. Plagued by faults, addictions, self-pity and regrets. Despite their raw nature, the characters talk in very complex Shakespearian dialogues (filled with lots of cuss words) which makes it hard to understand their motivations at times. Figuring out the function of some characters in the main storylines is equally challenging. This, and the fact that there are quite a lot of uneventful episodes, could be off-putting for some viewers.

But those willing to invest their time will be rewarded with beautiful art-direction, cinematography and lighting. Not to mention a few shocking surprises and some monumental performances. The most intriguing (and humorous) character by far is Al Swaerengen, wonderfully portrayed by Ian McShane. He can cut a throat without blinking an eye, but is also able to show mercy and understanding to those in a weaker position. Because of his witty lines, amicable moments, and because of the constantly disgusting behavior of Swearengen’s rival Cy Tolliver, one can easily forget that this is an evil man. The frequent reminders of his ambiguity are among the most powerful moments of the show, as well as other character revelations that often occur in the form of extremely violent outbursts or other displays of ugliness.

Besides McShane, the other casting decisions have turned out very well. Timothy Olyphant is in his element as the frustrated lawman Seth Bullock, and Powers Boothe is utterly hideous as the gambling house owner Cy Tolliver. Then there is Molly Parker as the opium addicted Alma Garret, a widow due to Swearengen’s lust for gold. Her character as well as Calamite Jane’s show the independent spirit of the female, since most other women in the town are ruled by men like Swearengen and Tolliver.

The rise of a civilization is shown in many forms. Business opportunities are exploited and political alliances are formed. In the course of the series Deadwood sees the establishment of a hardware store, a school, a theatre and a bank. Also represented is healthcare (Doc Cochran) and the media (the Deadwood Pioneer). The primary human needs in Deadwood seem to be booze and prostitution though. Swearengen and Tolliver are more than willing to provide the people in that department. The church is only present in the form of one reverend who suffers from a brain tumor. Ironically he gets mercy-killed by Swearengen at the end of the first season.

Deadwood is based on real historic persons and events. Although I doubt that they exactly spoke like these characters, the series feels like an authentic vision of the west. Unfortunately it was cancelled after three seasons. 10 years later it was concluded in a TV-movie.

To those who have seen it already, re-watching the show is recommended. Where the first viewing requires concentration, the second time around more subtle things will come to the surface. You got that, you cocksucker!

Deadwood: The Movie (2019)

Director: Daniel Minahan
Writer: David Milch
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker

Modern days are coming to Deadwood! A telephone for every business, keeping up with the times. But is it less savage than 13 years earlier (in 2006 the show was cancelled after three seasons)? Not a chance. Like the fairly satisfying El Camino is now doing for Breaking Bad, this TV-movie gives us (more) closure on one of the great HBO-shows of the early 2000s. It is sure good to be back in this South Dakota town in the 1880s. I didn’t know how much I missed those inhabitants! Especially Al Swearengen, the greatest TV-character since Tony Soprano, formidably played by Ian McShane. Good old Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is back as well. The two opposites clash with the murderous and power hungry senator George Hearst who is looking to purchase land around Deadwood. This leads to a satisfying finale to a monumental show. With dialogues composed of old English prose with hundreds of fucks and cocksuckers in between. This is the West how we’ve never seen it, but wished we had. It doesn’t go out with a bang, but with one of Swearengen’s finest fucking poetic lines yet. Time to watch the series if you haven’t seen it, and re-watch it if you have. It’s glorious.