Deadwood: Deadwood

"Goddammit, Swearengen, I don't trust you as far as I could th'ow you, but I enjoy the way you lie.”

As the cunningly apt tagline says, Deadwood is “A hell of a place to make your fortune”. It’s also one hell of a show. Coming from noted insane genius David Milch, Deadwood was perhaps a little too ambitious for its own good: a ruthless Western populated by powerfully written characters who spoke in dialogue that sounded like Shakespeare run through a pig farm.

It’s hard to keep a review of Deadwood short, because every scene is so rich with details to both the characters and the world they inhabit. However, I do need to reserve some words for the opening, because it’s a masterpiece in establishing character and tone: we learn all we need to know about Seth Bullock in this opening scene.

Bullock is stoic and incorruptible as inmate Clell Watson tries to worm his way out of custody. When a posse arrives to kill Watson, Bullock shows his moral fortitude and his capacity for violence by hanging Watson himself, early, under the letter of the law. He robs the posse of a lawless victory, lets Watson go out on his own terms (even coaxing last words from him) and upholds the law itself. He’s quite a guy, that Seth Bullock: honourable, brave, fierce and no stranger to the darkness of the world around him. I could see the future of Raylan Givens in Timothy Olyphant’s performance; Raylan was always an angry man, but Bullock’s anger is closer to the surface and he fights more actively against it. Olyphant plays Bullock as a man of constant conflict, whose sense of outrage is as inherent as his decency.

We need a man of that calibre in a camp like Deadwood, which is overlorded by Al Swearengen. Swearengen is one of the great television characters, and Ian McShane turns in a performance that must be seen to be believed. He’s a walking uranium core of pure charisma, armed with a mellifluous voice, a Shere Khan smile and a terrifying capacity for violence. Despite his brutality (and it’s felt most keenly in this episode, aimed at poor Trixie) Swearengen is a delight whenever he’s on-screen. Yet, such is McShane’s talent that even at his most disarmingly charming, we never forget what he’s capable of.

I got a strange joy out of seeing Swearengen circle in on poor, hapless Brom Garrett with the aid of his remoras. At the same time, I was sort of horrified. I’m exactly the kind of soft-palmed city mouse that Al would gobble up and spit out as an appetizer to some bigger, tougher meal. It was like watching someone checking out the salad bar on the SS Titanic.


The plot of Deadwood is propelled by the characters and rarely by circumstance, and we have several plots in this pilot episode that jostle together, mostly involving newcomers to the camp: the aforementioned Brom Garrett and more importantly his quietly miserable wife Alma and the infamous Wild Bill Hickok, and here we have another magnetic performance by the great Keith Carradine. Although aided by loyal friends, Bill is a laconic man with his own demons. He can keep to himself all he wants, but his very presence in camp is disruptive.

A pilot, any pilot but especially a pilot for a Western, needs to have a spot of action. This episode had plenty of gruesome moments (the pigs swarming the body of Trixie’s violent john disturbed me) but we got an honest-to-god showdown between Wild Bill, Bullock and the conniving Ned Mason. In Deadwood (the show and the camp), everyone is more than what they seem, for good or bad. Ned seems like a drunken coward, but he brutally murdered that poor family on the road. He met the only end he could in a town without law. His death feels like some measure of justice, and someone like Al Swearengen cannot allow pesky notions like that into the camp. Deadwood is his to protect, but Bullock is the protective sort by nature. This town might not be big enough for two people with very different ideas of protecting this little slice of freedom. The town will have to get bigger if either of them want to survive.

What I truly love about Deadwood, however, and what sets it apart from the grimdark world of Game of Thrones (where the only way to win is to become as bad as your enemies) is that softer emotions are permitted and even encouraged. There are evil people living in Deadwood, but there are good people too. They’re sometimes hard to tell apart, but in a bar full of people drinking and whoring, there were still noble souls who put everything aside and risked a great deal just for the chance of saving a little girl. Charlie Utter at first seems to be exploiting Wild Bill, but the money he’s extorting from Tom Nuttall is for the sake of Bill’s family. And one of my favourite scenes of the episode has Ellsworth somewhat clumsily tries to comfort Trixie. Deadwood might be rough around the edges, but as a show, it has a big heart. It shows us the evil in the world, but it doesn’t cover up the good.

Bits & Bobs

- For those who don’t mind spoilers and would enjoy some behind-the-scenes tales, I highly recommend listening to the episode “The Sound of Surprise” from the podcast “The Tobolowsky Files”. In it, Stephen Tobolowsky (who has a recurring role as Hugo Jarry) talks candidly about his time on the show. Tobolowsky is a natural storyteller and it's a great listen. In fact, I recommend listening to the podcast from the first episode onwards. It's frequently fascinating, funny and moving.

- Deadwood plays around with actual historical events, but there's a sense of real historic authenticity to the world itself. People are lathered in filth for days at a time, unglamorous diseases are rampant, and even good-hearted characters bandy about racial or gendered slurs.

- Al Swearengen was originally written for Ed O’Neill, believe it or not. That would have been different, although I don’t think it would have been bad.

- Sol knows how to handle people, including Bullock, who would have turned that confrontation with the prospector into a fight on their first day in camp. Not a good start for a new business. Sol turned it around.

Justified Watch

There's a lot of cast overlap with another favorite show of mine, Justified. In fact, I started watching Justified largely because of Timothy Olyphant. I'll be keeping a tally when appropriate. In this first episode alone, we had Timothy Olyphant (who starred as Raylan Givens, as mentioned above), Jim Beaver (Shelby Parlow), W. Earl Brown (Cal Wallace), Garret Dillahunt (Ty Walker), Ray McKinnon (Mr. Duke), Sean Bridgers (Virgil Corum) and Peter Jason (Owen Carnes).

MVPs

Since Deadwood is populated by memorable character actors giving career-best performances, I thought it might be fun to have a weekly MVP for main cast members, recurring cast and when it’s called for, guests.

- Main: Ian McShane, for reasons I've already stated. Really, it's a mesmerizing performance.

- Recurring: Timothy Omundson, who's never had a role without some kind of excellent hair experiment. Brom is such a fool that he could easily be frustrating, but Omundson makes him both amusing and likable. There's something endearing about his childish glee at grabbing a gold claim.

- Guest: James Parks, son of the late great Michael Parks, does a wonderful job as Clell Watson. He's clearly untrustworthy and something of a snake, so we don't mind when Bullock executes him, but Parks makes him just sympathetic enough that we don't want him lynched by a posse of fools.

Quotes

Jane: Excuse my ill humor. Certain people wear on my fucking nerves.

Bullock: We got chamber-pots to sell you. If you don't know what one of those is, the man living next to you will appreciate your finding out.

Tim Driscoll: Oh Jesus Christ, you know, if you had further plans, I wish you'd have just said something to me.
Al: Should I tell you when I plan to take a shit tomorrow or would that be none of your fucking business?
Even when disobedience benefits Al, he doesn't abide it. Control is more valuable to him than money.

Jane: I'm going now. Even without Bill. Even without Charlie. I know the road to Spearfish. And I don't drink where I'm the only fucking one with balls!

Four out of four chamber pots.

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I am so happy to see your first Deadwood review, Jonny! I'd pretty much promised myself that if we get a concluding TV movie, I'm going to do a rewatch. Maybe it's time to do one even if we don't.

Mallena said...

Loving Tim O in Justified, was the only reason I watch Deadwood. I watched it years after it premiered, of course, but I had read about it and all the ties to Justified and I wanted to see younger Tim's work. I enjoyed the show, but could have heard a few less F words. Very interesting review!

Jonny said...

Thank you both!

And Billie, a Deadwood rewatch is always a good idea. I'd forgotten how funny the show can be at times.