We’re nearing the end of this little journey: The Best 20 Seasons of the Last 20 Years. With all due respect to my illustrious employer, what an absurd notion. Understandable, maybe even necessary, what with this being a site devoted to artistic criticism and all, but absurd nonetheless. No doubt some or all of you will grumble when we come to the end of the road that your favorite season of your favorite show wasn’t covered. In fact, I won’t lie. There are some exclusions about which I’d like to grumble. I won’t. It would hardly be fair. I mean, I haven’t seen it, but it’s hard to argue with puppets in space. And I really will get around to watching “Veronica Mars” one of these days. Honest. So, it is with acute awareness of the ridiculousness of this perspectivist endeavor that I would like to state, unequivocally, that I believe “Deadwood” to be the best show to have graced the small screen. Not my favorite, mind you, but the motherfucking best. And anyone who dares say differently sucks cock by choice.
Now, how can I give such distinction to “Deadwood” when the best show ever is clearly “The Wire”? (That’s right, I can hear your thoughts through the screen.) In many ways “Deadwood” and “The Wire” are opposite ends of an hourglass. The former deals with a community as it forms, the latter with a community as it disintegrates. But the devil’s in the details, and “Deadwood” goes deeper. Where “The Wire” offers us passing glimpses into the lives of disparate yet interconnected fully formed, compelling characters, “Deadwood” cracks open its characters’ chest cavities and gives us a window into the darkest reaches of their souls. Creator David Milch, scion of Shakespeare, master of the modern soliloquy, offers terrifying insight into just how fucked up we all are. But “Deadwood” doesn’t just plumb the depths of the human soul struggling to survive in a chaotic and complex environment: It does so using every tool in the artists’ arsenal, to the fullest of their potential. Writers, actors, designers and directors: Every performance of every character, every word and gesture, every hair pinned in place, every corset, every cravat, each and every rough hewn ceiling joist seems to have leapt intact from some parallel 1876 South Dakota universe and onto our TV screens. The world of the show, so foreign to modern eyes, is complete, unwavering and undeniable. From every angle, “Deadwood” is storytelling at its absolute finest.
The story goes that Milch was developing a show about city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. He took it to HBO who, thanks to the zeitgeist, already had a show about Rome in the pipeline. But they so loved the central theme he was exploring, the genesis and evolution of community in a lawless land, that they asked if he couldn’t find another setting for his story. The black hills of South Dakota at the end of the 19th century provided the perfect Petri dish. The town of Deadwood grew by 10,000 residents in the three months around the time Milch set the beginning of his story. It was a town beholden to no human cocksucker. Not only was it not under the jurisdiction of the federal government, but, had they attempted to organize, the U.S. proper would have viewed it as a threat and squashed it. Its very existence was dependent on its lawlessness. Yet humans, all irreparably broken and yearning to be whole, need structure and community. We need purpose and faith, whether it be found in God or in pussy. It doesn’t matter from which moment in time you slice a sample, these human needs, this necessity, never change.
Season One most clearly articulates this theme. We arrive in Deadwood at the dawning of a new age. The old is embodied by Wild Bill Hickock (brilliantly played by Keith Carradine) who represents the iconic West. He has mostly outlived his usefulness as a lawman and is now relegated to collecting appearance fees and acting in Wild West shows. He has come to Deadwood in search of a neverending card game and enough whisky to drink himself to sleep (and possibly to death). The new is embodied by Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), co-proprietor of the camp’s hardware store and former marshal from the Montana Territories. The series opens on Bullock in his last night in Montana, sitting on a horse thief. Before he and partner Sol Starr (John Hawkes) can head out, a posse arrives, brandishing rifles and torches, and demands Bullock turn over the thief so they can put a bullet in his head. While it would seem to be six of one, half a dozen of another, Bullock insists the man be hung “under the color of law” and manages to string the fucker up before the mob can get their hands on him. As much as Bullock hates a mob, he hates even more the responsibility of containing one. Deadwood is to be his escape. Yet once there, despite his best efforts and constant protestations, he is incapable of minding his own business. He leads a search for an orphaned child, and along with Wild Bill he metes out justice to the murderer of her family. He takes on the responsibility of looking after the interests of Alma Garret (Molly Parker), whose husband was murdered on their bonanza gold claim. And when her duplicitous dad shows up to siphon off her holdings, he beats him to a bloody, motherfucking, tooth-spitting pulp. Bullock confides in his friend, “What kind of man have I become, Sol?” He responds, “Don’t know. Night ain’t fuckin’ over yet.” Bullock is aware of, if unable to control, his violent dark side. The beating he delivers Alma’s Pa is the last straw. He knows what he is capable of and that the only way to structure his rage is to don the sheriff’s star and try to channel the energy for the good of the camp. He cannot escape himself. Not even in Deadwood.
Lording over the camp is Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), proprietor of the Gem Saloon. Like Bullock, Al detests a mob, not because of his sense of justice but because of the threat it poses to his hustle. When word arrives that a family of “squareheads” (read: Swedes) was attacked by Sioux on the road out of town, Al calms his patrons, who are planning to posse up, with the promise of free booze and half-price pussy. The saloon stays full. While on the surface Al appears to be an amoral, vicious, murderous cocksucker who beats on his whores and shivs unarmed men, there is a pipsqueak voice of compassion inside him. It is the voice that tells him to keep Jewel (Geri Jewell), the leg-dragging gimp, around the place, and it keeps him from murdering his favorite whore when she steps out on him:
Al Swearengen: Don’t you think I don’t understand. I mean, what can anyone of us ever really fuckin’ hope for, huh? Except for a moment here and there with a person who doesn’t want to rob, steal or murder us? At night, it may happen. Sun-up, one person against the fuckin’ wall, the other may hop on the fuckin’ bed trusting each other enough to tell half the fucking truth. Everybody needs that. Becomes precious to ‘em. They don’t want to see it fucked with.
But above all, Al is a master tactician. He sees the whole board better than anyone in Deadwood. He knows his days as ruler of the little mining camp fiefdom are numbered, but he also understands he can shape the inevitable structure and order to his financial benefit.
The beginning of the end comes when Wild Bill is shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall. Hickock is no nameless hooplehead; he was as big a celebrity as one could be at the time. The trial of his murderer threatens to usher in the first rays of civilized light to the camp, and this Al cannot abide. He puts a stop to it, and McCall is acquitted without a breath of testimony, but Al’s efforts are futile. Around the same time McCall is splattering Hickock’s brains on the wall, smallpox comes stumbling into town. While Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), proprietor of the Bella Union Saloon, tries to cover up the incident by dumping the infected patron in the woods, the sickness quickly spreads through camp. Realizing the only option for survival is to pull together, the first informal meeting of influential townspeople is called at the Gem. A plan is devised to obtain vaccine and erect a sick tent on the outskirts of town. The sick tent doesn’t just offer respite for the infected, it gives those without purpose a calling. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), hopeless alcoholic and lover of Wild Bill, is disconsolate after his death. Caring for the sick offers her a way through her grief. The Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), whose preachings have fallen on deaf ears, now has a ministry. As Season One progresses and it becomes clear annexation is imminent, the structure of the community further crystallizes. But it is in this moment, facing potential devastation from disease, that the camp first coalesces around something deeper than economic necessity.
The stellar artistry of “Deadwood” is apparent in its tilt-a-whirl structure. There are so many characters orbiting each other and the town at once, it’s a wonder they don’t crash into a heap. The centrifugal force that keeps all the stories in motion is this unifying theme of community and mutual need. As Reverend Smith reminds us at Wild Bill’s funeral: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.” But if this theme is the meat of the show, the rich sauce is David Milch’s genius facility with language. Fortunately, “Deadwood” provides him the perfect venue for his skill, one in which heightened, bawdy language is organic. (Anyone who suffered through “John From Cincinnati” knows how trying Milch-speak can be when it feels out of place.) Milch’s brilliance with language goes deeper than mere communication and extends to the most basic expression through sound. If you’ll permit me a bit of an indulgence, I’ll offer a story to illustrate just what the fuck I’m talking about:
Many a moon ago I was studying theater at a summer program in Oxford, and Fiona Shaw was my Shakespeare teacher. While she’s best known to American film audiences as a character actress from such gems as the Harry Potter series and Three Men and a Little Lady, us theater geeks know her as one of, if not the most, accomplished Shakespearean actress currently drawing breath. At the time, she was playing Richard in a much renowned production of Richard II in London and was commuting up to Oxford a couple of times a week to teach our class. On our first day, she was late. We sat in silence in the cold, stone basement of Balliol College (built circa 1430). Then, in one of the most surreal moments of my life thus far, Fiona exploded through the door in shorts and a tank top, dripping with sweat and let loose a guttural, “FUUUUUCK! I’m so sorry I’m late.” She kept on, mile-a-minute, “You know ‘Fuck’ is one of the greatest words in the English language. If you follow Shakespeare’s theory that vowels carry emotion and consonants carry thought then think about what that word means: fffffffff, k! That’s the thought. And Uuuuuuuuuuuuuh! That’s the emotion. Say it with me now: fffffffff uuuuuuuuh k!” And we did, the whole room bellowing: “ffffffff uuuuuuuuuuh k!” Over and over.
Every writer worth their salt gets the melody and rhythm of language in his or her bones. Some are diction nerds like me and understand the nexus of mechanics and meaning (Don’t get me started on the word “cock.” Two plosives flanking an open back rounded vowel? Perfection.), while others know it intuitively but couldn’t explain it if they tried. Milch’s genius is that he doesn’t just have a masterful grasp of the mechanics; he also is fearless in constructing intricate and ornate linguistic obstacle courses. No matter how complex and meandering the syntax:
Swearengen: I wanna know who cut the cheese. I’ll tell you this for openers: We are gonna set off an area on the balcony. And God help whoever doesn’t use it, because the next stink I have to smell in this office, and whoever doesn’t admit to it is going out the window, into the muck, onto their fucking heads, and we’ll see how they like farting from that position, okay?
Or how about:
Wild Bill: Some goddamn point a man’s due to stop arguing with hisself and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is ‘cause he can’t be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and fucking it up. I don’t want to fight no more, understand me Charlie? And I don’t need you pissing in my ear about it. Will you let me go to hell the way I want to?
Milch has faith that, not only will the actors deliver the lines “trippingly off the tongue,” but that even if the specific and detailed meaning is lost on the viewer, it won’t matter. The consonants carried the thought. The vowels carried the emotion. On a basic, primitive level, just hearing the sound is enough. And as for the neverending stream of “fucks” and “cocks” and “cunts,” never would Milch dream of curtailing his characters’ “full range of expression.” But the language of “Deadwood” is as much about the sound of the words as it is about the verisimilitude of foul mouths in an outlaw town.
Foul language also acts as a shield, helping the inhabitants of Deadwood keep their emotional distance from one another. The added, and I’m quite sure intentional, benefit of the choice to shove at least one “fuck” in every sentence is the aching poignancy found in the rare moments where two people actually connect. The perfect example of this, and quite possibly my favorite scene in the season (if not the series), comes toward the end of Episode 11, “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking.” Trixie (Paul Malcomson) and Sol have been circling each other since he got to town. Trixie is as broken a human as can be. Having spent most of her life as a whore, having been beaten repeatedly and having barely survived a suicide attempt in which she burst a vein trying to OD on opium, one would understand if she never let another human anywhere near her heart. So it’s a surprise when she marches into the hardware store and up to Sol:
Trixie: You wanna free fuck?
Sol: Why would you say that?
Trixie: To know the answer.
Sol: Why would you say it like that?
Trixie: Jesus Christ. Mr. Starr, my cherry is obstructing my work, sir. Would you take it from me? Free?
Sol walks to the door, looks up and down the street and pulls it shut. He walks back to her, gently takes her hand and leads her to the back of the store. He lifts her skirt, unbuttons his pants and slides inside of her, all the while trying to look her in the eye, kiss her mouth, but she’s evasive. They’re interrupted by Bullock. Sol pulls out and looks to his friend, sheepish. Bullock turns on his heel and leaves, offering to lock up on his way out. Sol turns his attention back to Trixie, slips inside her again and tries to kiss her. She pulls away.
Trixie: Kiss my neck or tits if you have to kiss something.
He holds her gaze. Then, lovingly…
Sol: Let me kiss you.
She lets slip a slight smile.
Trixie: Well, you’re a goddamned Jew fool.
And with that she kisses him, deeply.
Despite the fucking and the shiving and the scheming and the vicious beatings (there’s something truly fucked about watching Kristen Bell, as a murderous, thieving whore, get her skull cracked in), “Deadwood” has no shortage of hilarity. In one of the funniest moments in the series, Al tries to communicate with Mr. Wu (Keone Young), the boss of “Chink Alley”:
Coming full circle, what sets “Deadwood” apart from all other shows, with the exception of “The Wire,” is its fearlessness in never ending an episode. They don’t end, they just stop, and often after a long and rambling soliloquy from Al. I mean, a motherfucking soliloquy. Who, other than Milch, can pull that shit off? My favorite of all of Al’s diatribes is also from “Jewel’s Boot.” Having banished Trixie to the whores’ quarters for fucking Sol, Al has picked a new favorite girl to share his bed. He has a lot on his mind. The camp will soon be annexed, and he’s had no luck bribing the magistrate to quash an outstanding murder warrant. As he disrobes, he barks at the whore:
Swearengen: You suck my dick and shut the fuck up, huh? … Now then, here. The place where I found you, huh? Is where this warrant’s from. Could you believe that I may have stuck a knife in someone’s guts before you got on the wagon and we headed out to fucking Laramie? No! Because I don’t look fucking backwards. I do what I have to do and go on. Woah, woah woah what? You got a stagecoach to catch or something? Slow the fuck up. Did you know the orphanage part the building you lived in, behind it she ran a whorehouse, huh? So you knew? So what the fuck are you lookin at, huh? Now I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Before she ran a girls’ orphanage that fat, Mrs. fucking Anderson ran the boy’s orphanage on fucking Euclid Avenue. And I would see her fat ass waddling out the boys dorm at five o’ clock in the fucking morning every fucking morning after she blew her stupid fucking cow bell and woke us all the fuck up. And my fucking mother dropped me the fuck off there with seven dollars and sixty some odd fucking cents on her way to sucking cock in fucking Georgia. And I didn’t get to count the fucking cents before the fucking door opens and there’s Mrs. Fat-ass fucking Anderson, who sold you to me, I had to give her seven dollars and sixty odd fucking cents that my mother shoved in my fucking hand before she hammered one, two, three, four times on the fucking door and scurried off down fucking Euclid Avenue probably thirty fucking years before you were fucking born. Then around Cape Horn, and up to San Francisco where she probably became mayor or some other type success story unless by some fucking chance she wound up as a dish for fucking cum. Now. Fucking go. Faster. … (He cums.) Okay. Go ahead and spit it out. You don’t need to swallow. Just spit it out. … (Long pause.) Anyways.
He takes a swig of whisky and cut to black.
The fucking end.
Yeah. … Anyways.
Beckylooo Who is a newly minted television writer. Don’t ask which show. Further rantings and ravings can be found at If A TV Falls in the Woods.
Guides | July 1, 2008 | Comments ()