Summering in Deadwood: “Deadwood”
Season One, Episode One
For those of you who don’t know, I came into television fairly late in life: rather than a lifelong obsession, my love for television really only arrived in 2004, with Lost and Veronica Mars amongst other shows providing a sudden awareness of the breadth of television available. Sure, there had been a few shows that had been appointment television before that point, but suddenly there was a desire to watch everything that was out there, a desire which eventually drove me to start this blog and, well, the rest is history.
However, in the process, there have been shows I’ve missed, a problem that takes longer to rectify when you’re watching so many shows currently airing and perhaps worst of all, also dealing with commitments to the real world. A lot of these shows happen to have aired on HBO: being both young and Canadian, my access to shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, or The Wire was limited by resources, and there just wasn’t the drive to start catching up on them. Now, however, I find myself entering into a critical discourse wherein these shows (in particular The Wire and The Sopranos) are scarily prevalent, and so I’ve felt obligated to play catch up, and have picked up the DVDs whenever I’ve spotted a sale. As a result, last year I caught up on Six Feet Under (well, until I got frustrated and stopped mid-5th season), and spent a whirlwind few months with perhaps the best piece of television I’ve ever born witness to, The Wire.
This summer, after an informal twitter poll confirmed what I was likely to choose if left to my own volition, I shall be confronting the fourth part of this HBO twenty-first century grouping, David Milch’s Deadwood. It’s a show that I’ve heard extremely good things about, but also one that I am fairly ignorant of: I knew the basic premise, and knew the actors from various roles since the show ended (supposedly) prematurely, but my sense of the show’s general direction or message is pretty well a clean slate. I feel as if that’s a pretty good way to go into the series, although one that will admittedly make this post and others potentially less interesting for those who have already seen the show.
Summering in Deadwood is not going to be an overly formal review format, outside of my usual verbosity; I don’t expect I’ll review every single episode, focusing instead on likely some quick Twitter notes and reviews of the episodes which stand out for any particular reason, whether they be plot, character, or some sort of response which feels as if it is worthy of some discussion.
And to start things off, “Deadwood” is certainly worthy of some discussion.
[WARNING: I haven’t seen the show, and have not gone beyond the episode being written about – as a result, PLEASE refrain from spoiling anything to follow, although some subtle teases are allowed presuming they don’t ruin any surprises to come.]
When Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen walks into his Gem Saloon after the town begins to talk about a family being slaughtered along the Spearfish road, he establishes law in a lawless town. No, it isn’t the kind of law we normally associate with, but it is an authority that has just as much power. If the point of the law is to control people’s behaviour, then Al is a master: of course, the behaviour he wants to control is to make sure that even in the face of a very human crisis they throw away all inhibitions and keep gambling, keep drinking, and keep having sex with his prostitutes. As such, he offers them a free round on the house, and “half-price whores,” and his strategy is highly effective. In a town without laws, Al Swearengen is the equivalent of sheriff, ensuring that the liquor is flowing and that, more importantly, anyone who dares to stand in his way finds themselves on the opposite end of an enforcer or two.
On the opposite end of this spectrum, meanwhile, are two former law men who arrive in Deadwood looking to make a new start on life. Wild Bill Hickok is a legend: despite this being 1867, people having seen photographs of the man, and in many ways he represents the ultimate outlaw. Deadwood, as a result seems like the perfect place for him: without law his previous exploits won’t hunt him down, and he’s able to run free amongst the streets of the town. Seth Bullock, meanwhile, just resigned as a Montana Marshall before deciding to head to Deadwood to start a hardware business: his motivations aren’t entirely clear, but the opening scene of the pilot detailing his refusal to allow a local to enact his own form of justice against a horse thief demonstrates at the very least a frustration with a situation where there is law in theory but anarchy in practice. Deadwood appears to offer him a place where there is no law for him to uphold, and he can go about his business without that weight on his shoulders.
But the pilot’s key message with these two men appears to be that law is not so much the rules than it is a moral and ethical responsibility: when the vagrant arrives with word of a family massacred, Bullock immediately goes into his law mode, and Hickok does precisely the same once he arrives. Despite having only recently been on opposite sides of the law as written, they are on the same side when it comes to the potential of a survivor out in on the trail freezing to death. There are some people who are not able to wipe their conscience clean when they arrive in Deadwood: both men know better than to take the vagrant’s word for it, and they both eventually confront the vagrant when it is clear that “the jig is up,” so to speak. Perhaps the point of Deadwood is not Al’s depravity, a town without any concept of law, but rather a place where the law is a variable, highly dependent on who is present to interpret it.
It’s a perfect scenario to introduce these characters, especially the relationship of sorts between Bullock and Hickok. You’ll notice that it is Bullock who leads the way in pretty much every turn: he’s the one who initiates the conversation, the one who pushes hardest for them to head out to the bodies, and even the one who finds the young girl. When they eventually confront the vagrant in the showdown, it’s Bullock who moves first, with Hickok only stepping in once confirming with Bullock’s business partner that the hardware man isn’t precisely the best shot in the land. We even get the sense from his right hand man, Charlie, that Hickok is here less to run wild with lawlessness than he is to simply retire out of a chaotic life. We first meet Bill, after all, lying in a wagon with a headache, not exactly the most demonstrative image of a world famous outlaw. There is a sense that there is a passing of the torch in these scenes, a subtle understanding between two men who share part of a past history but who nonetheless have taken very different paths.
Bullock is a particularly intriguing character, primarily because he is so knowledgeable: he represents the greater threat to Al’s saloon, for example, since he appears to be the most conscious of his surroundings. There’s the great scene when he’s opening the hardware store, and he appears at first to be a definitively awful salesman: he’s barely even talking when they first start their pitch, and he isn’t really motivating anyone or anything. However, as his partner begins to fill in the gaps with a more aggressive pitch listing prices and the like, Bullock proves his worth: when someone tries to place a hold on a pair of boots, he corrects him and tells him it’s first come, first serve to avoid any sort of hassle. When a man announces that he just found a coupon in his bar of soap from another merchant, Bullock wastes no time informing the man to take his game to another location.
It’s a perfect setup of these three primary characters in the show’s world, because you’ll notice that it never pits the two sides against one another: you hear Al speak of Hickok, certainly, but he never enters the Gem Saloon. You can sense already that these sides are going to come into conflict: Bullock is not going to approve of Al’s methods (swindling new arrivals like the New Yorker, giving dead johns to the pigs, etc.), and Al is not going to approve of Bullock’s insistence on sticking his nose where he doesn’t believe it belongs, which is pretty well anywhere near his way of life. The pilot contains many elements which feels like they are mere hints at what to come, not quite fully formed, but these characters are so clearly drawn, and so clearly placed on two sides of a conflict that it’s hard not to be extremely intrigued on what will follow. And since, unless we view our own sense of morality as objective and believe we have the two sides entirely figured out, the situation remains morally ambiguous on at least some level, and the characters have shown more than one side already, the show has plenty of room to grow in directions we can’t yet anticipate.
The pilot’s other main focus is on the women of Deadwood, albeit one which really spends very little time with them. Alma, wife of Garret the swindled New York prospector, is not even a character: the box and my knowledge of the show tell me that Molly Parker becomes an important part of the series moving forward, but here she is a wife who sits in a hotel, drinking away as she watches her husband essentially make a fool of himself. It isn’t clear to what degree she understands that he is being swindled, that his fancy suit and his ridiculous cowboy hat make him an easy mark for Al, who through the help of his bartender, the local hotelier and a degenerate gambler manage to sell him a tapped out gold claim for $20,000. It’s not clear whether she’s waiting for his father to shut them down, or searching for an escape route from a loveless marriage, but hers is the character most likely to breakout, so I’ll reserve judgment until this happens.
The other woman we meet within the town itself is Trixie, one of Al’s prostitutes and one who finds herself a gun and uses it to defend herself from a John who believes she stole his money. This is the storyline that feels the most ambiguous, if only because I’m not sure I really understand what is happening. The episode leads us to believe that Trixie has reason to fear Al: he nearly stomps in her throat as punishment for what she did, and that seems like a pretty extreme reaction to self defense, even considering Al’s concern about it tainting his business to have one of his whores shoot a customer. When she tells one of the attendants to get her another gun, and then walks into Al’s room at episode’s end, we presume that she’s about to shoot him for attacking her, but she places the gun on the nightstand and then strips down before climbing into bed with him.
I’m presuming that this is such that she is his favoured companion, as she certainly snuggles up to him at the end more than this being some sort of sexual offering of peace. If we view the gun as a red herring, the reverse Chekhov if you will, then it all makes sense, and if anything I’d presume the gun was perhaps his idea to protect her, and that she was simply showing him that she had taken further precaution to protect herself. Again, we didn’t spend enough time with Trixie to receive enough evidence to fully engage with her character, so judgment shall be withheld until we get that chance. Still, it’s definitely a very different side of Al than what we see otherwise, and it’s interesting that when he heard the knock on the door he grabbed his gun: did he expect the person to shoot him? And did he know it was her? The actual ending kind of makes those concerns irrelevant, but I’m still curious.
The other female character we meet, of course, is Calamity Jane, who is kind of fantastic. There are a few characters in the universe who feel particularly exaggerated to give the town some colour (the newspaper man, the Christian storekeep, etc.), but it’s Jane who stands out thanks to her sense of both loyalty and morality. Sure, she has a mouth on her, which provides plenty of comedy in the pilot, but she also more importantly follows Hickok around in an effort to assist him more than anything else. She stays with his wagon while he rides ahead to the camp, and she follows him out to the site when she hears that he went out on the Spearfish road, carrying back the young girl as a woman “should” (note how quickly Bullock hands her off) if not as most women would: she does, after all, pull a gun on the good doctor so that he doesn’t take the girl inside without her there to supervise. It’s a really fun character to watch, and definitely a strong addition to the cast.
The cast, by the way, is pretty damn fantastic: I have seen the various actors in all sorts of other things, but it’s clear that this is going to overtake the other shows in terms of my answer to “Where do I know them from?” Timothy Olyphant brings a real sense of honour to Bullock, especially in the rather haunting opening scene where he hangs the horse thief and hands the man his badge when he’s willing to give the man’s final wishes to his sister: it isn’t clear at first that he was the one who wrote that list, and this was all a choreographed stageplay to ensure that the man’s family wouldn’t lose everything they had to the hands of revenge, but Olyphant’s performance there and throughout the episode is great at couching those small reveals.
Ian McShane is similarly fantastic as Al: whether it’s his more dramatic speeches, like his authoritative anarchy in the Gem, or in his smaller moments of comedy, reminding his bartender to kill their co-conspirator in a nonchalant fashion, McShane is totally in control of this character who desires total control. The actors around him all do similarly strong work, but their interactions with McShane are always the most eventful: just the way he is able to command them to do pretty well anything he asks, and how they are anticipating his every move with their every word, creates a character with as much power over our experience of watching the show as it has within the world of the show itself.
As for the supporting cast, there’s plenty of strength here: Brad Dourif is fun to watch as the doctor clearly interested in things other than fixing people (he marvels at the john’s ability to last twenty minutes with a shot clear through his brain, and makes the leap that the consciousness cannot exist in the frontal lobe), Garret Dillahunt pops up in a small role as a bit of a foil for Hickok, and Robin Weigert (who I remember people talking about when she appeared as Juliet’s sister on Lost) is just too much fun as Calamity Jane. Keith Carradine isn’t particularly long for this world in my mind, considering his character’s legend seemingly being passed off to Bullock in some ways, but he gives Hickok that right balance of ability and tiredness that really defines the character’s role in the conflict.
It’s really just a plain fantastic pilot, one that tells a very simple story that’s pretty much perfect for establishing not only these characters but also the milieu of the entire series: David Milch’s writing and Walter Hill’s direction perfectly capture the time period, the locations, and pretty well everything else you can imagine the show needing at this stage. I’ve not had enormous experience with Milch’s work, but I watched the first five episodes of John from Cincinnati when it debuted, and this definitely feels like a more logical home for his particular brand of expletives and the like.
- Really curious to see just what Dillahunt’s character is up to: he’s a small little note, but his desire to guy Hickok represents a threat that the episode didn’t really live up to.
- Loved the little moment where Calamity Jane speaks to the Minnesota family heading home: it’s a small little beat, but it was too focused on for it not to be foreshadowing, and when they announced the family having been massacred (and noted that there was one child who could be missing), the focus on the little girl and the family’s existence really put the pieces together.
- I don’t have time to do extensive writeups of every single episode, but I do want to spend some time writing about the show: as a result, without spoiling anything (consider that a general rule, remember that I’ve never seen the show at all), which episodes in Season One would you like me to blog about, for those who have seen the show? I’ve got some academic deadlines to deal with, so I’m not in a huge rush with the series, and as a result planning things out ahead of time might be a worthwhile strategy. Leave a comment below, or send me an email, or even respond on Twitter if you’d like.