Every time I scan through a TV Best Of list, there sits Deadwood, described as “Shakespearan”, brilliant, and brutal. And you know what? It may be all those things and more. This post isn’t so much as a proper review as it is about me just thinking through what I’ve been seeing so far. Let’s talk about cocksuckers and gold mining!
I’ll be honest. It took me 3 rewatches of the first 2 episodes of Deadwood to process the characters (there are so many – and I thought Game of Thrones was tough), the setting, and what was going on. It’s that rich. I told myself after the first viewing of the pilot, I don’t understand, but there must be some reason why people love it. So I listened extra hard to the dialogue, pausing to digest when necessary. For someone that’s so used to fast-rolling plots that accelerate with head-snapping speed, a slow burn of heavy, 19th century-doused colloquialisms and careful universe-building is a challenge. If it didn’t have such great lines and a talented cast of actors to back it up, I might have given up, but hey, they held my interest. The production money was obviously well-invested. Trust HBO to bring authenticity to their non-modern sets and costumes. Once you got used to the language, had an adequate grasp of the scenarios and figured out the complexity of the relationships, Deadwood becomes a pretty damn addictive watch.
But this isn’t really for everyone. I know not many people will like or are into it because most of them won’t bother trying to understand what the show’s about or what it’s trying to do, because let’s face it: TV-watching of recent times is a most lazy affair. Stories and shocks are in-your-face; nothing much to think about. Not many will want to flex a muscle to dig in deeper to stories, even if it’s a good semi-fictionalized one. With shows nowadays, you don’t need to make an effort to pay attention to the first act where a character’s motivations are subtly laid out during a casual conversation with someone else; you just get bitchslapped with it, a snap of the finger that comes out of nowhere for no particular reason. You pause to say, “Oh shit!”, then be showered with multiple attempts by writers to prepare an explanation that doesn’t seem like an afterthought. It doesn’t take much to figure out. Oftentimes I find that I can still piece together the whole story and its episode arc while only dedicating 40% of my focus to it, but not with Deadwood. I have to be 100%. Sometimes I have to rewind for a second listen so I know I don’t miss the clever undertones/foreshadowing. When something crappy happens, you can usually allude to it much earlier on – episodes earlier, even – if you’re sharp enough to sense the danger. Most of TV is that blood sugar pump-and-crash Big Mac, a side of fries, and a giant coke – Deadwood is the mighty steak dinner with the red wine. It fills you up well, and it settles in your head most satisfyingly when you allow yourself to slow down and enjoy it.
With that said, Deadwood is amazing. Contrary to what more impatient viewers feel about the pacing, it isn’t draggy or slow for me but it can be harder to grasp all aspects of it at once. The day-to-day happenings of the little town suck me in, no matter how mundane. I’m about halfway through season 2, and it shows no signs of slowing down or speeding up. It just trots the pace that it wants to and doesn’t give a shit if you can’t keep up or hears you nag for it to go faster. It’s just that kind of show. That’s the type of show I like most anyway. There are so many times when showrunners have their ears so close to the snarky couch-potato critics on TV forums (like me, haha) that they fall prey to our sometimes (okay, a-lot-of-the-times) dumb suggestions and irreparably wreck their program. People can talk about it all they want, but creator/writer David Milch could give a rat’s ass about what you think. He came to write about “bringing order from chaos”, American capitalization, and all that other controversial stuff that HBO allows, and there isn’t anything you can say to change his mind.
His decision to ditch period-appropriate swearing in place of our modern cussing is great. Actually, I’m pretty sure someone did say “fuck” way back when, but we liked to think that theirs was a less crass sounding exchange of words between warring businessmen. The uncouth denizens of old, uncultured Deadwood needed to be crass, menacing, and match the rampant lawlessness that ran through its camp. So everyone turned from a goldarn’d ninnyhammer with trouble at his back to a meddling cocksucker giving me bags of shit to hold. No joke. The brash blend of culturally relevant vulgarity with old American conversation was hard to process at first, but once I tuned my brain to that special frequency, it all made sense. And it gave way to very cleverly constructed dialogue, soliloquies, and monologues.
Like most big-name HBO hits (though this was considered more of an underground success), Deadwood has an extremely large cast with talent pouring from their tits. The standout is of course, Ian McShane, playing the unspoken ruler of Deadwood, Al Swearengen. Technically, he’s the town pimp, the town barman, the town drug kingpin, the town mafia boss. He has a forceful, intimidating presence, an untouchable power to him that promises a good mangling if you just look at him wrong. When any characters speak to him, it’s out of shivering fear, cowering obedience, or hesitant-but-delivered respect. Al is the bad guy, but sometimes he’s the anti-good guy. You know he’s despicable, but you know he’s not a hundred percent rotten inside, though you need to squint hard to see it under all that meanness. Just when you think he’s turned good, he reverts to his fearsome, somewhat loathsome self. It’s this kind of characterization that makes one disregard prebuilt archetypes and stereotypes you would associate every personality portrayed in Deadwood – the upright ex-marshal with anger management problems, a widow both pitiful and menacing, the priest with a debilitating disease that ironically makes his faith look weak against the science of life – and turns your feelings about them upside down, inside out throughout the course of the series. The character evolution/growth is consistent, constant, and though the end result is never what you expect, you will probably take a moment to think in retrospect and realise that it was all so organic.
There’s no shortage of nudity, bloodshed from guns and knives, swearing, scheming and politicking. There’s also the womanly armpit hairs, the corpse-eating pigs, the scenes that are really difficult to watch (during season 2 in particular when a character has to endure a horrendously painful procedure to relieve him of his bladder stones), you know, the stuff that makes HBO, HBO. Absurdity is normalized, where horrors of now (like pimps making their whores fellate customers during card games, throat-slitting, public urination) are the much, much lesser evils at the feet of crueler crimes against humanity (like Mr Lee assuring Mr Tolliver an endless supply of Chinese women for prostitution, not feeding them and using them until they expire, after which their corpses will be food for pigs). The important thing is, all these are not unnecessary. They move their stories right along the road to hell. The brutality of things, the craziness of it all, doesn’t really seem that far fetched when you think about how people lived back in the times. Barbaric behaviour has been here awhile. Surely there’s little peace in a place without government or law to be bound by. Sex trade was indeed a huge commodity (it still is now). Okay, some of these things on the show may be gratuitously portrayed but it certainly adds more colour to the drama, or at least, remind us that people are as ugly and stupid on the inside since the dawn of time. After all, if shootouts and bar stool living weren’t sensationalized, who’d really be all that interested in the westerns that were portrayed in history books?
The characters are threadstarters on the scrappy map of Deadwood, their stories branching out, weaving to form a webbed system of complicated interdependence. We are just witnesses to a shitstorm. At any given moment, all the scenes could be things happening at once, and it’s really up to you to catch on quick. Frankly, the number of layers to the show and its stories don’t give me time to properly analyse them enough for a proper critique – I just get absorbed and go with the flow, wherever the tide takes me. I can’t spot the loose threads or incomplete subplots because of this. Maybe someone else can point them out for me. I mean, I can assess the relationship between Bullock and the women in his life, or what makes Jane Canary one of the saddest characters around, but I can’t say, “That scene didn’t make sense with that gaping plothole,” or “Man, that was a terrible retcon!” Somehow I also can’t seem to fault the show for the temporary disappearances of characters the same way I do with the TV of now – it’s like the show says to that, “Step aside, this is what’s happening and it’s key to the grand scheme of things, so if you don’t like it, fuck off!” The writing can be hard and fast when it wants to be, but most of the time it is rolling, plowing, being all sorts of intense. I have the same fondness for developments in the story that I do with Breaking Bad. All the characters are deeply emotional, and they’re intriguing. They can be annoying and interesting. I want to know them all better. And damn, are they quotable.
I’m so glad I took the time and effort with Deadwood. It makes me laugh, grimace, miserable, shocked and enjoy all of its idiosyncrasies.
My favourite scene in the whole series is easily the one of Doc Cochran, Trixie, Dan and Johnny lying slumped against Al soon after he’s pulled through the most difficult part of his ailment. As mean and a bastard Al has been to them outwardly, that was a family portrait that was bizarre and heartstring-pulling as any Hallmark schtick you’d find on The Office or Modern Family. By then I had already gotten to know them, understood their dysfunction, but still loved everything about this happening. These were the people Al cared about. And these were the people who had his back forever.
Like all shows that hint at greatness or seem to be offering something more than just your average gogglebox fare, Deadwood never got to finish on its own terms. Not even a teeny half-season wrap up of anything. Why HBO wouldn’t renew it is beyond me, and it’s why I’ll be dreading its end long before I’m even done with season 2. I’ve got no choice but to savour what I have of this – I’ll even use the word – brilliant tale of a small, disorderly community rising up to be annexed into a bigger piece of the world that they’re craving. History tells us that they were, but in my head, Deadwood will always be that precious ecosystem of misbehaviour and redemption telling us to grip life by the balls, rip ’em off, dust the gore off and keep going. That’s what we all gotta do.