Welcome, all you ignorant cocksuckers, you limber-dicked motherfuckers, you degenerate titty-lickers. Welcome to all you squareheads and hoopleheads, you heathen dirt-worshippers and slant-eyed celestials, you gimps and Jews and chink bosses and Nigger Generals. Welcome to the shitheels, the loopy cunts, the interesting pieces of strange, to the imbeciles, the contemptible, and the promiscuous fucking insane. If I've not caught you mid-thrust in other business, if you are not pickling your prick in the cunt-brine of another, then pour yourself a whiskey, and help yourself to some peaches, and let us ponder together some fucking imponderables. Sometimes life is just one vile fucking task after another, and the world ends when you're dead, but it's a solace having friends: I know that from past experience.
Welcome to fucking Deadwood. It can be combative.
"You'll never know what the fuck really happened."—Ian McShane
Let's begin, perversely, at the end. If the Magical Television Genie were ever to grant me just one more season to bestow on the wrongfully-canceled show of my choice, I would spare only a quick, regretful glance towards my beloved Firefly before granting new life to David Milch's extraordinary Deadwood. The show ran on HBO from 2004–2006, and completed only three of its planned four seasons. (The circumstances of the show's demise are convoluted, and contested by all sides, but they don't really interest me here. As Deadwood star Ian McShane said, in a 2006 interview with the New York Daily News, "You'll never know what the fuck really happened.") Though the third season reaches a resolution, of sorts, there were many fates left uncertain, and many promising storylines left unpursued, when HBO pulled the plug.
For several years there were talks of two 2-hour movies that would tie up the loose storylines, and as recently as January 2011 creator David Milch said (in an interview with Esquire) that he still hopes to return to the show one of these days. But that's probably a dream: with Deadwood's sets torn down, with its cast scattered to the four winds, and with Milch himself launching a new show, Luck, for HBO this fall, I'm assuming that the 36 episodes we have are all we'll ever have of Deadwood. It's easier that way.
But that's okay. In a bonus feature called "The Meaning of Endings" on the Season 3 DVD box set, Milch himself speaks about how the whole idea of endings is arbitrary and artificial, and how we are not necessarily "entitled to a meaningful and coherent summarizing of something which never concludes." And he's right. Deadwood could have gone on longer, but it could never really have concluded; the majority of its characters are based on real people, most of whom went on living interesting lives well past even what a fourth season could have covered. (And, of course Deadwood itself—the community that we see gradually grow from a mining camp into a town—still exists today in what it now South Dakota.) Deadwood could always have continued, and I would always have wanted more, but any ending place would always be somewhat arbitrary.
Besides, as Milch says, "The whole idea of an ending of something being its source of meaning is something I find problematic." For me, the 36 episodes of Deadwood not only have meaning and integrity as a cohesive whole, they represent the very best of what television can achieve.
This summer I will be reviewing Deadwood from the beginning, posting weekly reviews that discuss two episodes at a time. I'll start next week with Episodes 1 and 2, "Deadwood" and "Deep Water," but this week I want to discuss, in general terms, why I think the show is worth the effort, and perhaps convince a few of you to join me in the journey. This will be as spoiler-free as I can make it, and future reviews will avoid drawing on later events, because I'm especially anxious to persuade those of you who never gave Deadwood a chance to come along.
As an inveterate recommender of TV shows, however, I've occasionally found Deadwood to be a tough sell, so let's address some of the possible issues:
"But it's a western. I don't like westerns."
Well, it isn't really a western. Creator David Milch is a New York born, Yale-graduated writer and poet, a street-wise and erudite East Coaster. (If he mentions the James Brothers, he's more likely to be referring to William and Henry than Frank and Jesse.) He is also a recovering heroin addict and former career criminal turned highly-successful script-writer, who worked for five seasons on Hill Street Blues and co-created NYPD Blue with Steven Bochco. All of which is to say that cowboys and Indians are not really his thing; in fact, as Milch explained in an interview with Salon in 2005, his original idea for an HBO series had nothing to do with the Old West:
I had proposed to HBO a series about the city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. What had interested me was the idea of order without law. The Praetorian Guard, who were the emperor's guards, understood how they were to proceed. But for the city cops, who were called the Urban Cohorts, there was no law at all. So they were sort of making themselves up as they went along. I wanted to focus on that idea of how order is generated in the absence of law. They [HBO] were already doing a show about Rome in the time of Caesar, so they asked if I could engage the same themes in a different setting, and that was how I decided to do the western.
Milch goes on in that interview to say that what interested him about police shows is that cops are charged to "control people who won't obey the social contract." As both Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue demonstrated, his work is a product of the generative tension inherent in that situation: the lines people will and won't cross, the meeting place of order and chaos, and the "improvisation" (his word) that is required to maintain the peace in a world where justice is an ideal, not a reality.
So Milch created Deadwood, which is a show about a place with no laws at all. The series begins in 1876, when Deadwood itself is an illegal community, the Black Hills having been ceded to the Sioux in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. But the rich veins of gold discovered by George Armstrong Custer during an 1874 expedition have drawn thousands more fortune-seeking squatters than the U.S. army can keep out, and Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn (a few weeks before Deadwood begins) has rendered that treaty more or less moot. Deadwood is technically on Indian land, unofficially part of the Dakota Territory, and effectively a place with no governing authority of any kind.
This is Milch's real interest: a place of improvisation, where society is being made up by the residents as they go along. How do we govern ourselves, left to our own devices? How do institutions form? How does a social contract develop in a place where there is no law?
"So it isn't a western? But I like westerns."
No, Deadwood isn't really a western, not in any traditional Hollywood sense. If you go in expecting cattle rustling, quick-draw showdowns in the street, and high-speed chases on horseback, you're going to be disappointed. But that doesn't mean it doesn't play with some of the traditional western archetypes—usually to show the truth beneath the legend—and that doesn't mean it's boring. After all, Deadwood takes place in a lawless town filled with tough, hard people fighting over unimaginable fortunes: many of them are drunk, most of them are greedy, and nearly all of them are armed. People get shot, stabbed, hanged, and trampled by horses. They have their eyes gouged out, their fingers cut off, and their bodies fed to ravenous pigs. (Body disposal is a lucrative career in Deadwood, with eaten-by-pigs being the preferred method.) There is sex, there is violence, there is backstabbing and scheming, there is gambling and whoring. There is human trafficking, and a smallpox epidemic, and some extremely unpleasant 19th century surgery. All of it is more realistic and less glamorous than your average Hollywood western, but trust me: it doesn't lack for incident, and you won't be bored.
"But I've heard the language is a mite bit spicy."
A bit, yes. A tad. Occasionally, just around the edges. Actually, www.imbd.com reports that the word fuck and its derivatives are used nearly 3,000 times in 36 episodes of Deadwood, which averages to about 1.65 fucks per minute. (And that’s not even counting all the uses of shit, cunt, prick, twat, tits, pussy, asshole, and—perhaps Deadwood’s signature invective—cocksucker.)
(By the way, if colorful language offends you, you probably shouldn’t read this review either. Maybe I should have mentioned that earlier.)
"But did everyone really talk like that back then?"
Probably not. Almost certainly not, in fact. But so what? No one in the Elizabethan era ever spoke quite like Shakespeare’s characters do either—and I do not make that comparison lightly. The language in Deadwood is glorious, a mixture of the sacred and the profane, a stylized dialect that draws on Shakespearean flourish, Jamesian syntax, and Mametian vulgarity. Yes, at first it is off-putting, and then you get used to it, and eventually the obscenely-punctuated rhythms of this show’s dialogue get into your system, to the point where you may have to catch yourself from calling your family members, friends, and co-workers “cocksuckers,” whether they deserve it or not.
And the language has a purpose: it serves to remind us that we are in a society without even the most basic of social contracts. Actually, the function profanity serves on this show is directly opposed to the function is serves on most others. In a polite society, swearing is the exception to the rule, and the maverick or lawless character can be identified by his or her vulgarity. Here, lawlessness is the rule, and it's the outsiders who are identified by their refusal to partake in the common vernacular. In one early episode, for example, Ellsworth—a rough-and-tumble prospector—is stiff and uncomfortable with a fancy lady who has just arrived in town, until they sort out the problem of a common language:
Ellsworth: Well, ma'am, I've got myself a working gold claim.
Joanie: Well, sir, is that a damn fact?
Ellsworth: Yes, ma'am, a hell of a working gold claim…And if we knew each other better I'd throw "fucking" in there somewhere.
Joanie: Well, if you did I'd try to catch it.
Ellsworth: A working fucking gold claim, Joanie. And thank you for allowing me my full range of expression.
The few characters who don't swear—the preacher, the newspaper man, and the school teacher, for example—tend to represent the sorts of traditional institutions that have little place or effect in Deadwood; the spread of manners over the course of the series is one of the many bittersweet signs that civilization is beginning to creep in around the edges.
"And what if I don't care about any of that?"
Then come for the characters, and some of the best acting on television. Deadwood has a true ensemble cast—there are 13 characters who appear in every single episode, and at least ten others who qualify as major recurring roles—and the actors are uniformly stellar. (If I was forced to pick out a few standout performances, I'd nominate Ian McShane as saloon-keeper and puppet-master Al Swearengen, and Robin Weigert as the drunken, gutter-mouthed, tender-hearted Calamity Jane. That these two didn't sweep up every available award for all three years Deadwood was on the air remains a mystery and a crime, but what are you going to do? As Al says, "You can't slit the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve.")
One of the pleasures of Deadwood is that, even with such a large ensemble, each character is incredibly layered, and painfully, complexly human: the noblest individuals have moments of selfishness and rage, and the most contemptible figures have instances of vulnerability and grace. There are no stock characters: more than any show I know, this series illustrates that universal truth that every person is the star of his or her own story, with even the lowliest henchmen and whores seeming to have lives and ambitions beyond what we see on the screen. Much of the frustration about Deadwood's early termination, in fact, has less to do with hanging plot threads, and more to do with the feeling that there were characters who had entire worlds inside them that we had barely begun to glimpse.
One of the things I hope to think about through the re-watching of the series is whether anyone in Deadwood actually changes; we see characters undergo tremendous and startling character arcs, but I suspect Milch may ultimately come down on on the side of Heraclitus, who said "character is fate." There is a sense throughout the show that no one can escape who they are, and we see characters continually come up against the limits of self-transformation and redemption. On the other hand, much of the pleasure of Deadwood is watching the ways in which characters come together, forming friendships, alliances, and dependencies that we could never have predicted from the pilot. (Those of you watching for the first time: I will try not to spoil developments down the road, but I challenge you to just try and predict which characters will end up as friends, or as husband and wife, or standing together against common threats.)
In the end, however, the central character of Deadwood is Deadwood. We watch the town grow over three seasons from a squalid camp to a flourishing community, and we watch the ways major and minor events ripple throughout its residents, creating the need for new structures and rituals, forming new recombinant patterns of dependence and enmity, creating and destroying surrogate families. The town of Deadwood is a living, changing organism, composed of remarkable characters who don't fit anywhere else, who come together at the frontier of civilization to shape a makeshift home that can accommodate them.
"Okay, but…is it any good?"
Put simply—if you'll allow me my full range of expression—it's one of the best fucking shows ever produced. (And those who doubt me suck cock by choice.)