With this post I begin my reviews of David Milch's Deadwood (HBO). For some preliminary thoughts on the series as a whole, see my introduction here.
Like all shows—and perhaps more than most—Deadwood has a lot of work to do in its first few episodes: There's a lot foundation to lay, a lot of exposition to get through, and at least a dozen major characters to introduce. There are also, by necessity, some expectations to recalibrate and thwart. Series creator and writer David Milch is very aware of the fact that, for most of us, our perception of the Old West is inseparable from Hollywood's, where the genre is as old as the medium itself. (The film widely credited as the first narrative movie—1902's The Great Train Robbery— is a western, and since then we have been fed a steady, surprisingly consistent diet of cowboys and Indians, horse chases and train heists, saloon brawls and showdowns.) The Hollywood version of the Old West is such a part of our cultural DNA that we have trouble accepting any other. It is—to borrow one of Milch's favorite phrases and themes— "a lie agreed upon."
So I'm sure it's intentional that the first episode of Deadwood hews a little more closely than subsequent episodes to the conventions of the classic Western, putting some comfortably familiar figures in place in order to complicate them beyond all recognition later. We have, for example, the former lawman eager to hang up his guns, but drawn inevitably back to the cause of justice. We have the aged gunslinger seeking a peaceful life, but dogged at all turns by his own legend. We have a powerful and corrupt boss who runs the town, and a whore with a heart of gold, and a beautiful, high-born damsel in distress. We have what seems—at first glance—to be a classic environment for an old-fashioned showdown between the good guys and the bad guys. (Only later will we discover that these distinctions are all but meaningless.)
The first scene even takes place in a standard-issue Wild West locale, a dusty but clean town square in the Montana Territory, indistinguishable from the setting of any Hollywood western, complete with livery, saloon, and marshal's office. It is May of 1876, and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the town's marshal, is about to retire and head to Deadwood with his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) to open a hardware store. Seth has all the markings of a classic western hero: He's handsome, square-jawed, soft-spoken, polite, and we meet him—as we met Gary Cooper in High Noon—on what is supposed to be his last day on the job. Seth has one more duty to perform: to hang horse-thief Clell Watson (James Parks). But this becomes more difficult when a lynch mob shows up wanting to take matters—and Clell—into their own hands.
Henry James—one of Milch's (and my) favorite writers—once said, "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?" This incident—based on a historical account of the real Seth Bullock—tells us everything we need to know about the character of our apparent hero. With an angry, heavily-armed mob standing between him and his duty, Seth is nonetheless stubbornly determined to execute Clell Watson "under color of law," and so he rigs up a noose right there on the porch. Clell protests that his sister was supposed to come witness the hanging in the morning, and also that the drop off the porch is too short, but Bullock accounts for both problems. He has the man say what he would have the sister told, and—to compensate for the short drop— he tugs on Clell's dangling body and breaks the condemned man's neck himself.
Even with two packed episodes to cover, this scene is worth taking some time to discuss, as it neatly condenses most of the major themes of Deadwood into a tight seven minutes. We see, as I mentioned last week, Milch's fascination with the (sometimes arbitrary) line between order and chaos, and with the improvisation that is sometimes required to carve out even a modicum of justice between the two.
But we also see, contrasted with the unbearable brutality of life, the difficulty and necessity of compassion, and the surprising presence of something I can only call grace. (The issue of religion is introduced early: Bullock and Clell have a little theological discussion prior to the hanging—agreeing that God has probably heard worse stories than Clell's—and with his neck in the noose Clell says "he has God's forgiveness.") Bullock is not a religious man, but he is a decent one, which in Deadwood may amount to the same thing. He writes down the dead man's words and calls for—and receives—a volunteer from the mob to deliver them to the sister. This too will be a recurring theme in Deadwood: members of the community—often surprising themselves—stepping forward to do the right thing, the Christian thing. There are relatively few overtly religious characters in Deadwood—and more than a few unrepentantly evil ones—but running throughout the series is a current of grace that seems, at times, to be all that holds the community together.
"Things sort out fast in Deadwood"—Al Swearengen
Once we're past this prologue, we jump to July 1876, to the Black Hills outside of Deadwood. (From here on out, the show will stick closely to its format, which is to show roughly one day in the life of Deadwood per episode. Though there are jumps between episodes, and longer jumps between seasons, episodes themselves play out over roughly 24 hours, with no narrative trickery: There are no time-lapses, no flashbacks, no montages, no slow- or fast-motion. It gives the series a realism—an immediacy and intimacy—that few shows can match.)
But, as we shall see, the days in Deadwood are packed. At this point in the camp's history, saloon-keeper Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) runs just about everything worth running in Deadwood, and—as one of his underlings says— "Al's got a lot on his mind." His favorite whore, Trixie (Paula Malcomson), just shot one of her clients, which is bad for business. Al is brokering a deal to sell a worthless gold claim to rich, clueless city-slicker Brom Garret (Timothy Omundson), but his greedy and careless accomplices E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) and Tim Driscoll (Dan Hildebrand) keep screwing it up. Meanwhile, road agents in Al's employ have murdered a family of "squareheads" (Norwegian settlers) on their way out of town, blaming it on the "heathen, godless, bloodthirsty Indians"—but they accidentally left one of the children alive to tell the tale. Finally, to make matters worse, the famous lawman and gunfighter James Butler Hickok (Keith Carradine) has come to town.
"Wild Bill" Hickok and "Calamity" Jane Cannary (Robin Weigert)—two legends of the Old West—are among the first people we see coming into Deadwood (among hundreds of others), and Milch quickly undermines our Hollywood expectations of these historic figures. Hickok is first seen laid out like a corpse in a wagon—which is foreshadowing, for anyone with even a passing knowledge of history—but it turns out he's just hungover and suffering withdrawals. Calamity Jane—a figure most famously played by the squeaky clean Doris Day—is here a damaged, volatile, incredibly foul-mouthed creature: She has a schoolgirl's crush on Hickok, but a chip on her shoulder for everyone else. ("It's only Wild Bill Hickok you got stalled out here in the mud," she admonishes the travelers. "You ignorant fucking cunts.")
One of the many pleasures of Deadwood is seeing the limits of individual perception. We have a bird's-eye view of the camp, but no one else does, so—just as in life—misunderstanding drives the plot as much as truth does. Wild Bill, for example, has absolutely no desire to do anything other than drink whiskey and play poker. He doesn't even want to prospect for gold—much to the frustration of his loyal friend Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie)—and he certainly doesn't want to involve himself in thwarting any of Al Swearengen's criminal enterprises. But his arrival in the camp throws Al into a murderous paranoia: In a town without laws, a famous lawman is the last thing Al wants to see.
Similarly, Seth Bullock and Sol Star just want to open their hardware store, but Bullock's dangerous sense of justice rears its ugly head almost immediately, allying him with kindred spirit Hickok and putting them both on the wrong side of Al Swearengen. (Bullock and Hickok are both former lawmen, and they agree that they were each more than happy to have given it up—but neither can help but investigate the road agent’s fishy story. Character is fate.) Forming an impromptu posse, they ride out to the massacre site, where they find the lone survivor—a catatonic little girl (Bree Sienna Wall)—and a lot of evidence that Indians had nothing to do with the attack. When they stand together to confront the bandit, he draws on them, and even they are not sure which one of them puts a bullet through the road agent’s eye.
"If she was to live, wouldn't she have a story to tell?"—E. B. Farnum
My intention is to avoid spoilers from later episodes as much as possible, but one small spoiler is unavoidable here, both for ease of reference and to make some larger points. The little girl's name—though we don't learn it for several episodes—is Sofia.
Sophia is from the Greek word for "wisdom," and is the name given by the Gnostics to the feminine aspect of God—long since removed from Christian dogma—who helped bring the universe into creation. I don’t want to belabor the point here, but I also don’t think her name is a coincidence: Sofia’s arrival in town is the first of several events that will turn this mudball of a mining camp into a real community. The child changes people, bringing out their nurturing sides and their better natures: she is the one pure innocent in Deadwood, and—even in a town without laws, and in a show without a single ounce of sentimentality—we’ll see how her presence helps catalyze new alliances and makeshift families around her.
Initially, the posse passes her off to kindly Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif)—who knows enough about Al's affairs to recognize the danger the child is in; and to Calamity Jane, whose fierce loyalty and inherent kindness make her a natural—if unconventional—caretaker. Cochran—a fantastically grizzled, world-weary character—does not think of himself as a hero. “Don’t worry about me,” he says. “I know what I am, and what I’m not.” But who he thinks he is will change through these two episodes, and he finds himself lying about the child’s prospects to both Al (who will want to kill her) and to Bullock (whom Cochran recognizes as someone likely to get the child killed by seeking justice). “I see as much misery out of them moving to justify their selves as them that set out to do harm," Cochran tells Jane.
Al Swearengen—who, as much as anyone, is the central character of Deadwood—appears to be a pure villain in these first few episodes. Standing on Trixie's neck, punishing her for defending herself from an abusive john, Al seems like the personification of evil, and his straightforward solution to most problems is murder. He sends his right-hand man Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) to dispatch Tim Driscoll for fucking up the deal with "the New York dude," and Al has both Tim and the dead john unceremoniously fed to the pigs. Al also goes to assess the situation with Sofia himself, and—in an incredibly powerful scene—reduces the tough-talking Calamity Jane to a quivering mess with just a look. Jane—whose own abused childhood is hinted at several times—seems to recognize Al instantly as the Devil himself.
That current of grace, however—personified in Sofia—is moving throughout Deadwood, and maybe even through Al himself. Al sends Dan Dority to kill her, but even Dan struggles with the idea of killing an innocent child. “Jesus Christ Almighty, Al,” he says. “A little girl? It’s hard on my conscience.” We see him struggling with the decision—clenching his hands together in a way that may or may not be prayer—and though he accepts the commission his heart isn't in it. When he arrives at Cochran's office, Doc meets him with a shotgun, and a stand-off that could turn ugly (almost certainly for Doc and Sofia) works its way out through a third option. Doc and Dan agree on a lie themselves, sending the girl off with Jane and Charlie, and telling Al that they abducted her.
McShane makes Al Swearengen a fantastically complicated figure, even in these early episodes when Al is mostly up to no good. He is not a psychopath, and he's not arbitrarily murderous: He is a fundamentally practical man with goals that are specific, even if they are largely unknown. (McShane arms Swearengen with a dead stare that can communicate dark, untold volumes.) Though he is willing to have it done, Al would take no particular pleasure in Sofia's death—he even gives her a sweet smile that seems sincere enough–and he almost seems relieved when he can pretend to believe the story Dan and Cochran tell him. It is a lie agreed upon, and Al, who created the threat to Sofia, now resolves it himself, killing the remaining road agent who could possibly implicate him. "No loose ends now," he says, after stabbing the first of many people who will bleed on the floor of his office.
The first time we see Sofia it is in a wagon, on the road out of Deadwood, surrounded by her family. Now, at the end of the second episode, we see her in yet another wagon, with Jane and Charlie singing her to sleep: a new family, of sorts, brought together in an unlikely place, by way of a strange set of circumstances, and protected through the surprising decency of some previously disconnected people who have begun—just barely—to form a community around her.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- It may be a mistake to try to do two episodes at a time, because I'm already realizing it is going to be absolutely impossible to do justice to every character and plot point in these write-ups. There's going to have to be some fungibility in these reviews: some scenes here I will come back and revisit in discussions of later episodes, when some of the characters and storylines move more centrally into play. But for now, here's some important people I didn't get around to talking about this time: Alma Garret (Molly Parker), the laudanum-addicted wife of the man Al is swindling; Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), the kindly prospector; and the Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), a painfully sweet and heartbreakingly isolated man of God. ("The Lord is our final solace," he tells his new acquaintances Seth and Sol. "But it's a comfort having friends: I know that from past experience.")
- Nor did I get around to discussing much about Trixie—whose relationship with Al is much more complicated than it appears—or Farnum, who is perhaps the most wondrously odious little man in Deadwood. We'll get to 'em.
- The set of Deadwood is an ever-changing masterpiece. Here it is a dirtier, more chaotic, more convincingly mud-soaked and shit-strewn place than any western setting we've ever seen. But also notice how the buildings—though ramshackle—are all brand new, with gleaming, untreated wood. This is a new camp, barely constructed, and it is a joy to compare the town here to what it looks like in Season 3.
- Revisiting these episodes, it's fun to see, in minor roles, some faces that have since become familiar. Garret Dillahunt (currently starring in Raising Hope) plays Jack McCall, the droop-eyed wretch who annoys Wild Bill at the poker table. And yes, that naked, hirsute, grotesque beast swinging his penis and balls around Al's office is Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) from Parks & Recreation.
Finally, no recap of Deadwood would be complete without some quotes:
- Ellsworth: "I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and workin' a paying fucking gold claim."
- Ellsworth, again: "Goddammit, Swearengen, I don't trust you as far as I can throw you. But I enjoy the way you lie."
- Jane: "Excuse my ill humor. Certain people wear on my fucking nerves."
- Al, calming down his crowd after news of the murdered family hits his saloon: "God rest the souls of that poor family. And pussy's half-price next 15 minutes."
- Jane: "I don't drink where I'm the only fuckin' one with balls."
- Ellsworth, yet again, tactfully changing the subject: "And fuck us all anyway for the limber-dicked cocksuckers we are."
- Bullock, responding to Bill's question about which one of them shot the road agent first: "My money'd be on you."
- Al, on Bullock: "He's got a mean way of being happy."
- Al, on business: "Here's my counter-offer to your counter-offer: go fuck yourself."