Celebrating Deadwood

Michael explains why HBO's Deadwood was one of the best shows of the last decade, and why we need to get over the Lovejoy problem...

This feature contains very mild spoilers.

Sometime around late 2001, early 2002, David Milch strode into HBO’s New York offices with a TV pitch that was as bold as it was simple. He expressed it in one sentence: “St. Paul gets collared.” Put more fully, Milch’s idea was for a TV series that would examine how a society could function without law. He chose ancient Rome as it managed to function as an imperial capital without a standing police force. The Romans still managed to get things done; wouldn’t it be interesting to see how? Unfortunately for Milch’s elegant pitch, HBO had already ordered a series set among the Ceasars, they didn’t need two. No problem, said Milch, I’ll set it in the Old West instead.

It’s a neat little vignette but it speaks to a larger truth, that the central themes of Deadwood -community, economics, the absence of law, the growth of institutions – are more important than the muddy thoroughfares, gold claims and saloons of its setting. This is certainly the case, but in placing his drama in frontier America, Milch tapped into a setting that enabled him to examine these ideas in the context of a growing nation, giving them a richer importance.

One of TV’s smartest writers, Milch still managed to fit St. Paul into the show. In a funeral scene in the first season, the Reverend Smith delivers a reading from 1 Corinthians 12, “For the body is not one member, but many”. It’s a powerful motif, the uniting of a community who come to find that, even in the absence of traditionally binding institutions –the law, formal politics- they are all connected and mutually dependent on one another.

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The development of the community and its institutions is the show’s chief theme, greater even than the absence of law. The growth of the settlement itself is portrayed not just through the words and actions of the characters, but, ingeniously, also through the architecture of the town. In the early episodes, most structures are temporary tents, with only a few fully-built places. As the seasons progress, more sophisticated buildings are added (Seth Bullock’s self-built townhouse is a particular delight). It is wonderful storytelling that uses the visual medium and the show’s thirty-six hour running time to the full. It would be difficult to replicate this development in a film or a novel without making it so obvious as to lose some of its power. This is a TV show doing what only a TV show can do. It also makes Deadwood a great addition to box set culture; the viewer learns more and more on every repeat viewing. 

Of the early buildings, it is no coincidence that they include the three main leisure zones, Tom Nuttall’s No. 10, the Gem Saloon and The Bella Union. Adherents of economic determinism will find much to admire here. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, we see the town grow outwards from a single economic driver – the gold find. The town itself is a product of the find, a creation of the need for resources for the prospectors. The earliest businesses -the saloons, the hotel, Star & Bullock’s hardware store- all have prospectors for customers.

Later institutions support the town itself, the telegraph, the bank, the postal service. Later still come abstract institutions, political structures, the law, all of them in support of the central economic settlement. It is here that Deadwood and The Wire can be seen as companion pieces. If The Wire showed us why institutions fail, Deadwood showed us why they were founded in the first place.

The first two seasons see these nascent institutions form a delicate balance. They are forced to co-exist amid the very anarchy they were designed to combat. As such, they are not welcomed by everybody, local boss Al Swearengen is deeply suspicious about the introduction of the telegraph, and takes it upon himself to doctor the newspaper’s editorials, but they do work.

However, by the end of the second season a new arrival is heralded, the wealthy prospector George Hearst, through whose mining concern we can recognise all large corporations. By the time he arrives, we’ve seen several power struggles in the town. Hearst makes them look like playground brawls. He is a man of such colossal power that the cowed townsfolk find themselves burying their petty differences to unite against the common threat. Finally, the town’s leading citizens recognise that they are all of the same body.

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The growth of corporations would mark a permanent change, one that is not lost on Deadwood’s canniest denizens. As Swearengen puts it, “We are in the presence of the new”. The nature of corporations is perfectly represented by the person of Hearst himself. His reputation precedes him and he is spoken of fearfully by those who have encountered him before. In person, he can be unfailingly courteous and polite, the archetypal pillar of the community. This is simply a veneer, a mask for a deadly ruthlessness that he initially acts out through his subordinates. As his frustrations mount, his patience fails and he is revealed as a brutal, evil bully. 

Hearst is played by Gerald McRaney, an actor known to US viewers as the star of early 90s sitcom Major Dad. His turn as the ruthless Hearst was something of a departure, giving at least one reviewer pause. Still, that’s nothing compared to what UK fans might term ‘The Lovejoy Problem’.

I have been a Deadwood evangelist for almost ten years, and the biggest problem I have found has been in convincing people to watch a show featuring Ian McShane. It seems that some people’s memories of his twinkly-eyed, roguish antiques dealer Lovejoy doesn’t bear challenge.

This would be mildly amusing if it were not for the fact that one of the best reasons for watching is Ian McShane. From a cast that delivers almost uniformly excellent performances, McShane is primus inter pares. He invests Al Swearengen with an almost elemental power, pushing out every line in a deep growl that is at once natural and terrifying. It is a role requiring a terrible charisma, which McShane delivers superbly. His performance is supported by brilliant plotting and characterisation, making Swearengen crucial to the development of the town. He is a murderer, a pimp, a drug dealer, a shrewd manipulator who exploits the weak and beats women. He cheats, lies and connives his way through life. Along the way he helped to build America. It is a difficult truth that the modern world has such fingerprints on it.

McShane is joined by an outstanding cast, among them Timothy Olyphant as the temperamental lawman Seth Bullock, John Hawkes as his insult-proof business partner Sol Star, Powers Boothe as the deeply evil brothel owner Cy Tolliver and Robin Weigert as the permanently pickled Jane Canary, better known to history as Calamity Jane. Pick of the bunch, however, is Brad Dourif as Dr Amos Cochran, a medic so intensely melodramatic that he makes Bones McCoy look like Hawkeye Pierce. His is a wild-eyed manic performance, a brilliant portrayal of a man whose sanity is only kept in check by his commitment to his profession.

He is certainly kept busy. For all the politicking, much of the rough and ready environment is shown through the use of body horror. Grisliness abounds from the very first episode, which features an unfortunate brothel customer who survives, briefly, having a hole shot right through his skull. His inconvenient body is disposed of in Swearengen’s preferred method: devouring by Mr Wu’s pigs. In later episodes we see a host of horrors -anaesthetic-free kidney stone removal, the slow physical decline of a man with a brain tumour, someone literally kicked senseless by a horse and the gruesome plucking of an eyeball. 

None of this is made any easier on the character by a familiarity with pain. Doc Cochran’s near-breakdown at the climax of season one is brutal. He is a doctor, not a miracle worker, and there are limits to his power to ease the suffering of others and nothing to ease his own. He’s a Civil War veteran. His suffering is severe.

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What conceivable godly use was the screaming of all those men? Did you need to hear their death agonies to know your omnipotence? Mama! Mother, find my arm! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy they, they shot my leg off, it hurts so bad. It hurts so bad. 

It is difficult not to draw parallels with the then-new war in Iraq. It remains one of the angriest pieces of television you will ever see.

Angry sentiments require angry language. Again, Deadwood delivers. Much ink has already been spilled on discussions of the show’s heavy use of profanity. One count logged 1.56 f-words per minute. None of them are gratuitous. Milch wanted to express the absence of law and social niceties through language. It’s as harsh, visceral and lewd as the environment in which it is spoken.

For all the swearing, most of the dialogue is very mannered, poetic even. Characters speak through a combination of implication, circumlocution and metaphor. Take the following dialogue from Magistrate Claggett in the final episode of the first season. It is a tense scene, with suspicious men meeting across a table.

The appropriate gesture made by you toward me would lead me to dissuade the General from the garrison option as well as clear away from the cloud of uncertainty regarding your personal liabilities, namely the incident in Chicago…make the appropriate gesture and the constable hand of the past will not weigh upon you.

Or, in more direct language: do right by me and I’ll keep the soldiers out of the town and make your arrest warrant disappear. 

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This is not florid for florid’s sake. Like everything else in this show it has a purpose in supporting the storytelling. It is a careful, measured language that purposefully avoids making any direct claim or challenge. Without the reassuring structure of social norms, and in the absence of mediating institutions, the characters must tread carefully. Political manoeuvres are negotiated with extreme caution, and the precise meaning of communications are analysed deeply. It is a dangerous town, a hell of a place to make your fortune. It is by no means coincidental that two of the most cowardly characters, newspaper editor A.W. Merrick and hotel owner E.B. Farnum use the most deliberately opaque language. Here’s the buffoonish E.B upon meeting the dreaded George Hearst:

Allow me a moment’s silence Mr Hearst, sir, I’m having a digestive crisis and must focus on repressing its expression.

I’m sure we can all sympathise.

The arrival of Hearst formed part of a powerful arc that, sadly, was never to be completed. The show was not renewed for a fourth season, and although talk of two TV movies circulated for a while, even this is no longer likely. The prospect of any further Deadwood has long since been chewed up by Mr Wu’s pigs. When the show ended, it felt abrupt and unfinished. Looking back however, some sense of ‘completion’ can be found. Hearst had the upper hand and the spectre of annexation by the United States hung over the town. Although it remained dangerous, the anarchy we found in Deadwood had been tamed. Order had been brought to chaos.

Nevertheless, it is a show that is deeply missed. Deadwood remains a key text in the canon of modern American television. In a very strong field, it has a solid claim to be the best television show of the past ten years. It was, from first to last, the product of a writer’s vision, a testament to the fact that TV can be a medium of ideas and proof, if any were needed, that some of the most beautiful, poetic language starts with the letter F.

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