Deadwood (Season 1) Review
The title of the 1962 western may claim it as being the story of how the west was won but having now watched the first season of Deadwood, I suspect this is slightly closer to the truth. Where one is an epic tale of the Prescott and Rawlings families' journey across America across the prairies, through the Civil War and the building of the railroad, keeping a mind on the honest and upstanding folks who built America, Deadwood populates its town with outlaws, illiterates and legends of the west. In Deadwood, where there are only those who want for the gold being struck in the Black Hills and those keen to profit from riches that are won as quickly as they are lost, there is no great fight to build a new country, just the getting by with as much violence, anarchy and desperation as that suggests. As Ellsworth, one of the prospectors, puts it, "Made my quota for whisky, pussy, and food." After that, there's little in Deadwood worth pursuing.
Opening two weeks after the death of Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, Deadwood is beyond the reach of the law in Ulysses S. Grant's America due to its setting within Indian land. Into the town comes Montana lawman Seth Bullock (Olyphant) and his partner Sol Star (Hawkes), looking to set up a hardware store, beginning by renting land from the owner of the Gem saloon, Al Swearengen (McShane). The gold in the Black Hills has, however, attracted more than them and Deadwood reluctantly welcomes Wild Bill Hickok (Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Weigert), whose legends are greater even than the shadow cast by Swearengen over the town. With a murder a day and arguments settled by handshake, revolver or half-price pussy, even this last frontier looks to the provision of law and order, threatened by the reach that Washington is gaining and the need to protect itself for when change inevitably comes.
Created by David Milch, who was a writer on both Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, and with its first episode directed by Walter Hill, Deadwood is as sure a hit as is likely to be created for television. Based on the real town of Deadwood, which was situated on Native American land at the time in which the series is set, Deadwood does not play fast with the names of the characters in the cast. Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane were indeed visitors to Deadwood in 1876 and it was at a saloon in town that Hickok was shot in the back by Jack McCall, a drunk who Hickok had upset during an earlier game by throwing a dollar his way and suggesting that he use it for breakfast. As the fifth episode of this season is titled The Trial of Jack McCall, so it was in Deadwood that McCall was tried only to be found not guilty and such was the legend of the death of Hickok that the hand that he was rumoured to have held - two pairs, aces and eights of both black suits - is still known as a dead man's hand.
Calamity Jane, Hickok's companion in this series, as in real life, is known to have moved to Deadwood with Hickok and, following his death, cared for the victims of the plague of smallpox that hit the town. With Jane having put her child up for adoption in 1873, Deadwood has her look upon a young girl who survived a massacre with both guilt and regret and, as best she can, to see that the little girl survives Swearengen's silencing of witnesses to a crime that he was behind.
Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, despite their legends, are not the only characters in Deadwood based on real persons - Al Swearengen built his saloon in Deadwood following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills and made good trade off the back of property, gambling, prostitution and extortion, all of which were affected by the intervention of real-life lawman Seth Bullock, who was employed as Deadwood's first sheriff following the Hickok's death.
If history has Swearengen's saloon burn down in 1879, after which he left town, and Bullock remain in Deadwood to befriend Theodore Roosevelt and, still in partnership with Sol Star, build the Bullock Hotel, which is still in operation to this day, then Deadwood has them drawn on opposing and, less frequently, the same side of the making of the town. To its credit, however, Deadwood never opts for what would damn another telling of these stories, where it would be all too easy to place Bullock on the side of order and Swearengen as an archetype for organised crime. On the contrary and as a reason given for my opening comment in this review, as Deadwood progresses beyond the third episode, Swearengen, Bullock and Cy Tolliver (Boothe, who runs the Bella Union saloon across the road from Swearengen's Gem) come together in occasional comprises, illustrating that, by having violent and dishonest men agree to haul themselves out of the dirt and the blood, that the west was not only won but that the basis of modern America was formed.
Aggressively on the attack within their own town and where their land borders that of the native Americans, the population of Deadwood studiously defends its freedoms from the rest of the United States, whilst also taking a measure of where the town may lie should situations change. In The Trial of Jack McCall, for example, Swearengen and Tolliver reluctantly agree to hold a trial for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok but, in doing so, Swearengen worries that, "We're illegal...our whole goal is to get annexed to the United fucking States. We start holding trials, what's to keep the US Congress from saying, "Excuse us, we didn't realise you were a sovereign community and nation out there."" His main concern is the protection of his assets from the reach of the government when a settlement with the Sioux chiefs eventually comes, thereby losing claim on his gold and property. At once far reaching in his outlook on what the future holds for Deadwood and, at other times, brutally threatening his whores with violence to keep them working, Swearengen is as unsure of his place in the world and many of those same doubts remain in those who followed him. The nature of the man is summed up in his holding up of a search party, as a vigilante mob buid to head out in search of the Sioux that attacked a white family. Eyeing the crowd and considering his involvement with the road agents that led the attack, Swearengen announces, "I will offer a personal $50 bounty for every decapitated head of as many as these godless, heathen cocksuckers as anyone can bring in...God rest the soul of that poor family and pussy's half price, next fifteen minutes!"
Whilst the final sentiment may be all his own, the former is not so far from those on the American religious right today, such as Ann Coulter's "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Whilst it is never made obvious, within Deadwood's rolling stories, there do exist the people and the decisions that have left America where it is today and if saloon and brothel owners like Swearengen no longer create such a draw on Main St., it's simply because they were eventually forced, or chose to move, into politics, where their influence moved from small towns such as this one to county-, state- or national-level.
All of which has made Deadwood a oddly smart, funny and occasionally beautiful show, which gave Sky One a strong audience share for its first episode in the UK. By the third episode, however, this was down by half and although it's not hard to see why, it is unfortunate that so many viewers deserted the show as it roughly at that point that the pace and nature of Deadwood changes. The first two episodes are certainly as bleak as television has ever been with both male and female nudity, murder, threats of violence against children and the strongest language that I can remember. Early reviewers in the UK said that watching Deadwood left them feeling as though they should take a bath immediately afterwards and it's hard to disagree. It is, however, not excessive and the show to which it bears closest comparison is to the opening episodes in the first season of The Shield, with Swearengen being this show's Vic Mackey but with none of Mackey's background at home. Indeed, the revelation of Swearengen's involvement in the events on the Spearfish road are as shocking as Mackey's at the end of the pilot episode.
But if the language is as strong as it is, with there being frequent uses of fuck, cunt and cocksucker, it's with good reason that Milch insisted on it. If swearing is, as has been said, the refuge of those without a good vocabulary, then Milch's point is that these are not educated people. Indeed, it is only Doc Cochran (Dourif) and the reporter A. W. Merrick (Jones) who typically refrain from swearing as they would both have had an education and as shown by the hotelier EB Farnum, many of the town's businessmen cannot even read the simplest of words. And it is funny, particularly in the short, sharp insults and disagreements, such as Swearengen's, "Get a fucking haircut. Looks like your mother fucked a monkey" or Calamity Jane's answer to Farnum's, "Be brief", "Be fucked!"
The last word should, once again, go to Ellsworth, whose appearances may not be plentiful but they are always memorable. Over the craps table in the Bella Union saloon, he shows his pride in his claim, "A hell of a working gold claim, and if we knew each other better I'd throw "fucking" in there somewhere." As Joanie lets him have his say - "If you did I'd try to catch it" - Ellsworth comes back with, "A working fucking gold claim, Joanie, and thank you for allowing me my full range of expression!"
Deadwood is not the best of recent American imports and, for the opening three episodes, it doesn't look like much more than The Shield set in the wild west but hold out both for the first few tender views of the passing West or for the sense of the epic that does eventually come and the series can be frequently wonderful.
The twelve episodes included on this DVD release are as follows but, as this section includes many, many spoilers, those of you who would rather not read about the entire series should scroll down to the end of the review:
Deadwood (59m05s): Following his hanging of a man in Montana, marshal Seth Bullock leaves for Deadwood with his partner Sol Star to set up a hardware business, renting land and a tent from saloon and brothel owner Al Swearengen. Arriving not long after them are legends of the west, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, who settle in to rest and play poker. As Swearengen works on the wealthy Garrett couple on the exchange of a worthless claim, word comes of a massacre by the Sioux of a family leaving Deadwood for Minnesota on the Spearfish road. As Hickok and Bullock investigate, they threaten Swearengen's interests in the road agents who really committed the crime.
Deep Water (53m37s): As Bullock and Hickok bring in a little girl who survived the massacre on the Spearfish road, Swearengen takes a closer interest in her recovery than would be usual for him. His efforts, though, are slowed by Calamity Jane's close watch on the girl. Elsewhere, Garrett realises the true value of his claim and considers what options he has to recover his $20,000 whilst Bullock and Star look to buy out Swearengen on the land that their store sits on. Hickok asks Bullock to watch his back as the road agents ride into Deadwood and he upsets Jack McCall over a poker game.
Reconnoitering the Rim (49m47s): Despite asking Swearengen for assistance in recovering the money that he paid for his claim, Garrett finds that he only suggests going back to the site of the claim with barman Dan Dority to check there is no gold. In leaving, Garrett threatens to bring in the Pinkertons whilst Swearengen instructs Dority to make it look like an accident. Swearengen, though, is more concerned with the arrival of the Bella Union saloon across the street from the Gem but Cy Tolliver, the owner of the Bella Union, lets Swearengen know that his saloon with attract a better class of clientele. After much negotiation, Bullock and Star complete on their purchase of land from Swearengen and set about building their hardware store.
Here Was a Man (56m00s): As Garrett's body is recovered from the site of his claim, Swearengen tells EB Farnum to buy the claim back from his widow, Alma, just in case she carries out her dead husband's threat to call in the Pinkertons. Alma swears off the laudanum that she had been taking and asks Hickok and Jane for help in settling the matter of the claim. Hickok, however, is feeling under pressure at the poker table before his luck finally runs out, whilst, over at the Bella Union, the arrival of Andy Cramed in some discomfort causes a serious problem for the town.
The Trial of Jack McCall (52m47s): With a high-profile murder having been committed in the town, Swearengen turns the Gem into a makeshift court and sets up stall in the town to find a jury and members of the bar. With Jane missing, Alma and Trixie agree to look after the little Metz girl whilst, at the Bella Union, Cramed is seen by Doc Cochran who diagnoses smallpox. Faced with a loss of custom so soon after opening, Tolliver sends Cramed off into the woods where a drunken Jane finds him close to death. Back at the courtroom, the verdict is announced, leaving Bullock to take the law into his own hands whilst Swearengen takes steps to avoid any vigilantism within the town.
Plague (49m30s): Bullock leaves Deadwood to track down McCall but is almost brought down first by a native American. Back in the town, Alma is still holding out on Farnum's offer, leaving Swearengen concerned over the threat of the Pinkertons arriving in his town. As Cramed recovers but more new cases of smallpox are reported, Doc Cochran, Jane and Rev. Smith set up a makeshift clinic whilst the town fathers send out a rider to get the vaccine. With concern about the rising number of people being brought down by smallpox, Swearengen has Merrick write an upbeat report in his paper about the imminent arrival of the vaccine and he also instructs Rev. Smith to, "...nip that Sodom and Gomorrah shit right in the bud!"
Bullock Returns to the Camp (47m23s): With Bullock and Charlie Utter on the way back to the camp after finding McCall, Sol Star picks up Alma, Trixie and the little Metz girl for Brom Garrett's funeral. With Farnum attending the funeral to pursue his purchase of the land from Garrett's widow, the arrival of Bullock forces him to act quicker than he had planned but still Alma holds out. Later, Bullock tells Alma that he will continue to act on her behalf until the matter is resolved and he follows that visit with one to Swearengen to tell the saloon owner that he will be watching how he settles with Alma. Elsewhere, Jane, Cochran and Smith continue their watch at the makeshift clinic whilst Cramed, now better, returns to the Bella Union to confront Tolliver about abandoning him in the forest to die. Finally, two teenagers, Miles and Flora arrive in the town in search of their father - Miles takes a job sweeping at the Gem whilst, under the watch of Joanie, Flora turns whore at the Bella Union.
Suffer the Little Children (53m11s): After his fight over Flora, Swearengen hauls Dority out of the bar and upstairs, telling him, "You might, Dan, want to learn how to indicate interest in a girl without murdering another person." Farnum, however, also has murder in mind, suggesting to Swearengen that Alma and Bullock ought to be next but Swearengen has a feeling that Bullock would be better served as a lawman in the town. When the vaccine arrives, Deadwood relaxes a little and Cramed oversees the issuing of shots to all in the town. Elsewhere, Ellsworth, Dority and Bullock look over the Garrett claim and find gold. Bullock goes back into Deadwood to tell Alma not to sell up and to, instead, raise the Metz girl in Deadwood. Alma asks Trixie to help but sees her leave the hotel to go back and turn tricks at the Gem. Flora and Miles hit the Bella Union but are discovered by Joanie, who asks them to put back her jewellery and leave. Tolliver's spirit is, however, not so generous after Flora stabs him in the leg and after beating the pair in his saloon, he shoots Miles before handing the gun to Joanie and telling her to finish off Flora.
No Other Sons Or Daughters (55m29s): With a magistrate arriving to make an agreement with the Sioux to annexe the Black Hills, which would include Deadwood in its area plan, Swearengen prepares for change in Deadwood. The magistrate tells Swearengen that bribes will be necessary to cover charges against anyone in the town that still exist outside of the Black Hills, including a murder charge on Swearengen from Chicago. Told that an ad hoc council will be necessary under the annexing of the area, the town fathers meet to agree positions on the council, with Farnum becoming mayor when no one objects and Bullock, from not wanting to be sheriff, becoming Health Commissioner. Elsewhere, Bullock advises Alma to employ Ellsworth to work her claim after his earlier find of gold and Calamity Jane, tired from watching Hickok die in Deadwood and doing little other than caring for the sick, wounded and unwanted, leaves town.
Mister Wu (50m35s): With Bullock and Charlie Utter taking their new jobs on the council seriously, there's a crisis in the Gem when Mr Wu shows up to tell Swearengen that the opium shipment that he was expecting was stolen by 'two white cocksuckers' who also killed his courier. With Swearengen going looking for suspects, Farnum starts bagging bribes to cover any outstanding charges from the US government and Bullock curses himself for getting involved in a position of authority again, having served as sheriff in Montana. With Rev. Smith's condition worsening, he angers Swearengen with his interest in the piano at the Gem - "Man of the cloth slows business down" - whilst Jimmy Irons and Leon, two dope users show up in town. Under pressure, they admit to holding up and killing Wu's man but as Swearengen knows that he cannot kill two white men for one Chinese, he has Jimmy and Leon draw straws. With Jimmy drawing short, he ends the episode in Wu's pigsty, having had justice served upon him.
Jewel's Boot Is Made For Walking (56m03s): As Swearengen contemplates the murder that he's wanted for in Chicago, the agreement on the annexing of the land gathers pace and Swearengen and the magistrate's man haggle over the monies required to make things run more smoothly. Elsewhere, as Alma continues to make use of Ellsworth on her claim, her father, Otis Russell, shows up in Deadwood and, with Utter busying himself to make the town safer, Bullock sees the post of sheriff go to Con Stapleton in a bid to help Nuttall avoid any fines over the rickety and unsafe construction of his saloon, in spite of Swearengen telling Bullock that he would support him should he want the job. Smith's condition has now left him preaching to oxen in the street and at passersby but despite what Cochran says, he still believes that it is God's will. Cochran has, however, got good news for Jewel about fixing her leg and with Trixie and Sol getting together, Swearengen replaces her in his bed.
Sold Under Sin (57m27s): A group of cavalry officers ride into Deadwood seeking revenge for Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn but still Swearengen is seeking to make the murder charge from Chicago disappear. One of the party is, however, Clagett, who is seeking to enforce the warrant for Swearengen's arrest. With Rev. Smith now dying, Doc Cochran asks Swearengen to provide a girl to look after him and the saloon-owner sends Trixie to help.
All of the recent events in Deadwood are now coming to a head and both Swearengen and Bullock have fights on their hands that will bring them together. With Alma's father now revealing the extent to which he is in debt, leading to his blackmailing of his daughter, Bullock beats him senseless in the Bella Union, after which he tears the sheriff's badge off Con Stapleton but still refuses to put it on. Swearengen, meanwhile, resolves the issue of the warrant and gently eases Rev. Smith of his pain before meeting with Bullock at the Gem. Swearengen asks if Bullock will deal with Alma's father the way that he and Hickok dealt with the road agents should he ever come back to Deadwood to which Bullock replies, "No, I'll be the fucking sheriff."
The only fault that one can put against the picture quality on this DVD transfer is that the picture is a little dark and suffers from being murky on external night shots but, given that the picture is a reflection of the activities in town, this could well be deliberate.
There is really very little to fault here with either the quality of the picture or the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and although missing the gloss of the CSI transfers or the colours of those on the boxsets of The Shield, this is still very good.
Unlike the Region 1, which came on six discs and included commentaries by the cast and crew on four episodes, a two-part interview with David Milch and Keith Carradine and two features - Making Deadwood and The Real Deadwood - this boxset has no special features, simply all twelve episodes spread over four discs.
Although Deadwood does bear some comparison to other HBO successes of recent years, such as The Sopranos and Sex And The City, it is much closer to a crime drama such as The Shield with Farmington being Deadwood some one-hundred or so years on.
Yet, amongst the graphic violence, relationships that are often little more than those between whores and their johns and the outright misery that exists in the town, there is something of the epic about Deadwood. Some of it, admittedly, comes from knowing that many of these people were eventually and largely written out of history thanks to the swift progress of the government in Washington.
But, in knowing that history also recorded the names of Bullock, Swearengen, Hickok, Calamity Jane and Sol Star, Deadwood offers a glimpse of a history that is really not so far removed from our own time, the influence of which is still felt. There is, therefore, a mix of sadness at seeing an epic time of discovery passing as well a sense of excitement of seeing legends being born that is entirely satisfactory.
If not the best of recent American imports, this is still an excellent series but it requires time. If the audience for Sky One showed that it didn't have the patience for Deadwood then, surely, the time is right for it to be discovered on DVD.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 08:39:19