From 2004-2006, HBO aired one of the most critically acclaimed series ever: Deadwood, a Western that takes place in late 19th century Deadwood, South Dakota, before the area was annexed to the Dakota Territory. Created, produced, and mostly written by David Milch, the show was based, in part, on newspapers and diaries from 1870’s Deadwood, and featured a mix of historical and fictional characters.
In reality, and in the series, Deadwood is lawless and dangerous, a place where men — and women — might make their fortunes or lose their lives at the snap of someone’s fingers. Gold, saloons, and brothels abound. Pimps, gamblers, and whores mix with lawmen, outlaws, and businessmen. The camp-town is uncivilized, as are many of the characters struggling to survive. Deadwood strikes gold every time I watch it, and the show has been hailed by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, as “the best TV show ever,” and this despite the fact that the series is somewhat reknowned (and villified) for its profane language.
The word “fuck” is said 43 times in the first hour of the show. It has been reported that the series had a total count of 2,980 “fucks” [in its 3-year, 36-episode run], an average of 1.56 utterances of “fuck” per minute of footage.
Yes, the language is gritty. The characters are rough. Life is harder than hard. But it all blends together to make a stunning and memorable show.
The Cast & Characters
The series begins with Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant)
and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes)
heading out to Deadwood, where they want to set up a Hardware store. One of the first people the pair meets is Gem Saloon owner and brothel-keeper, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, in his Golden Globe award-winning role).
Al rents Bullock and Star the land on which to build their store, so long as they don’t deal in liquor, gambling, or whores. Not only is Al one of My Favorite Villains, he is one of the most vivid and tascinating characters ever created.
Foul-mouthed, violent, sarcastic, murderous, and otherwise cruel to the point of sadism, McShane’s Swearengen is nevertheless also empathetic: a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, Al is frequently hurt by those whom he believes he can trust (though he usually reacts in anger to betrayal). Creator David Milch apparently wrote the role with Ian McShane in mind, and McShane’s performance as the vicious yet vulnerable Al make him one of the most intriguing and oft-quoted villains in history.
No single scene could possibly show you McShane’s range as Al. Ian’s subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and glances alone demonstrate more ability and talent in this role than some actors display in their entire careers. The fan-made montage Al Talks the Talk & Walks the Walk displays just some of Al’s villainy and McShane’s talent. (One of the “murders” shown in this montage is actually a mercy-killing of a severely afflicted and dying character, which Al had to be persuaded to assist in, since no one else — not even the camp’s doctor — was willing to help end the character’s intense, progressive, and incurable suffering).
Very Adult Language
(Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You)
Al has some of the best lines in the entire series, and most of the greatest swearing streaks, so you might as well hear some of the very best of Al’s Collected Wisdom. Because if you can’t abide Al’s language, you won’t want to watch the show.
Super Adult Language
(In Case You Ignored My First Warning)
Because Hardware Store partners Seth and Sol are renting their land from Al, they become involved with virtually everyone who has something to do with Al and the Gem Saloon. Soon after their arrival, however, the two partners become involved with the other residents of Deadwood, including Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif),
AW Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), editor of The Deadwood Pioneer,
and EB Farnum (William Sanderson, in his best career role), owner of the Grand Central Hotel.
These real-life characters interact with other historical notables, including Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine),
Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert),
Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Wild Bill’s and Jane’s companion,
George Hearst (Gerald McRaney),
Wyatt Earp (Gale Harold),
and actor Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox).
All of them become deeply enmeshed in the life of Deadwood as they attempt to make their lives matter, to make their fortunes, or to escape their pasts amidst love, lust, greed, and jealousy.
If mining, stealing, and hoarding gold weren’t enough to cause friction among the male residents of Deadwood, let’s thrown in some beautiful women. Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) falls for Sheriff Seth Bullock after her own husband dies.
Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) is Al’s favorite whore till she becomes involved with Seth’s partner Sol Star.
Seth’s wife Martha (Anna Gunn) arrives with her young son after her husband has fallen in love with the Widow Alma.
And Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), Madame of the Bella Union, across from the Gem,
wants to escape her cruel lover-pimp-boss, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), to set up her own place.
The Language Of Deadwood
Despite Deadood’s grim subject matter, and despite the obscenity, there’s language so poetic, it sounds like some of the best Shakespearean lines ever written. The actors say it all so naturally, but it’s the writing itself that allows the actors to ascend to the realm of poetry, even when they’re arguing. This montage — after the mostly funny first four minutes where all the characters are cursing — lets you hear the poetry and beauty of the language in Deadwood.
Super Adult Language
(I Don’t Have To Keep Telling You This, Right?)
Even in its most serious situations, Deadwood is filled with humor. Some of it made me laugh aloud the first time I viewed it, and I honestly don’t know how some of the actors did their lines without laughing through the entire scenes. This excerpt, sometimes called Who-Wu by fans, where Chinese “Boss” Mr Wu (Leone Young) is attempting to tell Al Swearengen, whom Wu calls “Swi-jen,” about white thieves who stole his dope, is one of the classics.
Super Funny But Still Adult Language
(But Surely You Know This Now)
If you like some of the the Westerns and the Darkly Twisted Comedies on my recommended lists, you’ll absolutely adore Deadwood.
Deadwood is available for free viewing on-demand for Amazon Prime Members (or with a 30-day HBO trial) and for HBO subscribers. Deadwood is availabe for purchase for about $2.99/episode or $24.99/season (HD), from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.
My original Top 10 Westerns post
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk
is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:
We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns
I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns
(originally films #6-10)
It Ain’t How You’re Buried That’s Important:
3 Western Coming-of-Age Films
I Ain’t Never Been No Hero:
More Great Westerns
No One Gets Out Alive:
Why You Need to Watch HBO’s Deadwood
Deadwood Strikes Gold!
The Sutherlands’ Forsaken Is No Unforgiven,
Though It Tries to Be
My Favorite Film & TV Villains