The western genre has enjoyed another revival (not that it ever went away) with True Grit. Whilst watching the Coen Brothers’ retelling, I found myself pining for the long-gone HBO modern classic Deadwood.
There, I said it, the magic word HBO, which in itself is a seal of quality. Makers of some of the most acclaimed and provocative TV shows ever: The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, True Blood, Carnivale, the recent Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones.
Deadwood ran for three seasons from 2004-2007, and suffered the same fate as Carnivale, in being cancelled too soon. In its short but eventful life, it was nominated for a host of accolades, winning eight Emmy awards and one Golden Globe. There were talks of two TV movies to wrap up the series, but sadly these plans never came to pass.
The story is set at the height of the gold rush in the 1870s. The lawless camp of Deadwood is a temporary home to many historical figures, such as Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Al Swearengen. Owner of the notorious Gem Saloon, Swearengen is a violent and cunning businessman driven by ruthless ambition. Seeking his riches by exploiting the inhabitants of the prospering settlement, Swearengen clashes with the newly instated Sheriff Bullock, who strives to bring law and order to the rebel state. We witness the expansion and evolution of Deadwood, fuelled by the arrival of new prospectors, a rival saloon, gunslingers, Wyatt Earp and George Hearst: a man even more dangerous than bastard-in-chief Swearengen.
It’s impossible to talk about Deadwood without mentioning the swearing: this is not the romanticized vision of the west on which the genre was built. There are more F-bombs in the opening episodes than there are in the whole of Goodfellas. This was a stylistic choice made by the series creator, David Miltch, it serves to emphasis that the settlers are living far from a civilized environment. If you’re easily offended, then this isn’t the show for you. Being the Wild West after all, there is also a lashing of sex and violence. But where Deadwood really sets itself apart is the dialogue. At times almost Shakespearian and spoken with such authority you feel as though you should be taking notes.
The charismatic but deadly Swearengen is played by former Lovejoy star, Ian McShane. Perhaps an unlikely choice, McShane is clearly aware he has the role of a lifetime, and delivers a hypnotic performance in bringing a dark and complicated character fully to life. However, Deadwood is not built on the foundations of one larger than life performance; its secret weapon is that there isn’t a single pointless or miscast character. Everything about Deadwood feels so authentic you can almost smell it.
What the series does so well is weave historical fact and narrative fiction together. There is such depth to each and every character, no matter how big or small their part and their shifting relationships are central to the narrative.
Notable highlights include the begrudging friendship between Swearengen and Mr Wu (leader of the camp’s Chinese population) and the unlikely love affair between working girl Trixie and shy accountant Sol Star.
Deadwood boasts an ensemble cast of known character actors you’ve likely seen in something before, including Timothy Olyphant as Bullock, Brad Dourif, William Sanderson, Robin Weiget, Jeffrey Jones, Powers Boothe, Brian Cox and Stephen Tobolowsky.
Without spoilers, the ending is merely satisfying, rather than happy. Not because it isn’t good, simply because there is no more. Only when the end credits roll, does it hit you how invested you are in these people and how sad you are to be taken from them.
Deadwood is a slow burner that rewards you for going the distance. You’re given a brief window on to a world you’d love to visit again.
But like many visitors, we’re just passing through.