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One of the most wonderful cases of “The Internet Rediscovers an Older Show That’s Amazing And We All Rejoice In It” that has occurred recently is the grand migration toward The Sopranos. The classic of the early aughts, and the standard bearer of the “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” mantra, has become a renewed source of analysis, meme creation, and sheer joy in the last year or so, and for good reason. It’s a truly great series, fascinating as both a crime drama about mob culture and a commentary on the death of the American dream and the miserable rotting of masculine myth.
In short, it’s been great. So do Deadwood next!
Deadwood emerged a few years after The Sopranos, debuting in 2004 and lasting just three short seasons before being abruptly canceled. The brainchild of TV-writing legend David Milch, it’s a series that uses the titular town in 1870s South Dakota to tell a story about how a community organizes itself through the law, money, violence, and simple hope and good will. That last part is often in short supply, but despite Deadwood’s grime and renowned use of curse words, it’s also deeply humane and at times spiritual in its thematics.
There’s a lot to be, well, mined from Deadwood, a story that takes place in the middle of the fabled Gold Rush in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territories. The town serves as a watering hole of sorts in land that was formerly occupied by the Sioux, a Native American tribe whose presence still looms as a reminder that much of American history is made with atrocity. Maybe “watering” is the wrong word, as one of the lead characters, the powerful Al Swearengen (portrayed with charismatic mastery by Ian McShane), runs a popular saloon and brothel. There the liquor flows abundantly, a drunken escape for the wannabe prospectors that have crowded into the town.
Deadwood’s original tagline was “A hell of a place to make your fortune,” and the town’s occupants live up to the immediate disarray that it promises. The series revolves around former sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a ball of rage, pride, and resentment who can’t escape the sense of responsibility that’s forced upon him by the town and his own nature. It’s augmented by a slew of excellent foils: In addition to Swearengen, there’s Alma Garret (Molly Parker), estranged wife of a New York dandy, whose acclimation to the town becomes one of the series’ strongest arcs. “Wild Bill” Hickok (Keith Carradine), legendary gun fighter and showman, arrives to show his reputation belies the fact that he’s seemingly sacrificed himself to his worst urges. And there’s Cy Tolliver, owner of a rival saloon and played with seething venom by the late Powers Boothe.
But the series’ cast is expansive, and excellent from top to bottom. It includes the likable Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie); alcoholic heart of the series “Calamity” Jane (Robin Weigert); forthright prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson); the soulful Sol Star (John Hawkes); good-hearted Ellsworth (Jim Beaver); the Civil War-haunted Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif); pathetic hotel owner E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson); and many others. Few series have as strong of an ensemble as Deadwood, and with each episode taking place roughly over the course of a day, the inner-workings of the town are laid bare as we watch the routines, habits, and (often chaotic) diversions of these characters play out. Deadwood earns the near-passe line “the location itself is a character” only partly because of its incredible set design. The characters serve as the blood in its veins, its head, its limbs, and its hands—a metaphor that is made clear by the sermons of the minister (Ray McKinnon) who almost becomes Deadwood’s Greek chorus.
Through it all, the show’s 1870s setting also remains relevant. The cold machinations of the government represent both progress and a setback, depending on a character’s intentions. Greed drives decisions constantly, threatening to steamroll shared bonds of mankind. In the third season, sociopathic gold profiteer George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) arrives in town, eager to gobble up an area that he only sees with big cartoonish dollar sign eyes. As such, the community built over the first two seasons is put to the test, in the same way that modern corporations can often threaten lives in the journey to impress shareholders.
And yet, there is no clear-cut attempt at a moral lesson. Just as Al Swearengen once said, “No one gets out alive;” no characters emerge unscathed, and the way that many of them deal with their innate vileness is continually fascinating. Swearengen and Bullock, each dealing with an internal struggle with their own capacity for cruelty, never become pure hero or villain. Instead, they survive to be as noble as the world allows them, with circumstance and self-loathing intermingling as one.
Those who come to the series looking for cowboy shootouts and John Wayne antics will not be totally displeased. However, the murder in the show, for the most part, is never treated as anything less than heavy necessity or ghoulish backlash. At the end of the first episode, a man lays gunned down in the muddy street, having been all but executed for his crimes. But there is no glory or rootin’ tootin’ sense of justice. Instead, blood pours from his eye and he rots in the morning sun as folks look on with curiosity and horror, the town’s underbelly split open to reveal a fate that no one is wholly safe from.
For years, Deadwood was considered one of the greatest shows to never get an ending, and that didn’t really change in 2019 when Deadwood: The Movie came out. Instead, to use a gambling phrase, the film settled the series’ debts, giving us a tribute to the characters we loved while also ensuring their spirits were now free from the spectre of being capped off too soon. It is an imperfect, beautiful finale, but perhaps the best we could ever hope for given the unsparing passage of time.
Deadwood is more than just a relic from the early “Golden Age” of prestige TV, and better than any reputation of “that cowboy show where everyone drops F bombs all the time.” Instead, it is a portrait of humanity, sometimes grim and sometimes relishing in the joys of community: A man dies brutally while an orphan is protected by a ragtag group of outsiders; a town pariah comforts the poor souls afflicted by smallpox; two characters dance on a floor that’s been freshly scrubbed of blood. Welcome to Deadwood.
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Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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