Deadwood is a show I have loved since the first time I sat down to watch it in its entirety, and a show that I can still garner new perspectives on even after five viewings. It is one of those shows that will be lost on the general public (and indeed this is what happened, resulting in the show being cancelled after its third season), but a show that will provide endless thought stimulation for those willing to make an effort to watch it, spend time with it, and care for it. Deadwood is not a show where one can sit down, watch a random episode, and expect to be brought up to date on the plot thus far. It is very much a slow, methodical, episodic exploration of human interaction within the context of a haven, removed from the yoke of politics and state. The characters of Deadwood are placed in a situation where law, prejudice and morality are brought back to zero, perhaps an inconceivable notion for many. We, the viewers, are the surveyors of the consequences of the interactions of said characters. We see their full humanity and individuality come to the fore, as they are forced to mold both their own position within this haven of Deadwood, and their relations with the other inhabitants.
I suppose I had better be clear. Based on historical events, Deadwood is a show about American pioneers, and their struggle to make a living on the gold-riveted land in the Black Hills of South Dakota. What it is not, however, is a light-hearted, action-packed bonanza, where the white hat-toting sheriff hunts the black hat-toting outlaws, a la the John Wayne era (not that there is anything wrong with that style, in fact I love it. I make the comparison purely in terms of distinction). We meet the camp of Deadwood firstly through the eyes of Seth Bullock, formerly a marshal in Montana. However, we soon see it from many vastly different perspectives. Upon Bullock’s arrival at the camp, we see that it has already been established as a settlement, glimpsing a butcher’s, a saloon, a photographer, a hotel, even a Chinatown section, among many more examples of business. Bullock has traveled to Deadwood with the intention to establish a hardware business with his Jewish friend and companion, Sol Starr. Through this, we learn that Deadwood is a settlement not officially recognized by the government (and therefore devoid of law and order), which has been constructed and grown by both American citizens and immigrants alike for the sole purpose of exploiting the gold veins in the region. Therein lies the style of Deadwood as a show.
Nothing is blatant, and everything is teased. We are never explicitly told via interaction or monologue that Deadwood is a mining camp, not subject to law and order. We are given both visual hints and clues through character interaction. This is a difficult concept to explain via text, in fact I am contradicting what I am trying to explain purely by even typing it in the first place, but I will provide an example. You are now aware of the nature of the settlement of Deadwood, as I have just informed you. However, no one informed me. I discovered this fact through teasing and hinting on the show’s behalf. Clue no.1: Bullock and Starr have left their previous lives to begin anew. Why? To set up a hardware business. Clue no.2: We discover that a rich prospector from New York, Brom Garret, has moved with his wife to the camp, and is residing in the Grand Central Hotel. Why would he leave his comfortable, privileged background and subject himself to such a primal, feral lifestyle? The answer is simple; gold. The complexity doesn’t end there. Through-sub-hints, we discover that Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon, subtly has the settlement in the palm of his hand, both through being one of the founding members, and being a purveyor of spirits, narcotics, and sex. How? There is no law system in place to keep him in check. There are layers and layers of hints and sub-hints, allowing us the privilege to think for ourselves for once and come to our own conclusions. The glorious aspect in this regard is that once we have figured out a certain fact, on repeated viewings, we see it come to fruition as never before, and see characters and situations from a different perspective.
Deadwood is unlike anything else you will ever see on television. The analogy has been made numerous times that the writing in Deadwood is akin to Shakespearean drama, a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. This is indeed a bold statement to make, although appropriate as evidenced through theatrical aspects such as defined acts, dramatization soliloquies etc. The richness of Deadwood’s dialogue will take everyone by surprise at first, and it is extremely difficult to adapt to the flamboyant and embellished style of language used. In fact, I am fully confident in claiming that there is no other script-writing as rich as Deadwood’s on television today.
The show provides a very interesting insight into human relations and character development. There are examples of people from all walks of life, from priests to murderers, from drunks to government officials. What makes Deadwood different to most shows, however, is that there are no morally black or white characters; everyone is a different tint of grey (this idea has been successfully revived in recent years by Game of Thrones, the visual adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire). We may suddenly discover a major flaw in our favourite character or an admirable trait in our most hated character. For example, while I initially thought Bullock was a likeable character, as he is an adamant upholder of justice, and believes in the letter of the law, I began to dislike him due to his stubbornness and utter refusal to compromise. In comparison, while initially disliking Swearengen (played magnificently by veteran Ian McShane, my favourite television acting performance), I grew to love him. We initially see him as a bad omen, a brick wall standing in the path of the desires and intentions of the likes of Bullock. As the show progresses, however, we begin to see that Swearengen’s true intention is keeping the camp’s best interests at heart, keeping it safe, and making sure its inhabitants have charge over it, as opposed to the government corrupting everything they have built together. Although Swearengen’s method of applying this ideal includes exploitation, abuse, torture, and murder, it still remains an entirely admirable trait. However, this is only my opinion, other viewers may have a completely different perspective. There is no good, and there is no evil. There is simply humanity, displayed in Deadwood just as we see it in everyday life. The inhabitants of the camp are thrown together into the melting pot, forcing lawkeepers to cooperate with criminals, prostitutes to cooperate with upstanding citizens, racists to cooperate with those they impose their racism on. What they must discover, for better or worse, is that in their current situation their background and past do not matter. Whoever they are, wherever they come from, they are still people, and everyone has something to contribute. What matters is the camp. What matters is Deadwood.
For the ordinary John Doe who simply wants to sit down, relax, and enjoy a light-hearted show in the evening after work, this is entirely unattractive. But for those, such as myself, who desire something more in television, something intellectually stimulating, Deadwood is a must-see.
The entire series has been out on Blu-Ray and DVD for a while now. Give this one a try if you haven’t already.
Cian is a student of Theology and History. He frequently confuses the real world with Westeros, and if he’s not talking about A Song of Ice and Fire…he’s talking about Game of Thrones. Mainly interested in old HBO classics such as Rome, Deadwood and The Wire, he currently maintains a vested interest in Treme and Game of Thrones. He also runs a personal blog detailing his writing endeavors.