Deadwood on Blu-ray: My candidate for the greatest TV western ever

December 24, 2010

One thing I got this Christmas was the new complete HBO series Deadwood on Blu-ray. (The list price is $209.98 but you can probably find it for less than $100.) So if you’re one of the folks who borrowed one of the single season DVD sets from me and you still have it (and all three are out — we were evangelical about the show) you can keep it, or better yet, pass it along to someone who needs to hear the gospel of Al Swearengen. I’ve got mine.

I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that the show is dead. HBO is in show business, after all — and Deadwood creator David Milch, one described to me by someone who would know as a highly distractable creature, went on to other projects. That’s how the game is run; Al Swearengen would understand. Even pay TV has its limits, and prestige shows persist at the pleasure of the suits. You don’t like it? You can cancel your subscription and buy tickets to Shakespeare in the Park. It’s tough to grieve for a cable TV series when you consider the circumstances of the wider world.

Yet I miss Deadwood more than I thought I would; nearly five years on there’s still a hole in Sunday night that I haven’t quite figured how to fill. We don’t watch much TV — I watch movies and sports mostly,I’ve never seen a reality show.

I was skeptical of Deadwood when it premiered, for I thought I had it pegged before the first episode aired. It would be another brutal, dusty show — a compressed world filled with tropes and fractured saints, dancehall girls with broken teeth and dangerous dandified cowards with derringers. I expected it to be the standard revisionist stuff, compelling maybe but as conventionalized as film noir. It would be all gray hats and sorry choices and desperation on the edge of America.

It would be another adult Western.

I was right, but I was wrong. Deadwood might have been the best television series I’ve ever seen. I miss the characters more than I wonder about the trajectories of their lives; it’s not curiosity about how things will be resolved that nags at me but the simple absence of interesting people I imagine I have come to know: George Hearst will go back to California and become a senator, Sol Starr will never marry though he’ll carry on an affair with an actress, Al Swearengen will eventually end up a homeless drunk; he’ll die trying to hop a freight train in Colorado in 1899.

I know these things because the characters in Deadwood by and large share the names of real people — Seth Bullock was the sheriff, and Starr was his partner in a hardware store. Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead by Jack McCall soon after Bullock and Starr arrived in the camp. Some things got switched around for the sake of the drama — Swearengen was born in Iowa, but in the first season of the show there’s a suggestion that he’s an English immigrant, which allows Ian McShane — the actor who inhabits the saloon keeper — to admit a little limey into his accent. And Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant, didn’t marry his brother’s widow (although his wife Martha did join him in the camp after he’d established himself there).

The degree to which the show is historically accurate doesn’t interest me much, although it’s impressive to see how much of the story resonates with the truth — the real Calamity Jane was probably a braggart and a liar, but she did nurse the victims of the smallpox epidemic that struck Deadwood in 1876. (Similarly, Charlie Utter really did look after his friend Hickok, who he worried would come to a bad end through his weakness for drink and cards.)

Most impressive about Deadwood is the show’s astuteness about the cunning of the human animal, and its wonderful baroque and bitter dialogue. Much has been made of the way the characters speak in Shakespearean monologues studded with cuss words, but not so much attention has been paid to the sheer poetry of their sounds. It’s music, really — the effect is deeper than the words on the page. Like song lyrics, the words are empowered by the sound they make.

But it’s not just the words, or the sounds, or the faces of the actors while they’re saying the words. Deadwood is a great show because it understands the ways human beings struggle to stay human — and humane — in the face of inhumanity.

Forget “the West” and all the mythic junk the phrase conjures in your head.

For it is likely that the West we imagine never existed. We know a mythology when we see one and we understand how it was shaped by penny dreadful novels and a few self-aggrandizing old cowboys who found their way to Hollywood just as the big show was cranking up. We understand that “the Western” is as stylized a form as the Japanese samurai movie, and that’s why the conventions of one form translate so neatly into the other. Maybe we’ve even read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation and take “the West” as a psychic territory where “American values” were exercised and broken like all those pretty Cormac McCarthy horses.

In my West, Bob Dylan hones a knife and gazes with a goofy lusty grin at Kris Kristofferson’s doomed Henry McCarty/William Bonney. Never mind that I know how dirty and dull it all must have been, and that Billy the Kid was nobody until Pat Garrett wrote his book, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.

We know it wasn’t the white hats vs. black; as early as George Steven’s Shane in 1953, Hollywood had begun to chip away at the archetypal good guys played by singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. In 1956’s The Searchers, Ethan Edwards smashed the icons John Wayne had helped erect. Then came the spaghetti oaters, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

So Deadwood didn’t surprise us with its grit or the amorality of most of its characters. It couldn’t gain credibility merely by re-exploding the pre-blasted conventions of the form. I, at least, wasn’t hopeful. But it managed to hook and connect, not because it was a novel idea but because it was an idea worthy of a novel — a Zolaesque, naturalistic social history of a camp just beyond America, a place without laws. Deadwood wasn’t about disillusioning us, it was — like all literature — about showing us how we are, and how we might be.

Swearengen, saloon keeper and town boss, is at once the show’s greatest villain — perhaps he was never as hateful as the dandified Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe in the most fitting answer to Jim Jones he has come up with yet) but his power was more awesome — and the camp’s savior. Bullock’s power descends from Swearengen, and the sheriff’s jurisdiction stops at the door to the Gem Saloon. (Which will burn down in 1879.)

In the first season, Swearengen seems irretrievably evil until he commits a murder. The mercy killing of Rev. Smith (played with surfeit grace by BDA Legion of Doomer Raymond McKinnon) at the unspoken behest of Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif, in his best role since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is the first glimpse we have of the man’s staggering, if charred about the edges, soul.

Swearengen is the Promethus who brought fire to the camp; he was out there with Dan Dority (the fabulous W. Earl Brown) cutting trees for planks to make a town before any of the Black Hills prospectors realized one was necessary. Deadwood is no less Swearengen’s creation than Yoknapatawpha County was William Faulkner’s.


2 Comments

  • Comment by p carr — Jan 1,2011 at 10:18 pm

    My sentiments too, except I couldn’t have explained them as well. I’m huge fan of the show. Ive got a picture of George Hearst on my wall (Patty’s too).

  • Comment by pattyh — Feb 8,2011 at 4:21 pm

    This is the best blog I have ever read. I miss Deadwod so much – I find myself now watching the re-runs on HBO again and again. Miss you Deadwood.

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