There are television shows that do not age well. As much as I was addicted at the time, 24 sadly falls into this category. The program, while a compelling thriller in its early years, adopted a plot-driven formula that hinged on the Hitchcockian ploy of, what happens next. Once you learn what happens next, it greatly reduces the rewatchability factor after you experience your first go-round. There is little emotional reward in watching Jack Bauer save David Palmer’s life when you have the foreknowledge that, three seasons later, David Palmer will be felled by an assassin’s bullet in the name of, just another plot twist. I will always hold a place of affection for the first season of 24, but seldom rewatch anything past it.
Then, there’s Deadwood, a contemporary of 24, as well as other HBO stable favorites such as The Sopranos, Sex and the City, The Wire and Six Feet Under. I rewatch it every couple of years and, contrary to the adventures of Jack Bauer and Chloe, Deadwood grows ever sweeter and more profound with the passage of time.
One year after my move to Omaha, I unwound the first episode of Deadwood on a lonely Friday night and was amazed to discover that I lost track of time as I viewed it. The profanity-drenched Shakespearian dialogue, the complex plot, the wonderfully-woven characters and the minimalistic music all blend together to form nothing less than a masterpiece.
On its face, Deadwood is a western. The first few episodes carry all of the trappings of classic westerns, including a hanging that is little more than a lynching under color of authority, gunfights, gold miners, and even real life western heroes in the form of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Yet, as you scratch beneath the top soil of this series, you discover that Deadwood is no more a western in the traditional sense than The Wire is a traditional cop show. This truth is brought home with a bang when Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) is murdered at the end of the fourth episode. Hickok belies the heroic image and is depicted here as a burned-out man who carries his celebrity status like a cross. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), long viewed through a historical lens as a tough-talking, quick-shooting female icon of the old west, is painted here as little more than a loud-mouth drunk with a streak of yellow; a loser who just happened to scout for General Custer.
So these two come to Deadwood, not first built as a town, but as merely a thriving, lawless camp in the Dakota Territory. With them come Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), along with his partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes.) All they want to do is build a hardware store and make a modest living, but Bullock’s temper and his strong sense of morality propel him down a certain path until he becomes the local sheriff by the end of the first season. There’s the town medic, Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), who’s irascible manner is matched only by the demons he collected on various battlefields of the Civil War. There’s Alma Garret (Molly Parker), a rich New York society woman who finds herself in Deadwood against her will at the behest of her doe-eyed, tenderfoot husband. There’s the slimy E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson), hotelier, grifter and spy for whomever has his price. There’s Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), a prospector down on his luck, but who’s affable nature makes him a universally beloved man throughout the camp. And there’s the Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), a preacher who brings religion to Deadwood, but who is doomed by a brain tumor.
At the center of it all sits Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), local crime boss, cut-throat and architect of everything shady that goes on in the region. Swearengen is a brutal but efficient criminal who operates out of the Gem Saloon, where he is quick to put a boot on the neck of any of his prostitutes if they get out of line, or cut the throat of any of his underlings should they cross him. His henchmen, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers), and later, Silas Adams (Titus Welliver), are bound to Swearengen by a mixture of fear, respect and loyalty. Even Trixie (Paula Malcomson), his preferred prostitute and sometime confidant is torn by her bondage to him as the series progresses.
The nature of Swearengen’s business makes him many enemies throughout the course of the series. Bullock is the most obvious. The two clash, both ethically and physically as their dealings continue. Al also has competition in the person of Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), a ruthless riverboat gambler who opens a larger, more expensive saloon right across the street from Al’s joint. Al also finds his power threatened after Hickok’s murder captures the attention of the territorial government in Yankton, embodied in a commissioner (Stephen Tobolowsky), who is the only man who surpasses Farnum in the unctuous department. And there are the non-human threats such as a plague of smallpox, which forces Al to realize that the camp can best defend itself against external threats if it comes together and forms a local government of its own.
The plague ushers in, not only a body count, but the reality that Deadwood is more than a collection of people brought together by their lust for gold. It is a budding community. If The Wire represents the death of a great city, Deadwood represents its antithesis in the formation of a small town. And here is why Deadwood differs from it’s postmodern contemporaries such as The Sopranos and Mad Men. While those shows are dark, gritty affairs tinged with existentialism, the main theme of Deadwood is growth. Many of the characters who come to Deadwood down on their luck find new strength in themselves as they see the town begin to take shape around them. The outward trappings of civilization begin to appear as evidenced by the formation of a town bank, a livery stable, a newspaper, a telegraph, a school for the children and even a local theater in the third season. Swearengen is the most blatant symbol of growth as he as he undergoes a gradual metamorphosis from a ruthless crime boss to the town’s unofficial mayor by series end.
This doesn’t mean that all characters transform themselves from bad to good people. Series creator David Milch is excellent at painting with shades of gray. Seth Bullock wears a sheriff’s badge and cloaks himself in rigid morality, yet he carries on a passionate affair with Alma Garret, even while his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and young stepson are traveling to join him in Deadwood. Calamity Jane struggles with alcoholism in the wake of Wild Bill’s death. Doc Cochran, Alma Garret and Steve the town racist also struggle with addiction. Tolliver’s madam, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), tries to break free of her pimp, only to be driven into the arms of a serial killer (Garret Dillahunt) akin to Jack the Ripper, who has a taste for kinky sex and dead whores.
Deadwood was one of the flashpoints of the Gold Rush that typified life in the latter half of the West of the 19th Century. Naturally, it would draw a ragged assortment of criminals, drifters, drop-outs and honest people as its profile rose in America. And it was inevitable that it would also draw the attention of predatory capitalists. Such a figure arrives in the third season of the show in the form of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), a greedy multi-millionaire who cares far more for gold than he does for human life. Yet, while he plods through the camp like a juggernaut, attempting to possess everything and everyone within his assumed domain, the town fights back, thereby strengthening their sense of community. Swearengen and Bullock are unlikely allies as they face a common enemy; a story that has played out time and again throughout the course of human history. Hearst is ultimately vanquished, but not in a manner that traditionalists who enjoy stories of the conflict between good and evil will find completely satisfying. The departure of Hearst from Deadwood proved to serve as the unexpected finale of the series as well, much to the consternation of the small but vocal group of fans.
The final episode of Deadwood aired in 2006. For years, HBO and David Milch pointed the long finger of blame at each other as to the reasons why Deadwood was suddenly fed to the pigs. To this day, no one can give a clear answer. The low ratings, even by HBO standards, certainly played a part. Small wonder. Deadwood is certainly not for everyone. The violence is often brutal. The plots are dense and sweeping. The language was often given as the reason why many people were put off by it. It is an irony that the dialogue is simultaneously guttural and elegant. Most of the characters spat out words like “fuck,” and “cunt” as casually as Kim Kardashian uses words such as “like,” and “umm.” “Cocksucker,” was often the centerpiece of many a deadwood drinking game on chat forums of which I was a participant. In short, Deadwood ain’t your grandpa’s western. Other reasons for the abrupt cancelation may have been a growing weariness of David Milch’s sometimes erratic shooting schedule on the part of HBO executives, or a lack of returns in the Emmy Awards department given the expensive nature of the show. At the time, Deadwood was the most expensive show being produced in American broadcast television.
Sidebar: Milch’s erratic production schedule was one of the reasons why he was removed as head writer of NYPD Blue. This was largely due to his fondness for heroin and gambling. In interviews, he claimed to have kicked the former habit by the time of the production of Deadwood, though he was more ambiguous about the latter.
Almost immediately after the announcement of Deadwood’s cancelation, there was talk of the cast and crew coming together once more to do a series of wrap-up movies, or a truncated fourth season… Or something. That was 12 years ago. Rumors have swirled on the internet, but after a series of false starts and empty hopes, nothing came of it. I gave up on the idea not long after I went to Denver, resigning myself to the notion of watching three seasons of epic television every one or two years.
Last July, I was sitting in the control room at work playing on Twitter when I came across a tweet from Deadwood sycophant, Alan Sepinwall. It said something like, “Can’t wait for W. Earl Brown to give us the inside scoop from the new Deadwood movie.” Google told me the rest. HBO had officially confirmed that, yes, Deadwood would indeed be filming a final movie to tie up loose ends. If things proceeded according to plan (and that’s always a big if where Milch is concerned), shooting was to commence two weeks ago. What a herculean effort it must’ve taken to bring all the surviving cast back together for one last hurrah! Or is that, huzzah!?
The only thing I know about the movie is that, of course, it will take place 12 years after the final episode of the regular series. There is no way they could’ve done otherwise. All of the cast members have aged, many of them with other trophies dangling from their belts. Timothy Olyphant starred in another western-style series, Justified; a show that is good, but not great. Titus Welliver has gone on to play Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s literary cop in an Amazon series. Ian McShane currently stars in American Gods. Molly Parker has a recurring role on House of Cards. Powers Boothe recurred on Nashville before his death in 2017. About half the cast had guest stints on Sons of Anarchy. Dayton Callie had a regular role on the show. And Anna Gunn (God bless her) played Skyler White on Breaking Bad.
Sidebar: The character I’m most curious about is Doc Cochran, who was suffering from tuberculosis in the third season. There is no way he could have survived another 12 years. Milch assures us that all of the regular cast will appear, except for Titus Welliver. The only way they can possibly incorporate Doc is through a flashback; a technique never previously employed on the series. We are also promised that Cy Tolliver’s absence will not go unnoticed. My fervent hope is that Joanie Stubbs is finally able to rise above her circumstances should Cy be dead.
However the movie turns out, I will be glad of a more fitting conclusion than that which we received in 2006. Whether or not the movie lives up to expectations, at least the wondering and waiting will soon be at an end.
I managed to locate W. Earl Brown’s Twitter feed. He confirms that, yes, the cast and crew are back together and in production. Deadwood the Movie is scheduled for a tentative Spring release. Of course, they are now on a two-week hiatus so that hoopalhead Milch can catch up, but it wouldn’t be Deadwood if things went off like clockwork.