Counting the Dead
In Deadwood‘s pilot, a posse returns from the site of a pioneer family’s slaughter carrying the only survivor, an unconscious little girl. The man who brought news of the massacre clamed it was an Indian attack, but the clues point to white bandits. As this man edges away from the crowd, the posse’s leaders, former Montana marshal Seth Bullock (Tim Olyphant) and famous sharpshooter Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), recognize this fellow was one of the killers. Slowly, they walk towards him, their hands hovering over their holsters. The rider moves for his gun. Shots are fired. He falls down dead.
If this scene resembles a showdown in any classic Western, it is singular in Deadwood. HBO claims the series presents the West without traditional embellishments or censorship, and with explicit violence, language, and nudity. According to an HBO press release, creator, head writer, and producer David Milch spent more than a year researching the South Dakota town’s history; the result is a show about a community without law.
The show begins in 1876. That year, the actual city of Deadwood was founded, when white Americans discovered gold in Deadwood Gulch, on a land deeded to the Sioux Nation. Within a few months, thousands of prospectors, merchants, prostitutes, and gamblers swarmed to Northern Black Hills and squatted in a settlement not yet officially governed: there could be no sheriff in a place still officially owned by Indian tribes.
For all that research, Deadwood‘s mix of inhabitants is incomplete for its time and place, omitting daily interactions among tribal Indians, descendants of Spanish settlers, Chinese, Irish, and Northern European immigrants, and black and white migrants from older U.S. states. So far, the show has introduced no black or Sioux characters, killed off one Norwegian-speaking family in the pilot, and relegated the one Chinese resident to tending the pigs who are fed human corpses.
Milch assured New York Daily News that Deadwood‘s story is “an accelerated version of the subjugation and settlement of the whole continent.” It will be difficult to show the subjugation without showing the oppressed. It’s hard to believe the Sioux killed that family in the pilot when no Sioux ever appear. Given that the story begins two weeks after an Indian coalition, the Sioux included, massacred General Custer and his troops, a confrontation between prospectors and Indians seems inevitable.
Amid Deadwood’s lawlessness, crime bosses battle like corporate CEOs. Criminal mastermind Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) runs a local saloon, Gem Theater, which also serves as hotel, whorehouse, gambling establishment, and center for local gangster activities. He excels at damage control, in his case usually a quick knife through the heart for the offending party. His competition, suave mobster Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth), sets up an upscale version of the Gem across the street. He brings with him a double-crossing informer who circulates between the two mob camps selling both saloon owners each other’s trade secrets.
Like other recent reconceptions of the Western, Deadwood features only imperfect heroes. The show’s dual moral center is formed by Bullock and Sol Star (John Hawkes): they come to town to establish a hardware store. Yet, in his last act as marshal, heartless Bullock hangs a felon from a prison’s porch. The prisoner can’t choke because the noose is too low and the marshal doesn’t have time to move the hanging to a more appropriate venue. So Bullock just yanks the body down to help him die.
Even apart from their ethical shortcomings, the town’s death rate makes it difficult to identify with specific characters. (The official Deadwood website includes a “Dead Count,” listing people killed in each episode. After three episodes, the tally is 11.) Take, for example, a couple residing in the Gem, a naïve New Yorker Brom Garret (Timothy Omundson) and his laudanum-addicted wife, Alma (Molly Parker). In the first episode, he is swindled into buying a gold claim and in the second, discovers that the claim was worthless. By the third episode, he was dead, pushed off a cliff by Swearengen’s right-hand man Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown). A nearby prospector witnessed the murder, so more corpses are on the way.
Even Swearengen’s head strumpet, Trixie (Paula Malcolmson), shoots an abusive customer through the head. Bruised, disheveled, and far less articulate than Stubbs, Trixie packs a gun for protection one moment and gives it up to her boss the next. The only character not likely to explode into violence is Bullock’s Austrian-born Jewish sidekick, Sol Star. (His existence is somewhat anachronistic, since East European immigration doesn’t take off until the turn of the century.) Wily and self-possessed, he is an unusual combination of a Lower East Side peddler and Gary Cooper in High Noon. He excels at negotiation, avoids conflict, takes racist slurs in stride when it’s good for business, but doesn’t flinch when Bullock gets them both into trouble with local ruffians.
All Deadwood’s inhabitants have their own way of talking, with thick accents and obscenities that would make NYPD detectives blush. (Milch created NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues.) Women are as adept at profanities as men. When Swearengen confronts Tolliver with a stream of obscenities, then asks the saloon owner’s partner, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), to “pardon his French,” she retorts, “I speak French.” When Old West celebrity Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) hides a witness from Swearengen’s goons, she forces her companion, Hickok, to sing a lullaby for the girl by snapping, “Sing, damn it!” and waving a pistol at him.
Jane wears pants, uses as many swear words as any man in town, and at one point, shames saloon customers who refuse to scout the scene of the massacre, declaring, “I don’t drink at a place where I’m the only woman with balls.” This taunt mirrors Deadwood‘s challenge to contemporary U.S. television, not to mention the stale Western conventions that underpin a certain President’s policies.