Reviews

Deadwood

Elena Razlogova

Wily and self-possessed, Sol Star is an unusual combination of a Lower East Side peddler and Gary Cooper in High Noon.


Deadwood

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, John Hawkes, Robin Weigert, Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson, Powers Boothe, Kim Dickens, Alice Krige
Network: HBO
Website
Amazon

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image