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That Fucking Deadwood

Photo by Sam Emerson

After a couple of episodes I was ready to write off Deadwood (HBO, Sun., 10 p.m.) as a dead bore, but now, dammit, the series has me hooked — at least for now. Two of my favorite characters are dead, a third’s left town, and a fourth may be heading back to New York at any moment. That’s the problem with Westerns: Too many people with guns, and no one stays put for long.

In 1876, Deadwood is an outlaw settlement in the Black Hills of South Dakota. No rules, no laws — just a lot of dirt lanes and grubby people prospecting for gold. The town does boast a decent hotel, and there are a handful of characters who appear to be familiar with soap and water, but the overall impression is one of chaotic filth — things are either dusty or muddy, take your pick. The chaplain’s an epileptic, the saloon keeper’s a sociopath, and the only upper-class woman to be seen is a laudanum addict from New York.

And then there’s the unavoidable topic of Deadwood’s language. David Milch (NYPD Blue), the show’s creator, apparently discovered in his research into the old West that cowboys were as foul-mouthed as everyone else on HBO. As a result, that saloon keeper, the aptly named Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the nearest thing Deadwood has to a mayor, can’t get through a sentence without saying “fucking” at least twice.

Not that he’s the only one. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) is just as bad, and even Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), a courtly, aging lion, delivers a speech during a poker game that is startlingly obscene even by the standards of cable television. Is this necessary? By the time you’ve heard “cocksucker” for the 10th time in one episode, it’s hard to make a case for historical accuracy, if that’s what this is. But it does, I suppose, help convey Milch’s notion of the Wild West, or at least this corner of it, as a noxious, Darwinian swamp filled with drunken, conniving, murderous and often incredibly vicious characters who’d happily wipe out your family for a couple thousand bucks — a Wild West a jaded contemporary audience can relate to, in other words. At one point, Swearengen remarks that if he had his druthers, he’d just hit everyone in town over the head, lift their wallets and tip their bodies into the creek. Which sums up Deadwood’s moral atmosphere, not to mention its sense of camaraderie.

But wait, there’s a good guy, too. Straight shooter Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), former marshal–turned–entrepreneur, is quietly determined to set Deadwood on the straight and narrow. He has watchful eyes, a carefully maintained mustache, and a quick hand on the draw; slowly, he is being pulled into Deadwood’s main plotline. In the opening episode, Swearengen brokered the sale of a bogus gold claim to Brom Garret, a well-heeled New York tenderfoot–turned–Wild West adventurer. (His wife, Alma, is the laudanum addict.) When Garret realized the gold claim was bogus, he threatened to bring in the Pinkerton Agency if Swearengen didn’t return his money. Bad move: Within hours he was the victim of a very suspicious “accident.”

Detecting foul play, Alma showed some steel. She smashed her laudanum bottle and asked Wild Bill Hickok to look into her husband’s death. Hickok, a weary legend determined to go to hell in his own way (i.e., by drinking and gambling himself to death), turned the job over to Bullock, which is where we are now. Somewhere in the offing lies a decisive meeting between the understated Bullock — youthful, righteous, and somehow immune to the lure of the poker table — and the flamboyantly unpleasant Swearengen. Like all true Westerns, Deadwood looks set to culminate in a showdown between Good and Evil.

The show has taken its sweet, foul-mouthed time in getting up to speed, but, if Milch’s scholarship can be trusted, we are being treated to a remarkably frank picture of life on the jagged edge of the West. Certain parts of the narrative have been brilliantly, even movingly, told. The last hours of Hickok, for instance: Sitting alone in his hotel room writing a letter to his absent wife, he is interrupted by a knock on the door. It’s Calamity Jane, beaming from ear to ear as she shows him a baby girl who’s recovered from a life-threatening fever. Gravely, Hickok places his hand on the girl’s cool forehead and feels the smooth new life under his fingers. Hours later, he is shot in the back as he sits at the poker table, his speed on the draw for once of no use to him.

Even better is Molly Parker’s portrayal of Alma Garret, simultaneously widowed and stranded in a place only the hardiest (or, as in her late husband’s case, most foolhardy) men would set foot in. To watch her pace the expansive breadth of her hotel room, trying to decide on an appropriate course of action, is a bit like seeing an old portrait painting come to life. I wouldn’t want to live there, but after five of its 12 episodes there’s no denying that Deadwood has become a fascinating place to visit.