Deadwood distinguishes itself in a number of ways. Firstly, it bases itself fairly closely on real events, in the frontier town of Deadwood when it was an outlaw gold rush settlement on a Lakota reservation on the fringe of the Dakota territory. Secondly, it is full of complex, memorable, and richly realised characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen and Calamity Jane, an even greater achievement when its conformity to actual biographical details is taken into account. Perhaps most compellingly, Deadwood manages to say something about the very nature of civilisation in a more complete and satisfying way than any other Western.
The series opens in 1876, with Montana Marshall Seth Bullock under siege by a lynch mob, who want his prisoner for themselves. Bullock, despite his well-advanced plans to leave for Deadwood, refuses to compromise on his duties, holding the mob off at gunpoint while he hangs the prisoner himself, ‘under colour of law’.
Bullock, the unbending lawman, contrasts sharply with the villainous saloon owner Al Swearengen, who in just the first episode is arranging to sell salted claims to rich fools with gold fever, arranging the murders of failed miners returning in frustration to the territorial United States, and disposing of the body of a violent john slain by one of his prostitutes.
Traditional Western logic would indicate that the two would be destined to eventually confront and destroy each other. Deadwood, however, has something more to say. Producer David Milch knows that civilisation is built not when natural enemies destroy each other, but when they compromise and build together, which is so much of what Deadwood is about.
At the time of its first run, Deadwood was better known for the extraordinary profanity of its language than for the complexity and subtlety of its storytelling, which is a real shame. Cut short at just 36 episodes, possible new life in telemovies was briefly on the cards, but the plans fell into development hell before the sets were broken down and put in storage in late 2007.
Deadwood Swearing (language warning, obviously)
Deadwood holds a lot more for viewers than anything normally within the bounds of the Western. It’s graphic, harsh and certainly not suitable for shrinking violets, but for those willing to look past that, it’s a human drama of rare depth and genius.