Revisiting ‘Deadwood,’ a Lawless Prelude to TV’s New Golden Age
By ALESSANDRA STANLEYJULY 21, 2015
Ed here: This was one of the finest series ever put on our TV screens. This was the antidote to all the John Ford hokum so beloved by the American John Wayne public. My favorite criticism of it was that it was "political." Duh. That was the point. Between Eastern money (railroads, oil, baking, real estate) and a vastly crooked "justice" system the real old west was as crooked as today's America. Thanks to such writer-directors as the great Walter Hill the show depicted this corruption brilliantly.
After watching the pilot episode of “Deadwood,” I got up, lowered the blinds, dimmed the lights and burned through the rest of the DVD in a fugue of wonder and excitement. I didn’t leave the series until the next day, staggering limply into the harsh sunlight like Ray Milland in “The Lost Weekend.”
It was 2004, and I had been the chief television critic at The New York Times for about a year. HBO had sent me advance screeners of its new western. And I was discovering binge watching.
There are dramas that are arguably better or more widely appreciated than “Deadwood”: “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad.” But of all the shows I have reviewed over the past 12 years, “Deadwood” is the one I would most like to see again for the first time.
In that first jolt of surprise and enthrallment, it felt as if David Milch had created “Deadwood” just for me — I’ve always loved westerns — twisting the genre to invent something new. I wrote at the time that westerns were like men’s clothes or formal poetry: There is a certain liberty in their constraints, and some limitations inspire creativity. “Deadwood” turned out to be a television sonnet with a hip-hop beat.
From left, Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, W. Earl Brown and Sean Bridgers in “Deadwood.” CreditDoug Hyun/HBO
Before “Mad Men” or “The Americans” found new ways to reclaim the past, this was a period piece ahead of its time, a modern drama set during the Dakota gold rush of the 1870s. A grim, washed-out palette of sepia and gray replaced the familiar Technicolor panoramas of John Ford westerns.
This depiction of the West was sophisticated and deeply layered, sometimes comical but always brutal. Fetid, crowded, filthy Deadwood wasn’t just primitive — it was primal. Murdered men were fed to pigs. Sex in the brothels was almost as callous.
The characters spoke a new language, too, an incongruous mix of poetry and profanity that hasn’t been matched by any other show, not even the first season of “True Detective.” Mr. Milch spiked the commonplace blasphemy of the 1870s with obscenities so crude they would make rappers flinch.
But threaded through the spew of swear words would be sudden flights of near-Shakespearean eloquence. Comforting a slighted henchman, the town pimp and saloonkeeper, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), was soothing: “Whatever lurks ahead, whatever grievous abominations and discord, you and me walk into it together, like always.”
Fans of the show — and I was one of the first — fell in love with Swearengen, the murderous, devious and world-weary Old West mob boss. The show had a putative hero, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former marshal turned shopkeeper, but Swearengen was the real star, a complicated, beguiling antihero high in the pantheon of the so-called difficult men of television’s second Golden Age.
Robin Weigert in "Deadwood."CreditJohn P. Johnson/HBO