They put down Deadwood just over nine years ago and a certain segment of the audience hasn't stopped railing against the heavens ever since. It was, make no mistake, one hell of a show—simmering wit, richly-developed characters, stretches of taut action chockablock with devastating consequences, a gleefully profane logorrhea that shan't soon be bettered. But these are the days of network capitulation and Nexflix fan-servicing, so there's little reason for adherents to bother passing the third stage of grief.
Pain or damage don't end the world, or despair or fucking beatings—the world ends when you're canceled—so said Al Swearengen halfway through the 19th episode of Deadwood's 36-hour HBO run. But the numbers of the faithful seem to have only grown once the curtain fell upon our grubby Black Hills clan. Why else would the comedians of Portland's Funhouse Lounge be knee-deep through their own unscripted live-action-with-puppetry 15-part pastiche? Whether or not we encourage felt-fueled improvisations of television's most densely-written dialogue (Spoiler Alert: we do not), the very attempt testifies to a bizarrely elongated shelf life. Nobody's planning re-creations of Carnivale or John From Cincinnati, the programs responsible for driving the final nails in Deadwood's coffin.
With Deadwood's cancellation imminent after a third year's stagnant ratings, show-runner David Milch originally planned a six episode finale to placate fans with a proper ending, but instead agreed to a pair of feature-length films. Alas, busily preparing his newest labor of love—John From Cincinnati (a surfer drama with a levitating Bruce Greenwood)—Milch ended up spurning the truncated closure. Sets were struck, contractual obligations lapsed, and every single stakeholder declared last rites … until a few weeks ago, when one of the show's regulars tweeted hints of rebirth. During the ensuing internet firestorm HBO execs issued non-confirmation confirmations, series principals offered qualified enthusiasm and Milch's star-crossed recent credits (the collapse of Luck and the threats to televise the complete Faulkner) were plastered atop every media-on-media outlet.
Somehow, hope springs anew for the second life of a program that had no business ever appearing on TV in the first place.
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Ostensibly a western stocked with spurs, six-shooters, and an as yet unconflicted hostility toward the Dakota territories' native inhabitants, the show doesn't exactly seek to subvert genre expectations, but neither do the character obey expectations of even the 21st Centiry cowboy playbook. The series opens with Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) performing his final act as sheriff of Montana's Lewis and Clark County: the sudden hanging of a horse thief on the jailhouse steps to prevent a lynch mob from taking the law into their own hands. Alongside partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), a long-suffering young financier tasked with quieting his associate's demons and introducing Judaism to the less-than-tolerant wild west, Bullock next arrived in the gold rush boomtown of Deadwood to build a hardware store for incoming prospectors before running afoul of the camp's de facto boss Al Swearengen and accepting the obligations of another badge.
As Swearengen, owner of The Gem casino/whorehouse/saloon and a mordant charisma to baffle the sun, Ian McShane forced himself to the top of anyone's shortlist of forgivably terrible icons midst an era overstuffed with the type. In its way, spotlighting the furious swagger of a two-fisted lawman left alone to enforce moral codes, that first episode neatly prefigured Olyphant's later FX hit Justified – our hero a bit more volatile, the villain less an obvious frenemy – and sets up an initial clash as inevitable. Swearengen and Bullock do spar, an achingly-extended blood-soaked roundelay of gripping violence, but a funny thing happens on the way to the seemingly-fated climactic showdown of good versus evil.
Midway through that first year, another vice-lord arrives in town and swiftly builds a larger casino, a nicer whore-house, and a reputation for malevolence equal to Al's yet absent his stubborn fits of conscience. Later still, just when the sides appear to be re-drawn, the discovery of a massive gold strike (mostly owned by Bullock's sometime paramour Alma, whose husband was murdered and fortune assured by Swearengen's miscalculation) draws George Hearst's sociopathic lieutenant and illustrates the pettiness of all internecine squabbles among camp denizens relative to the menace of true power. If capitalism isn't itself the ultimate big bad, its engines are at least shown to cultivate monsters and allow them to walk the earth unscathed. Bullock, though still a stalwart champion of right, must make tenuous peace with his natural foe and even follow Swearengen's directive to enter politics. Evil exists, in ways unimaginable those early episodes, while the labors of good are far from cathartic.
For a genre ordinarily sold on the promise of simplified ethics easily resolved, these thickets of compromise, moreso even than the baroque monologues or casual brutality, may have been a bridge too far for casual fans. In Deadwood, nothing was simple, and even the legally sanctioned knock-out of an epically-deserving opponent – just about the number one wish fulfillment device in all of modern entertainment – never came without a cost. Hair-trigger tempers were every bit as dangerous as Alma's taste for opium or the gambling benders afflicting Wild Bill Hickok. Forever beset by forces beyond their control and worried over loved ones requiring protection, the best our heroes could hope for was a temporary stay of surrender, and this might rightly have hit the viewing masses as too close to home.
(As to why creator Milch began proceedings with a segment proven so thoroughly unaligned with eventual design, that impromptu execution really was the last piece of business for the real Seth Bullock before he headed to Deadwood. Real Bullock was perhaps even more doggedly noble – and Real Swearengen more disturbingly venal – than their televised counterparts. Moreover, they evidently never did properly settle affairs. To the eternal consternation of his biographers, Bullock seems to have brought justice to every single miscreant in the Dakotas except for the famously corrupt whore-monger he'd walk past for decades.)
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This late date, it seems like Deadwood will always live in the shadow of David Simon's inner-city drug drama The Wire. Both programs shared HBO's coveted Sunday 9 PM time slot. Both owed their existence to the intractability of The Sopranos producer David Chase. (However poorly that series ages, its transformational success briefly green-lit every bleak vision dreamt up by a famously irascible show-runner named David) Given an extra two seasons to flesh out characters and develop storyline, The Wire has an unassailable advantage on artistic merit, but any claims of a courageous muddle through fatalistic themes discount the legion small victories dependably won. The Wire displayed a conscious effort to reward viewer attention in ways Deadwood never quite understood. Instead of cribbing from superhero comics and gangsta rap videos to sweeten a civics lesson, Deadwood staged a garrulous history seminar from the parlor of a working brothel – not as spectacle or metaphor, the professor just liked brothels. Girding fantastical depictions within rigorous reportage has been a hallmark of prestige television, but no other show seemed as gleefully besotten explaining how things worked.
To be sure, the wages of sin were most lavishly audited – re: the immersive tutorial upon the steep learning curve of frontier gaming by HBO street-magician-in-residence Ricky Jay – but we also learn far more than we ever wanted about the intricacies of situating, stocking, and pricing goods for the drunken miner-to-be consumer. An indulgent discourse upon the mundanities of boomtown commerce did serve the larger narrative, and the roiling whirl of small-stakes entrepreneurial strivings spurred an internal momentum midst elongated story-arcs of intermittent revelation as neatly as the pungent verisimilitude enabled modernist flourishes of dialogue. After all, practicality required something to talk about for folks who talked so very much … and so very, very oddly – a swirling, singular amalgam of Mamet, Macbeth, and "Dangerous Dan McGrew" utterly unlike anything television had ever known. Swearengen aside, flights of linguistic fancy reward the underplayed presence, which makes the ongoing Funhouse Lounge endeavor all the more curious. However imaginative their improv or naturalistic the puppetry, they're targeting a show that prioritized above all else le mot fucking juste as wrought via rigorous craftsmanship and conveyed through minimal disruption, even if this damaged the historical record along the way.
When Rome and Boardwalk Empire (two more members of HBO's Sunday night brotherhood; It's not TV, it's period orgies!) funneled a succession of famous names on screen, those series felt obligated only to abide by the boundaries of common knowledge before ruthlessly fictionalizing all they felt the audience wouldn't otherwise know. Given the climate, viewers could justifiably assume Deadwood borrowed only the grim specter of Wild Bill Hickok to goose first season intrigue and kept about Calamity Jane as boozily pugnacious wild card – to flirt with the self-titled "Nigger General" con man, to take lodging at Joanie Stubbs' female-owned whorehouse, to help Wild Bill's former aide-de-camp Charlie Utter start a parcel service and fill in as sheriff best he could. They were all, as happens, based upon actual residents with identities only shielded (Stubbs character's name, say, thankfully changed from Dora DuFray) to temper the distracting foolishness of times past.
Though the series never so much as winked at the notion, brothels were evidently called cat-houses solely because DuFray had Utter deliver her girls a wagonload of feline companions. Boardwalk Empire would have arranged a very special episode around that sort of freak revelation, but Deadwood never trumpeted the quirks of history nor condescended to its time-swept characters. For every Little House moment emphasizing the luxury of canned peaches or the marvel of a bicycle ride, there was a rather darker spin upon encroaching modernity with technological advancement – a literal march of science – embodied by the telegraph closing in post by post. However grand the notion of connecting the camp to the world, instantaneous communication also meant the heightened threat of armies, private or public, called to rain destruction upon command.
The Wire, while far from optimistic, never awoke the deadening fear a man like Hearst could spark through a few dots and dashes. Shining a light on the folks stumbling through the cracks of society suggests a time when foundations were solid, and pointing out the tears in the safety net invites hope of a mend. These sentiments don't quite apply to a community starting from scratch whose world turns on the petty grievances and power grabs of ruthless men done well. A good life might grant just enough small victories and moments of delight to endure the degradations, but any victories won against foes unencumbered by doubt would prove costly and short-lived. So focusing upon the individual lives caught up in the grand torrent of history rendered political decisions unknowably vast and terrifyingly capricious. There was always an air of menace about the show, a pervading atmosphere of tragedy forestalled. How else, really, could Deadwood have climaxed than to freeze its residents forever in desperate anticipation? Wasn't that sudden unending the truest close?
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Of course, rather more literally, the fates of most characters have already been written. Mining tycoon George Hearst begat media baron William Randolph and shall be remembered to the ages for spawning Charles Foster Kane. Sol Star served ten terms as Deadwood's mayor. Charlie Utter opened a drugstore in Panama. After a stint telling stories for Buffalo Bill's traveling wild west show, Calamity Jane returned to the Black Hills and spent her final days cleaning and cooking for the girls of Dora DuFran's bordello. Al Swearengen, left penniless once the Gem burned to the ground, went to stay with family in Iowa only to flee once more following an unprovoked assault upon his twin brother; a body fitting the description was later found by the road of a quiet Denver suburb. Returning to town with a horse thief in custody, Seth Bullock met a gentleman rancher just arrived from parts East and entered into a lifelong friendship with Theodore Roosevelt – later leading Teddy's inaugural parade, serving as U.S. Marshal for South Dakota, and, shortly before his death, helping to organize a Rough Riders battalion for the First World War.
Although the Homestake Mine (North America's largest and deepest) eked out a living through 2001 and now survives as an underground lab for dark matter research, Deadwood itself struggled through a century of fire, freeway bypasses, and federal crackdowns on prostitution. With coffers insolvent and nearby Spearfish ready to assume the county seat, desperate boosters pushed a 1989 plan through state government quickly dubbed the Deadwood Experiment that legalized gambling for the only United States community outside of Nevada and Atlantic City. By the mid-90s, the local budget had expanded by a thousand percent, and hundreds of millions of dollars are currently invested in what's now become the nation's largest ongoing civic preservation effort.
Loopy fucking country, Al would (mostly) say.
SEE IT: Deadwood seasons 1-3 available on HBO GO and Amazon Prime