It’s easy to forget the opening scene of HBO’s Deadwood is not set in the iconic drama’s titular town, the only meaningful scene in the series not to be contained in the pile of shit, mud, and blood Deadwood is mostly comprised of. Instead of the show’s usual South Dakota setting, “Deadwood” begins in 1876 Montana, where a young marshal is trying to wrap up one last case before hitting the midnight road to a new opportunity awaiting to the east. Frankly, it is an odd vision to behold, especially when rewatching the series, to see the show begin with this strange, brief anecdote of Seth Bullock and his business partner Sol Star’s last night in a dark, strange town firmly rooted in the laws of so-called organized society.
But it’s important this scene is set outside the supposedly lawless borders of Deadwood – it allows writer (and series creator) David Milch to introduce just about every important theme of the series, in a single masterful stroke. As Bullock prepares to hit the road, he’s met with an offer from his last remaining criminal to hit the road to Deadwood together, a desperate attempt at freedom, by a man who sees his own mortality catching up with him. On the surface, this scene establishes Bullock’s sense of morality; he’s not persuaded by the criminal’s offer of riches, neither is he convinced by the gunshots fired off by a drunken mob ready to extract their own measures of justice. To him, the lines are clearly drawn: the criminal admitted to committing his crimes, and since he was arrested, the responsibility of punishment falls on the shoulders of the marshal.
There are but a few pilots of the modern era as confident and assured as Deadwood, and even fewer with the mastery of dialogue Deadwood immediately makes its calling card.
However, everything on Deadwood is a negotiation, and this opening scene is no different: through the brief few minutes we spend in Montana, “Deadwood” beautifully lays the groundwork for the series to follow. Deadwood is a show about many things – at its core, however, it is about the compromises it takes to build a society, compromises borne out of thousands of tiny little negotiations from people, individually and as a collective. The most important of all these social transactions, of course, is that of one’s very soul: how much are you willing to sacrifice for yourself (or others), and how much are you able to live with those consequences of those decisions, good or bad? The lines between good and evil are only clear in theory; Deadwood exposes the reality that nothing in life is truly black or white – and the more things get covered in shit, the harder it can be to tell which way is up, and which path leads directly away from salvation.
There are so many moments crystallizing this conflict in the opening sequence alone, beginning with Bullock rejecting the criminal’s advances, and ending with Bullock “mercifully” breaking the criminal’s neck, which expedites the execution process, and ensures him and Sol hit the road without a hole in his fucking head. Building a society, in many ways, is figuring out what atrocities we’re willing to forgive in the name of the “greater good”; in this moment, Bullock’s willing to expedite (and assist) an execution, in order to keep the peace long enough to make his exit, a rather mediocre prize for the price of the part of his soul that dies when he hears the criminal’s neck snap.
One simple snap was all it took to establish the dark, philosophically rich world of Deadwood; the fifty-plus minutes that follow, only further reinforce these ideas, using Bullock’s presence in the world as a figurative proxy for Al Swearengen, the true star of Deadwood‘s first episode. The owner of the Gem Saloon, Al Swearengen is, like many in Deadwood, an immigrant trying to make a name for himself. His methods to do so – manipulation, prostitution, and murder-for-hire – are certainly a bit more unorthodox than others, but Al is immediately established as a fearless leader, whose seeming inability to compromise his goals makes him an equally fascinating and terrifying entity. He’s the man who pulls the strings for the entire town, the landlord who rents out the retail plots down Main St., and the bartender, ready to pour a shot of whiskey to a prospector with a loose tongue and looser wallet.
Once “Deadwood” arrives in Al’s home, it is his show for the rest of the hour, mostly observing his transcendent ability to examine every angle of a transaction and determine which one makes him the most money. He is cruel, brutal, and unrepentant: when news spreads around the camp of a Norwegian family getting scalped on their way back to Minnesota, his first concern is how nobody will be gambling or buying prostitutes, if they’re out searching for poor, dead immigrant families. The purest embodiment of capitalism if there ever was one, “Deadwood” passes no judgment on Al’s behavior, simply observing a man whose purity of mind far exceeds any concerns he might have for the impurity of his own heart. To him, there is no good or evil in the world: only power, money, and knowledge, three totems he holds firmly in his grasp throughout the pilot, obsessive to the point of paranoia (knowing who he is and what he’s done in life, Al keeps a pistol in his hand whenever there’s a knock on his door).
Al’s machinations are the backbone of “Deadwood”, but the many, many character introductions outside of the Gem allows Deadwood to firmly establish its curiosity about the birth of a community (particularly one formed by a melting pot of immigrants). Deadwood immediately establishes itself as a dirty, lawless place full of scammers and murderers; it is also a land, however, united by shared religious beliefs, and ideas about what a free society should mean. Everyone, from Seth Bullock to Will Bill Hickok, are in Deadwood for a reason, one that doesn’t have to do with hardware stores or the prospect of getting rich as fuck off gold nuggets.
Deadwood, for all intents and purposes, is the purgatorial land between the chaos of the Old West, and the promise of an organized society awaiting in the 20th century; it is the place between these supposed hells and heavens, one without personal judgment or condemnation – as Ellsworth eloquently points out, he may have fucked up his real life “flatter than hammered shit”, but he’s a free man prospecting for riches in the waters of South Dakota, free to drink whiskey and pontificate on the fucked up proposal that is civilization as he sees fit. It’s the spit-in-the-palm handshake deal Swearengen and company thinks they’ve carved out in America for themselves; however, as Garrett is about to learn with his own saliva-enriched negotiations, unwritten contracts are destined to be gravely violated, especially when there’s money to be made.
Each of the many, many plot points touched upon in “Deadwood” follow the same thoroughline of compromise. Some people, like Garrett and Driscoll, are ill-equipped to handle the ethical negotiations of self demanded by the strange contract of shared interests developed societies have. Others, like Al and (strangely, it appears) Bullock, immediately rise to the surface of Deadwood’s infant civilization, because of their clear understanding of who they are, and what they value most, leaves no clouds of doubt in their decisions. They may differ on how honest they are with the world around them, but these two men, like no other characters in Deadwood‘s first episode, understand themselves on a level beyond everyone, save maybe Trixie (even Hickok doesn’t recognize he’s a degenerate gambler – or at least, he’s unwilling to confront it, a manipulation of self as deft as anything Swearengen cooks up in the hour).
Trixie’s introduction is a particular highlight of “Deadwood” – in fact, each introduction of Deadwood‘s triumvirate of female leads (which includes Alma and Calamity Jane) are highlights of the first episode, even if their characters aren’t quite fully formed yet (lookin’ at you, Alma the Unsatisfied Housewife). Though white as hell and overtly driven by its male perspective, the female leads of “Deadwood” are wonderfully textured characters, and their introductions are no disappointments; Trixie’s determination to stay alive in her shitty situation, and Jane’s overall boorishness offer two strong personalities with different dynamics than the mustachioed limp-dicked alcoholics that compromise most of the rest of Deadwood.
Clocking in at 61 minutes, Deadwood‘s first episode is theatrical, both in its delivery and its thematic density. Also, being a show rife with extremely talented character actors doesn’t hurt; “Deadwood” is as lushly written and performed as it looks, a harmony of visual aesthetics, nuanced performances, and a beautifully crafted first script from David Milch. There are but a few pilots of the modern era as confident and assured as “Deadwood”, and even fewer with the mastery of dialogue Deadwood immediately makes its calling card; 15 years later, it is still as impressive as it ever was, the beginning of one of America’s last great Westerns.
Welcome to Deadwood, motherfuckers.
- Welcome to One Vile Rewatch! I’ll be rewatching every episode of Deadwood over the next six weeks in anticipation for the film. To keep up with reviews as they publish, follow the TV Never Sleeps or Goomba Stomp Facebook pages, or follow me on Twitter.
- A couple of other notable character introductions in this episode: Merrick (the town’s journalist), Charlie (Bill’s friend/semi-caretaker), Tom Nuttle, the owner of the poker bar across town from the Gem.
- Ellsworth won’t become an important character until later in the series, but we do get a fantastic introduction to the show’s kindest heart, offering to pay Trixie so he can listen to her problems.
- The lovefest between Bullock and Hickok might be the most underrated aspect of this pilot; the mutual respect they have for each other is a backbone for the show’s ruminations on relationships, and how people are drawn to each other.
- Deadwood is the American Dream, which means it was established by immigrants: the British, Irish, Chinese, and even a Canadian have found their way to the South Dakota territory, as apt a metaphor for the historical importance of immigrants.
- Racial propaganda makes an appearance in this episode; although everyone in Deadwood is living on land illegally reclaimed by the government from the native population (nothing brings the government’s imperialistic fetishes to light more than the prospect of money, after all), there isn’t a single person in that town who doesn’t think Native Americans are anything but nasty bloodthirsty savages.
- It’s insane the amount of research that went into the details of Deadwood‘s character and story; for example, the entire opening sequence of the series is a real event that happened to the real-life Seth Bullock (save for a location change).
- “Don’t forget to kill Tim.” Dan Dority accepted his position as Al’s second in command, but that boy is clearly haunted by his position as the group’s executioner. No compromise in that man.
- I love the scene where Garrett gets done up in his “mining” suit, parading around while Alma pretends to be asleep so she doesn’t have to talk to him before he goes.
- How do you keep people from being sad about a family getting mutilated? Pussy half price for the next fifteen minutes!
- To ease tensions between Bullock and a scammer, Sol gives the man a very nice shit bucket. Simpler times, amirite?
- E.B. Farnum runs the local hotel, and might be the single slimiest piece of shit in Deadwood.
- One of my favorite minor characters, Mr. Wu (and his hungry pigs), makes a small cameo in this episode, but a small, insignificant tease of the comedic gold he’ll bring to the series later on.