Season One, Episode One: “Deadwood”
Note: each writing will spoil the episode in review but will not discuss any future episodes.
The pilot of Deadwood, also named “Deadwood,” deftly lays out all of the major players: the opening scene between Montana Territory Marshall Seth Bullock (Timonthy Olyphant) and his prisoner explains in minutes that Bullock’s a man who works within the established rules of a system. He hangs the prisoner before the lynch mob outside can get to him. Not only that, but it shows that the exiting marshal has heart, as long as its within the boundaries of a system’s laws, as he allows the horse thief some last pronouncements to be given to his visiting sister. All of this is just before Bullock helps break the man’s neck: the fall won’t do it alone. It’s a brutal scene, all show and no tell, a perfect example of David Milch’s style of writing. That adherence to rules and regulations is something that Seth Bullock will have to reckon with as he travels to Deadwood, known for its lack of laws.
In the same opening set piece is Sol Star, played by John Hawkes, whom Milch establishes as the careful, more personable side of the partnership between the two men as they set off into the night to capitalize on the booming Deadwood — a territory that’s little more than a mining camp, surrounded and inhabited by wilderness, where riches are to be found in its hills in the form of gold; it’s the fight for the American Dream long before the white picket fence and self-owned home were in vogue. This American Dream comes at a strict cost: the village, with filthy streets, just-as-filthy campers, and flesh-eating pigs, has danger lurking in each nook. It’s reminiscent of the West presented in Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man, where the dust (and the tropes of the Wild West from 1960’s era television) are transmorphed into mud; no real hero wears a white hat and nothing’s resolved in a hour run time. Everyone’s dirty. And the language is even worse.
Bullock and Star aren’t the only two arriving in Deadwood to earn riches. “Wild” Bill Hickok (the perfect Keith Carradine) inspiring awe from the townsfolk for his deadly shot and the foul-mouthed Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) enter the town as well, along with their helper and friend Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Milch’s Hickok is a man burdened with a particular type of fame, a reputation as being a murderer that keeps people annoyingly gawking at him or constantly seeing him as a way to earn a dollar.
All of the hoopla surrounding Hickok’s arrival does little more than get under the skin of Gem Saloon owner and immigrant Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, tha god), who just wants business to run with no fuss, which means that the men of the camp spend money on his whores and throw away their gold on the gambling tables all at his establishment. Anything else is a distraction. McShane does more with one look than many actors do in pages of dialogue. See the perturbed look he gives all involved as he hustles a New York rich boy (the “dude,” Brom Garrett, played with nice stick-in-the-mud grace by Timothy Omundson) out of his wealth by selling him a lot with guaranteed gold. McShane gives not only gravitas to the role but a menace: his afterthought to helper Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) not to “forget to kill Tim,” who almost ruined the deal with the New York dude, chills.
It’s a lot of ground laying, but it’s never boring. Much is contributed to the narrative ball that gets rolling near the end when Ned Mason appears in the camp to tell of a slaughter on the Spearfish Road by the “heathens,” yet has no desire to return to offer help to any possible survivors. Seth Bullock, “Wild” Bill, and others convince him otherwise. What they find is a killing not like that of Natives, but much more like someone who was looking for money. That points to a white man. The crew rescue a young girl, and when she wakes up, she’ll have things to say. Since Mason doesn’t want to stick around, a short gunfight ensues, and Hickok and Bullock get the draw (though Seth wisely gives Hickok the credit). A friendship between the two former lawmen begins. All of it angers Al further, as he settles in with a particular whore, Trixie. The look in Al’s eyes to close the episode hints at a worry and exhaustion that won’t soon be mended by a unconcealed Derringer.
- Alma Garrett, wife of the dude, sure seems to like laudanum.
- Doc is mesmerized by the man whom Trixie shot in the forehead and lived for twenty minutes. Al allows him to dig around in his head as long as he’s fed to Wu’s pigs afterwards.
- Al’s constantly cleaning up some sort of mess, figuratively or literally.
- Al will pay for any savage’s head, but only if it’s brought in the next day so that business will keep going for the night. It’s a packed house, after all.
- Bullock is there to open a hardware “bidness.”
Quote of the episode:
Ellsworth to Trixie: “And fuck us all anyway for the limber-dick cocksuckers that we are!”