May of 2019 saw HBO end two of it’s most famous shows. One of those endings was to the inescapable and ever infuriating Game of Thrones. To say that fan reaction to GoT’s conclusion was mixed would not only be an understatement, but an incredibly charitable one at that. While I personally feel that the ending itself is passable (as in some of the individual endings for several of the characters were fitting, but the whole thing falls apart as soon as you put any critical thought into the ending as a whole), most did not. In the wake of all the drastic heel turns and fan petitions brought about by the final season of GoT, HBO’s unfinished masterpiece quietly came to a satisfying conclusion in a feature length TV movie. For three glorious seasons, Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen taught us increasingly vulgar and poetic ways to tell someone to fuck off in the hypnotically entertaining Deadwood. In one of the most scrutinized and idiotic moves in television history, HBO pulled the plug on the western, with the condition that the series would be wrapped up in the form of a movie. It took 13 years, but Deadwood: The Movie finally arrived, and it was absolutely worth the wait.
Set in the real life South Dakota town in 1876, the series tells the story of its inhabitants and their quests for greed, purpose, or both. As much as I hate to keep on parroting the GoT comparisons, it’s only natural to do so. If Game of Thrones was low fantasy, than Deadwood was a low western. Gone are the clear cut white and black hats of the westerns of yore, the virtuous cowboys and submissive damsels in distress that have become tropes of the genre don’t exist here. That’s not to say they’re aren’t any good guys and bad guys on this show. Far from it, they’re just a little more unconventional. Of the most outwardly heroic characters on the show, one is conflicted and perpetually enraged, while the other is essentially an alcoholic version of Brienne of Tarth. And, yes, they’re both amazing. There’s a layer of grime that coats the entire town and the people who live in it. Theft, murder, gambling, betrayal, corruption, prostitution, and a shit ton of old time-y drugs like opium litter the nasty world that creator David Milch imagined. Deadwood exists in a grim and realistic reality (it should be pointed out that most of event on the show are inspired by real incidents and people) where the story rarely goes in the direction it’s supposed to. There are very rarely any shootouts that have become a western staple, and on the occasion when they do happen, it’s quick and brutal. Mud and shit cake every inch of the ground within the city limits; whilst prostitution and addiction are treated with the ugliness that the subjects warrant. And if you’re looking for that trademark HBO sexiness, you’ve come to the wrong place. To paint a clearer picture of this, one episode you’ll be treated to some full frontal nudity from a pre-Parks and Recreation Nick Offerman.
If you come to Deadwood for an unpredictable plot and the ol’ sex/drugs/violence trifecta, you’ll stay for the characters. The cast is led by Timothy Olyphant playing an angry lawman years before he was one in Justified. The series begins with Olyphant’s ice eyed Seth Bullock hanging a criminal before departing for Deadwood to make his fortune with his partner Sol Star. The two make a good pairing, with the happy go lucky Sol bouncing well off of the ridged and soft spoken Bullock. It’s that sense of rigidness, combined with a strong sense of justice and a simmering rage that make Bullock’s interactions within the town and its largely criminal populace so compelling. Countering the heroic Bullock is the aforementioned Al Swearengen, crime lord and owner of the Gem Saloon. Swearengen is iconic, a hyper intelligent cut throat and quite possibly the foulest mouthed character in the history of television. Despite his criminal activities and abrasive nature, most of the town looks to him for council, and he truly does care for its prosperity. Developing into a community leader of sorts over the shows run-time.
Several different parties come into play amidst Bullock and Swearengen’s head-butting. Among them are the legendary Wild Bill Hickock, the kind hearted and laudanum addicted Alma Garrett, the vicious brothel owner Cy Tolliver, resourceful prostitute Trixie, and the seemingly brutish “Calamity” Jane Canary. These are just a couple of the colorful, brilliantly written residents of Deadwood. The stories they find themselves in are incredibly easy to become invested in. Be they mundane or epic, you’ll find yourself glued to the screen. This includes everything from Sol and Trixie’s love story to Al dealing with a really bad case of kidney stones. I swear to god, this show is so well written it makes Ian McShane pissing out rocks into must see television.
Deadwood is at its best when it’s balancing extremes. Between the vulgar and the wholesome, hilarity and heartbreak, ugly and beautiful. You’ll gag when your eyes are subject to Ron Swanson’s dick, but find yourself a weeping mess later in the episode when Calamity Jane cares for an ill child. The sheer level of nastiness in Al’s famous monologues will make you wince, but not before you see the Shakespearean wordplay within them. It’s a show that straddles the line in almost every sense, but makes it work. For all of Deadwood’s tendency to bulk narrative conventions, it never does so at the sake of the characters. This never becomes more apparent than in the recent TV movie that wrapped up the series. Unlike Game of Thrones, the ending here was never about throwing in as many shocking twists as possible, but providing a fitting and emotional goodbye to the characters that fans have grew to love some 13 years ago when the show was unceremoniously axed. At three seasons and a movie, Deadwood isn’t a very long show. But it’s an unforgettable one, with some of the most beautiful character work and dialogue ever to grace television. And unlike most TV shows, this is of course considering the movie, it has one helluva ending too. As of this writing, it’s been almost a week since the film’s premiere and I’m still thinking about it. So crack open a bottle of some rotgut whiskey (Old Crow is a good choice for this) and start watching. In the words of the great sage Al Swearengen, “Welcome to fuckin’ Deadwood! Can be combative!”