Deadwood – Look Beneath The Surface

“The world is depressing enough right now, I don’t have it in me to watch a show where people are mean to each other.”

That’s what a friend of mine said, when he was looking for something new to watch, and I suggested HBO’s Deadwood. And you know, he’s not wrong. It’s a realistic (read: gritty AF) gold rush-era Western, set in the real town of Deadwood, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In a town with no laws, you’ve got your historically accurate racism, sexism, and addiction everywhere, to say nothing of the fact that a human life could be tossed away over something as trivial as a hand of cards. It’s a show where the language, for all its flowery, Shakespeare-like beauty, is so profanity laden that to play the eponymous drinking game (a shot every time someone says “cocksucker”) would land most of us in the hospital halfway through the pilot. There’s fightin’, cussin’, drinkin’, gamblin’ – nudity, both attractive and the other kind, and everything is ankle-deep in mud and sweat. It is all of these things.

But David Milch’s Deadwood is two shows at once. It is absolutely possible to watch Deadwood for what it is on the surface, all that wonderful, aforementioned grit. It is possible to love it for those things alone – if you like badassery, you’re not going to get much better than this. However, if you want to, you can look a little closer.

David Milch is a writer that wants you to work. For him, a scene isn’t about the dialogue – it is about what ISN’T being said, and therein lies Deadwood’s real beauty. At its core, what we have here is a bunch of rough, primal people, in some of the worst possible circumstances, trying to not only exist, but in many cases, to take care of each other. Coupla spoilers up ahead now – can’t help that.

At first glance, Deadwood is apt to raise the hackles of anyone who has ever even thought about feminism. And why not? Ninety percent of the women are employed as whores, and the few women who aren’t whores are either the rich lady who uses opiates to get through her day in a loveless marriage, or the drunken gunslinger “Calamity” Jane Cannery, who spends most of her time either shouting at the world, or drinking to help her escape it. One of the first women we meet is the whore Trixie, who right from the start insists on agency of her own, insofar as she is able – a customer won’t stop beating her, so she shoots him through the brain. When this results in further beating at the hands of her pimp (I’ll get to him in a minute), instead of submitting to further abuse from clients, she gets another gun.

The pimp in question is Al Swearengen, played by the electric Ian McShane, and he is more than just a pimp – he runs the town. Whores, booze, games, drugs, you name it – Al has his hands on it in some way. It would be easy to leave it there, for Al to be no more than a male power fantasy made flesh. But Milch doesn’t work that way. His characters are real people, and they are complicated. The more time we spend with Al, the more we learn about him. We learn of his past, his youth spent abused in an orphanage, or growing up on the streets, as he puts it – “cutting throats”. We learn that, in every whore he runs, he not only sees the mother who abandoned him, he sees himself, and we see a desperate need to nurture – to take others under his scarred and filthy wing, and protect them the only way he knows. Trixie is his favourite – she may spend her days servicing paying customers, but she spends her nights in Al’s bed, cuddled up like any married couple. Their love for each other is unhealthy, to say the least – but it is real, and it is strong. When she encounters a chance to better herself, her life, and her love, Al kicks her out the door – but really, it is a kick out of the nest, at the cost of his own heart. Anyone who says Al Swearengen is not a feminist is not looking carefully.

Timothy Olyphant plays Seth Bullock, the reluctant lawman, whose smouldering intensity and hot temper become adorable if you stare long enough. He falls madly in love with Alma Garrett (played by Molly Parker, see above rich lady on opiates), and she with him – unlike the whoring that takes place out in the open and no one bats an eye, their affair is torrid and tucked away, the product of dark rooms and whispers in the corridor. He bears the cross of being married to his late brother’s widow, raising her son as his own. When his wife is introduced in season two, it is another loveless marriage…until it isn’t. Olyphant himself has described Deadwood as “a show about a man who learns he loves his wife”.

Martha Bullock is played by the brilliant Anna Gunn. I always think of her as the female Richard Schiff (and if you don’t know what that means, you need to go watch The West Wing until that description makes sense). Her strength is a quiet one. She’s one of the few characters who practices verbal restraint, with not a touch of profanity escaping her lips. When she arrives in town with her son, she quickly learns of her husband’s relationship with another woman, and when he promises that he will end it because honour insists, she tells him (politely) to shove it. She wants no part of his second-hand, leftover love. Then, when she is struck by the worst tragedy a mother can endure, she finds her solace in nurturing others – she forms a school, and offers to teach the other children in the camp – including Alma’s adopted daughter. That’s two deep hurts that Martha is able to bear by helping others. It’s hard to not admire that.

One of the more heart-wrenching characters, for me, is the camp’s doctor, Amos Cochran. Anyone played by Brad Dourif is going to be a gorgeous pastiche of human complexities, and Doc Cochran is no exception. A veteran of the Civil War, he has come to this place to deal with his own post-traumatic stress nightmares by using his limited skills to ease suffering here, in any way he can. He takes care of the girls in all the whorehouses, even when he isn’t paid. He helps the camp cripple to walk more easily, his only hesitation coming from fear that he might do her further harm, because his conscience can bear no more. When he discovers that the bristly Calamity Jane has a talent for healing, he nurtures it and gives her an incredible gift – a sense of self-worth. He never really realizes that these things are balm for his own tortured soul.

Joanie Stubbs, Charlie Utter, Dan Dority, Whitney Ellsworth…I could go on. My one fault with the show is that there isn’t enough of it (this spring! Movie! Finally!). Even when the complexities of the rustic gangland plot are a little hard to follow the first time through (I promise, you will rewatch it many times, if you haven’t already done), you love these people. You are invested in their lives. You watch them stumbling, clumsily trying to care for one another, all the while wishing you could take care of them. And maybe that’s not why you like the show. Maybe you are there for the surface of the lake, for the badassery, for the guns and cussing. And that’s okay too. Deadwood is more than one show, the way that human life is more than that which is easily apparent. Like humanity itself, it asks you to look a little closer.

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