A retired U.S. Marshal and his trusted friend, an Austrian Jew. A widow quite literally sitting on a goldmine. A contemptible, rodent-like hotel proprietor. A loquacious newspaper editor. A courageous and temperamental doctor. An Old West legend, gone to seed. And two saloon keepers, one genteel and mannerly and the other surly and vulgar, both filled with violent disregard for the lives of people who get in their way.
On the surface, this group, complemented by a bevy of whores and small-time operators, seems like an inauspicious group for the foundation of a society. But that’s exactly what Season 1 of Deadwood treats its audience to. Series creator David Milch explores the structure of so-called polite society by taking us back to the most recent area bereft of its protection. The historical Deadwood was an unauthorized settlement on Indian land, disconnected from the territory of the United States and thus completely lawless. It is the show’s most provocative message that the law and order we rely on was just as scary and disorienting to Deadwood as its chaos would be to us.
The man most in control of the chaos is Al Swearengen (Ian MacShane), owner of the Gem Saloon and landlord of the greater part of Deadwood. Al has gotten where he is through sheer force of will, and of course, has resorted to violence when expedient. Al is a fascinating character. He’s a realist who accepts that law and society are inevitably coming to his corner of the world, but is trying like hell to hold on to his empire as they do. His disquisitions on his personal and business philosophies are memorable outbursts, including one in the penultimate episode delivered while he avails himself to the services of one of the whores he keeps in his saloon.
Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock is a thoroughly honest man, but capable of righteous anger. He comes to Deadwood weary of his experiences as a Marshal in Montana. He and Sol Star (John Hawkes) are opening a hardware store. Early in the season they befriend legendary gambler and gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and his companions, Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane.
The first season depicts the people of Deadwood confronted with various crises which combine to force a sense of order on the chaos that many inhabitants sought by coming to the territory. A cold-blooded murder necessitates a trial, which in turn necessitates the creation of laws. A smallpox outbreak necessitates the formation of public services. And a treaty with the Indians threatens to throw Deadwood’s status into uncertainty.
I’ve only scratched the surface in listing the appealing attributes of Deadwood: Season One. There are outstanding performances throughout the cast. Brad Dourif is phenomenal as the camp’s doctor, whose moral outrage is unfazed by Swearengen or anyone else. Ray McKinnin is wonderful as a zealously faithful preacher, and Powers Boothe does a slow burn to anger as well as anyone can, as Cy Tolliver, owner of the Bella Union saloon and Al’s chief business rival.
Deadwood is a fascinating look at how the building blocks of society are themselves built, showcasing the human flaws that inform the imperfections of society. It’s also just a rip-roarin’ good time filled with a delightful amount of swears. I highly recommend it.