Starring: Keith Carradine, Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Powers Boothe, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, W. Earl Brown
Mood: Deadwood IS a f*cking mood.
This is my 50th review for I Review Westerns, and I’m SO F*CKING STOKED that it’s Deadwood’s first season.
It wasn’t even intentional – I’m reading a Western book right now, and that could have been the one if I’d finished it quicker. But I got so insanely caught up in Deadwood that I binged the last two discs in one afternoon.
There’s a phrase that a lot of reviewers use for good Western movies: “reinventing the genre”. I can’t stand that expression, because it’s become horribly overused and abused (like ‘iconic’ in the Drag Race world – not every runway look and lip sync is iconic just because it’s good).
Reviewers always use ‘reinventing’ when what they mean is that the movie makes a great effort to reinvigorate the genre. Reinventing is what Madonna does every 5-10 years. It’s not simply reminding people that the genre still exists by throwing a few fresh faces and special effects into the mix – it’s a total shakeup that delivers something bold and entirely different, creating a whole new style for others to follow.
Deadwood reinvented the TV Western genre.
It’s a total departure from everything we’ve seen before. It’s dark, filthy, and inescapably brutal. It’s the real West, not the romanticized version Hollywood has been giving us since the ‘20s. Yet it’s also got the killer plot hooks of the best soapy TV drama – you fall instantly into this show, and you fall hard.
Season one of Deadwood takes place in the famed town of Deadwood, Montana Territory, in 1876. The show has one of those awesome intros that you expect from HBO: top-notch cinematography that alternates between fast and slow shots on things like wild horses, gold panning, liquor pouring, and women in bathtubs.
Deadwood is a mining camp – mostly mud and tents propped up around The Gem saloon. Owner-operator Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is the most powerful man in town through his visionary mind, control of the ‘spirits’ (booze, women, and opium), and his use of brute force.
Former lawmen Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Star (John Hawkes) ride into town hoping to set up a hardware store. At the same time, Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) arrives with his BFFs Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Rich dude Brom Garret (Timothy Omundson) and his laudanum-loving wife Alma (Molly Parker) have foolishly come to Deadwood for the Wild West experience.
Right out of the gate, Deadwood delivers stories upon stories upon stories. You can feel series creator David Milch’s love for this period and these people. In the DVD extras there’s a fantastic interview between Keith Carradine and Milch where they talk about the importance of language. Calamity Jane and the prospectors like Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) slur a steady stream of choice profanity, while Sweargengen weaves obscenities through a rapid-fire, educated vernacular.
The cinematography is richly immersive, and the costumes and styling feel fantastically authentic. But Deadwood’s real secret sauce is the cast. Each of the actors is living their character so perfectly, you can’t look away.
Let me get this out of the way – the only downside to Deadwood is that there’s NOT ENOUGH KEITH CARRADINE. His portrayal of Wild Bill is everything. When he stepped off that wagon and you first saw his face with the long curly hair and moustache both cascading perfectly, I 100% fell in love. That is one beautiful f*cking man.
Even when he’s not doing anything specific, Carradine is acting with every fibre of his being. His Wild Bill has sharp yet exhausted eyes, and you can see glimpses of torment behind them. He’s giving you all of these emotions with a single glance, and maybe Timothy Olyphant is the focal point of the scene but Carradine holds your attention.
His character is calm, observant, and unrattled even when provoked to kill – yet terribly shaken by an obnoxious ‘fan’ hoping he gets killed in camp. His beautiful curls become unkempt and scraggly as his character is weighed down by life.
It’s all in the details. You can tell that research was done, and he understood Wild Bill.
Olyphant as Bullock is actually the weakest link on Deadwood. He’s still solid, but what appears to be fierce smouldering in the first episode quickly becomes one-note because he’s just angry. All. The. Time. By the sixth or seventh episode you start to see smiles or moments of softness and it’s a welcome change – but somehow he’s still smouldering and it doesn’t *quite* work.
My boyfriend thinks it did work because all that anger and intensity is shown to get in his own way. I don’t totally agree, but I hope to see something more interesting from his character in season two.
Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane is a brilliant masterpiece. She’s disgusting and gruff and often incoherent, and you just don’t get women acting so crude in a Western. She went there. Yet she’s also nurturing and street smart and fiercely loyal, and it’s the most range I’ve ever seen in a female Western role. She should have been winning awards every year for that performance. Her friendships with Charlie and Doc give Deadwood an unexpected sweetness.
Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen is f*cking scary. You wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley, or a perfectly well-lit one; even if he was your friend, he might kill you. His eyes are cold and murderous, even when he’s smiling – yet he’s also possibly the most complex character. McShane perfectly evokes a cunning intellect with huge physicality and crassness, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Then toward the end of the season you see these occasional moments of gentleness and compassion, and you don’t know what to think because he’s still vile AF.
And he’s a true antagonist sitting smugly at centre stage – he’s not a bad guy you’re meant to love, like Dexter. He’s a proper f*cking villain leading the show, which is another testament to Deadwood’s reinvention of the genre.
Brad Dourif has played some crazy characters over his career – I mean, the dude started as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His portrayal of Doc Cochran in Deadwood is powerful. His eyes are always a bit wild, and it works well as the alcoholic doctor trying to stay on top of Deadwood’s increasing medical needs. Dourif plays him intense, resilient, and unafraid of the powerful bullies even when he acquiesces to their demands.
I could write a paragraph about every single one of the performances in season one, but this review is already hella long because IT’S SUCH A GOOD F*CKING SHOW. We’ll compromise with a bullet list:
- Powers Boothe gives you layers as Cy Tolliver, Swearengen’s competition; this is no charming scallywag like his Curly Bill in Tombstone – he’s elegant and refined but truly terrifying, capable of more violence than even Swearengen, and Boothe is great at delivering the facial expressions of a thinly veiled psychopath
- William Sanderson has excelled as the nervous, put-upon type in everything from Lonesome Dove to True Blood, and his E.B. Farnum is no exception; he seems to be nothing more than a greasy toady, but you get to see little acts of rebellion against Swearengen that give him depth and make you feel kinda bad for him (until he does the next weaselly thing); they also made great costume choices for Farnum, his ‘nice’ jacket becoming increasingly rotted to show his desperation to be respected but total lack of success
- Jeffrey Jones always makes me think of Beetlejuice and probably always will, but he’s perfect as journalist A.W. Merrick – loves to hear himself talk, trying so hard to be refined and well-spoken while surrounded by ruffians
- Paula Malcomson is heartbreaking as Trixie, you just want to shake her and scream “WHY?!”; she evokes a strong woman trapped in a shitty situation, making the best decisions she can for survival but never kidding herself
- Garret Dillahunt is a good-looking man, and it’s fun to see his repulsive turn as the coward Jack McCall; his droop-eyed trick and slurred speech give the character a whole other level of crudeness
- Ray McKinnon gives a heartbreaking performance as Reverend H.W. Smith; he was good as Long Bill Coleman in Dead Man’s Walk, but this something raw and different and often hard to watch
- Kristen Bell is doll-like and cherubic yet vicious and manipulative in her short arc as Flora, and it’s super reminiscent of Kirsten Dunst as Claudia in Interview with the Vampire
In case you can’t tell, the cast is insanely talented but also a who’s-who of favourites. You get to see Joel McKinnon Miller, best known as Agent Scully in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, giving a fanboy speech to Wild Bill – then his Nine-Nine bosom buddy Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) appears briefly as a juror.
I didn’t even realize until part way through watching season one for the second time just how many of the characters are based on real people. Again, there’s so much attention to detail and research behind the engrossing storytelling. That’s what makes Deadwood a work of art.
I think it’s the best Western TV show of all time. It might even be the best TV show of all time. I’m prepared to have that fight, if you bring the beers. I’m going to be traumatized if the other seasons and the movie don’t hold up to the glory of this first season.