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The Outlaw World of Deadwood

Why the HBO show’s visions of chaos and order endure

Courtesy of HBO

On the set of Deadwood: The Movie—a new, 110-minute conclusion to the HBO series—the show’s creator, David Milch, read Robert Penn Warren poems to the cast. Warren was Milch’s writing teacher when he was at Yale, and they kept up a correspondence long after. When Warren was dying, he summoned Milch to his side. When Milch was writing Deadwood, he would read his old friend’s poems “at least three mornings a week.” The words established a tone for the series, set in a gold mining camp in the unincorporated territory of South Dakota in 1876. “Tell me a story,” Warren writes in one poem, “In this century, and moment, of mania, / Tell me a story. Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.”

Deadwood is a rollicking drama about the mania that was the violent colonization of the American West, with all its greed, brutality, and misrule. It is filled with great distances and starlight. The final scene of the Deadwood film ends on a cold, clear night, as snow begins to fall outside the Gem Saloon, the bar and brothel owned by the murderous Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). It is now 1889, and South Dakota has officially joined the Union as a state; Deadwood, no longer just a lawless hitching post, has grown into a town. All of this brings a fresh order to the proceedings, a stark quietness to a place where, for years, people seemed never to stop screaming “cocksucker” at each other day and night. Somewhere in the distance, a woman sings a verse of “Waltzing Matilda.”

This may sound like a sentimental conclusion for a show that plainly depicted bloodshed and subjugation, and often seemed to revel in the more abject qualities of the American West. The downy, wintery final moments of the film feel more like the soft landing of a narrative quietly closing its loop, which is all Warren asked for in his poetry: Tell me a story. And after watching the final chapter of Deadwood, I’m convinced it is one of the best stories ever put on television, and one that, although it is not set “in this century, and moment,” feels suddenly, deeply resonant.

Deadwood, in its early 2000s heyday, was one of a trio of early “prestige” HBO dramas that explored different underbellies of American life: The Sopranos looked at mob brutishness, The Wire spun a Greek tragedy out of the backstreets of Baltimore. The creators of these programs, all white men, formed a kind of princely pantheon of showrunners and were regularly grouped together by the press as mavericks and visionaries. In his book about them, Difficult Men, the writer Brett Martin identified a “third golden age” of television, in which a series of great men made shows about great and troubled men. As for the overwhelming maleness of the field, Martin proposed that “certainly the autocratic power of the showrunner-auteur scratches a peculiarly masculine itch.”

For these reasons, I avoided Deadwood for a long time. I had heard it was a show in which cowboys rape prostitutes, in which McShane played yet another vainglorious anti-hero whose use of the word “fuck” every 20 seconds was an edgy tic, in which gratuitous murders made up a large portion of the action. I’d seen old Westerns, the ways they often glorified white men in saddles and depicted Native Americans and women with less poetry than they accorded the sunsets. I had no need to see this “masculine itch” satisfied on TV.

I am glad to say that I was wrong. From the beginning, Deadwood was about much more than the complexities of machismo. When David Milch pitched the show that became Deadwood to HBO, he was coming off two decades of writing and overseeing network police procedurals (often with co-creator Steven Bochco), beginning with Hill Street Blues in 1982, followed by NYPD Blue, Big Apple, and Brooklyn South. These shows elevated the standard good-cop-bad-cop formula, infusing gritty law enforcement dramas with stark moral questions and private agony. But Milch wanted to explore a bigger story, about how people organize themselves when they don’t already have systems in place for how to do so. He was interested in order, and how it sometimes blooms out of chaos. He wanted to study a body politic; how it forms, how it operates, how it turns rotten. He pitched a show about Rome in the time of Emperor Nero, but HBO told him that they had already greenlit Rome. So he looked to the Western to explore the same themes.

Moving the show to the Black Hills in the nineteenth century opened up those concerns in unexpected ways. Deadwood is a deeply American show, suffused with the horrors of colonialism, the rampant greed of capitalism as it spread Westward, and the toxic masculinity that led to so much violence and lonesomeness among the pines. But it is also about intrepidness and ingenuity; about entrepreneurial spirit sprouting in unlikely places. In Deadwood, most women, particularly the sex workers, are treated abysmally by the men, who outnumber them. But some women in the camp also get rich, and plot schemes, join shoot-outs, and open businesses. On the frontier, several women were able to experience new freedoms before someone rode into town and shut their mobility down again. There was always danger and exhilaration, and there were always consequences.

Milch’s scripts got inside the frontier mentality with an intoxicating poetry. His characters speak in something close to iambic pentameter, as if they’re acting Shakespeare. They will often address each other formally, as if in court, followed by a few “fucks” for good measure. (When the show first aired, many complained the profanities were anachronistic, but Milch said he aimed to transmit the bombastic mood of the frontier, not its exact patois). At one point in the new film, a prostitute named Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) refers to herself as “a whore of my vintage.” Another character, describing an old acquaintance, says she’s “collecting her portion of gloom and dismay, just like any of us.” The plot begins to emerge out of sentences that don’t quite fit together, just as a town begins to rise out of muddy nothingness. This is how civilizations grow: word by word.

Deadwood was a true ensemble show, in that several characters drove the action over its three seasons. There was no one star, though McShane’s wild-card saloon owner Al Swearengen and Timothy Olyphant’s upstanding sheriff Seth Bullock orbit each other warily. As in any town inventing itself out of thin air, new people arrive all the time. There is a wealthy widow named Alma (Molly Parker) who has a laudanum addiction, an upstanding sheriff’s wife (Anna Gunn), and resident outlaws like Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). These characters are all real people or meticulous composites thereof: Milch spent two years researching the West and the real Deadwood before ever writing a word of the show. The show is technically fiction, but it also scrupulously depicts the way a city is really born, and how turbulent and disruptive this can be.

Unlike the other hyper-male prestige shows of its era, Deadwood was a period piece, less about the way we are, and more about the burdens of shared history. So many of its characters remain recognizable—blustering desperadoes, who believe in their right to act outside the law and then impose rules and strictures on others. So many of their conflicts are about who exactly gets to run things. We are still living with the same battles. America is violence and misogyny and crushing solitude. It is also resourcefulness, resilience, and mettle. All of this is part of the country’s DNA, and Deadwood was willing to stare it directly in the face.

When Deadwood was canceled after its third season, Milch promised fans that one day there would be a conclusion. In the meantime, his career took a circuitous route. He made a show called Luck, about a man with a gambling addiction, but it only lasted one season. And, as New York magazine revealed recently, he discovered that he was developing Alzheimer’s disease. This makes the fact that he has finally brought Deadwood to an end poignant; a show about remembering our collective past must feel more urgent when your own memory is going.

After 13 years, the movie pretty much picks up where the show ended off—Trixie escaped death and is now pregnant with the hardware store owner’s baby. The sheriff has settled into married life, despite holding a torch for Alma. Al is getting older and feels his control over his brothel and the town slipping. And a wealthy businessman named George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) has come to town, determined to reap the rewards of statehood in his dapper red vests and top hat. The tides are turning, away from an ad hoc society into a more measured one, and each character is experiencing the change differently. For the men who profited off wantonness, the transition feels jarring. For women who long for safety, it feels overdue.

The film has some compelling new subplots, like the murder of a landowner and the black man who is wrongfully blamed for it. But just as Milch’s flowery language is less about what it says and more about what it makes you feel, the final chapter of Deadwood is less about what happens and more about the impression it leaves. As the snow gently builds in the last few moments, you realize that Milch has made a timeless origin story, one that shows the roots of the ugliness that is currently seeping through the news every day. Deadwood is a story, not of this century, but also not quite out of the past.