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Monday, July 3, 2017

The Milch Studies: DEADWOOD Season One - “Okay, What If We Do It As A Western?”

Following the fast cancellation of Big Apple, David Milch spent the next three years without a show on the air.  Still wanting to create something out of Steven Bochco’s shadow, most likely burned out on NYPD Blue scripts, and with a post 9-11 resolve to “never” write about contemporary America again (he’d later renege), Milch found himself pitching a new series to HBO.

It’s widely known that Milch’s pitch would be set in ancient Rome, starring a centurion living during the earliest days of Christianity.  Some of the Milch speeches archived on YouTube offer more details, although no one seems to have transcribed them.  At the risk of jumbling a few of the details, I’ll report that Milch has recounted this series would focus on a Roman centurion with an alcoholic son, one delivered from his addiction after meeting the apostle Paul and converting to Christianity.  The centurion would now face a crisis of conscience -- does he pledge loyalty to this strange new belief system that’s saved his son, or to his emperor, who’s ordered the death of these Christians?

Milch recounts that he pitched the series to HBO’s execs, they smiled, and informed him they already had a series in the works set in ancient Rome.  In some retellings of the story, Milch makes it sound as if he pitched, “Okay, what if we do it as a western?” on the spot.  He’s also stated that he has no real affinity for westerns, but instead viewed the setting as a way to explore similar themes.  Instead of a collection of disparate individuals united under the cross, he’d now tell the story of a town united under gold.

Milch spent months researching the real life mining camp of Deadwood, South Dakota, which sprang up in 1876, during the final days of America’s gold rush.  (A documentary about the real Deadwood, with several uncensored clips from the show and an interview with Milch, can be seen here.)  Deadwood was actually not a part of the United States at this time, the land the rightful property of the Lakota people of the Sioux.  The earliest Deadwood settlers were even kicked out of the illegal settlement by the American government, but within a few months, the mining operations had resumed and the government was at war with the Lakota over the territory.

Deadwood, the television series, begins months after the establishment of the camp, when the land still belongs to the Lakota, and after most of the successful gold claims have already been taken, leaving the mining camp as a target for thieves and con artists.  The pilot episode opens in Montana, where Sheriff Seth Bullock is on his last day of the job, preparing to head off to Deadwood with his friend Sol Starr, where they’ll sell mining supplies to the settlers.  A drunken mob is forming outside of the sheriff’s office, demanding Bullock release his lone prisoner to be lynched.  The man has already been sentenced to hang, but the mob demands a piece of the thief before he dies.

Bullock emerges from his office with the prisoner, holds off the mob with his pistol, and declaring this will be done “under color of law,” arranges to hang the man on the front steps of the building.  Bullock records the man’s final words, makes sure his sister is notified of his last wishes, and “helps with the drop” since the fall from the porch isn’t actually enough to kill him.  (Meaning Bullock physically pulls the man’s body down until he finally chokes.)  With that, Bullock gives a scornful goodbye to Montana and departs with Sol Starr.

Not only is this vignette an intense opening for the series, but it’s also true.  Deadwood’s devotion to historical accuracy dithers endlessly, but this incident comes straight from recorded history.  It also encapsulates everything that’s needed to be known about Seth Bullock.  His unwavering sense of justice, his bravery, and the weariness that’s accompanied the blood on his hands are all present in the opening five minutes of the series.

After that unforgettable opening, the pilot of Deadwood carries on at a leisurely pace.  While the NYPD Blue pilot drops the viewer into the world of Kelly and Sipowicz and throws a new emotional confrontation, plot twist, or violent shooting at you every few minutes, Deadwood is far more methodical about introducing its characters.  (I don’t think it’s heresy to assert Steven Bochco possesses commercial instincts that Milch lacks.)  The show, in all honesty, can be difficult to wade into during the opening hours.  Following the first episode, I wasn’t even certain I wanted to stick with the series.  By the third episode, however, I was fully invested in the world.  Even though Milch is more than willing to ignore established history when it suits him, the show has a verisimilitude that few programs could ever match.  The world of Deadwood isn’t quite ancient history, even though it might as well be a thousand years ago, given the changes in society and technology since the late 1800s.  The characters, the motivations, and the show’s themes, however, always ring true.

The cast of Deadwood consists of…literally dozens.  The world of Deadwood is so fully formed, there’s a sense that any random extra could be pulled from the set and transformed into a recurring character.  (Which is exactly what happened to an extra named Ralph Richardson; Milch liked his look and designed the character of Richardson around him.  He debuts at the end of Season One as the eccentric aide of hotel owner E. B. Farnum.)  Keeping track of the cast is occasionally difficult, and one constant throughout the run of the show is that Milch is going to keep adding actors he likes in assorted roles.  The easiest episodes to follow are the opening twelve, and even then, the cast is too large to concisely detail.  The major figures, however, are…

Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock
Olyphant has stated that before Deadwood, he was consistently sent out to audition for “Christian Slater” roles.  He didn’t expect to be cast as Deadwood’s reluctant sheriff, but Milch had a sense of Olyphant’s intensity and liked it.  There are shades of the John Kelly character from NYPD Blue in Bullock -- both are stubborn, self-righteous, and absolutely infuriated by bullies.  Milch also uses the character of Bullock to explore the cost of violence on a good man’s soul, a theme he discussed in his True Blue book, when detailing his friendship with Det. Bill Clark. 

And, much as the John Kelly character on NYPD Blue lost much of his screentime to the anti-hero known as Sipowicz, by the third episode, it’s clear Timothy Olyphant is nominally the star, but David Milch’s interests lie in an older, less commercially obvious, actor.  That said, the internal conflicts of Bullock, his desire to live a simple life as a business owner and to escape the duties of the law, in addition to his attraction to a widow in the camp, even though he’s recently married his late brother’s wife and taken responsibility for that family, give Olyphant great material.

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen
The owner of The Gem Saloon, Al Swearengen literally helped to build Deadwood, arriving in the earliest days of the camp, erecting a saloon to cater to the prospectors, and even after being kicked out of the illegal settlement by the government, returning a year later to oversee his business interests.  Milch treats Swearengen as the de facto mayor of Deadwood, a “purveyor of spirits” who’s also actively involved with many of the thefts occurring in and around the camp.  I initially assumed the character’s name was a pun, based on his predilection for profanity, but there really was an Al Swearengen in Deadwood, and the show’s portrayal is apparently pretty close to the real thing.  Many of Milch’s notions for Al Swearengen were developed earlier with Michael Madsen’s character in Big Apple -- the concept of a local saloon owner, given to extensive monologues, who has his fingers in numerous illegal activities but is somehow still a beneficial part of the community -- CBS didn’t have any patience for the concept, but it’s at the heart of Deadwood.

Seth Bullock immediately hates Swearengen after their first meeting, when Al casually makes a joke about Seth killing a man, setting the stage for their chaotic relationship in the opening year.  The traditional setup of a drama, which would have the morally righteous Bullock deflating another one of Al’s schemes each week, is clearly not what Milch is interested in, however.  Deadwood is a community, every man has his place, and they must live together.

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver
The owner of The Bella Union, the more upscale rival of The Gem, Cy Tolliver is often used as a contrast to Al Swearengen.  Both have two close confidants, one a stooge and one a prostitute, both run brothels and games of chance, and both possess a ruthless disregard for human life.  And yet, Al Swearengen is the morally complex hero of the series, while Cy Tolliver is consistently a villain.  The opening episodes of the series reveal Al does possess some capacity for affection, even if he usually has no idea how to express it, in addition to a basic understanding that what’s bad for the camp is bad for his business.  Cy, meanwhile, is shortsighted and cruel, even kicking an employee infected with smallpox out of his joint to die in the woods, indifferent if the disease will spread.  When Al discovers one of his johns has smallpox the next day, he immediately summons the community leaders to deal with the issue.

Actor Powers Boothe was HBO’s preferred choice to play Al Swearengen (while Milch pushed for Ed O’Neil), but he grew sick shortly before the pilot was shot.  Ian McShane was cast at the last moment for the Swearengen role, and Boothe was promised a new part whenever he was healthy enough to return to work.  This info has led some to believe the Cy Tolliver character was too late an addition to the series, explaining why Cy is always around, but rarely alters the trajectory of the stories.  The late episodes of Season One have Cy plotting to turn the camp against the Chinatown residents, in the hopes of picking up some cheap real estate after the “celestials” have been run off, but like many of Cy’s schemes, it amounts to almost nothing.  Perhaps the deepest wound inflicted on Cy comes in Season Three, when Milch introduces a new character to serve as his straw man representation of avaricious capitalism.

Even if this character never lived up to his potential, Powers Boothe is amazing in every scene.  He has the best voice of all the cast members, and plays the part of a civilized thug with such self-confidence, you get the sense that he loved this role.

Kim Dickens as Joanie Stubbs
Loosely based on real life madam Dora DuFran, Joanie Stubbs is the hostess of The Bella Union, and perhaps, the true love of Cy Tolliver’s life.  The exact nature of Cy and Joanie’s relationship is never fully revealed.  We do know that they have a history that goes back years, and that as much as Cy claims to care for her, he’s capable of treating the gentle, almost innocent Joanie with horrible cruelty.  It’s implied that Cy resents Joanie because he knows she can never truly love him, possibly because she sees in Cy the father who sold her into prostitution as a child.  It’s also an open secret that Joanie has become involved with some of the girls in her employ; this seems to simultaneously amuse and anger Cy.  Joanie doesn’t have much to do in the first season, but her appearances are memorable, and as the episodes go on she becomes more important to the series.

Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok
The real life tale of Wild Bill’s final days is faithfully recreated on the series, as the western legend has traveled to Deadwood ostensibly to mine gold, but in practice, to drink, play cards, and escape the myth that surrounds his name.  One of the finest performances of the series belongs to Carradine’s Hickok, as he finds himself the target of awe, ire, or simple ridicule from almost everyone he meets.  Wild Bill was one of the nation’s first celebrities, the lawman made famous by the possibly exaggerated stories he told to eager reporters.   Based on his brief, disastrous attempt at stage acting, though, it’s assumed Wild Bill was never entirely comfortable with attention from the public, possessing too much dignity to allow himself to become a caricature.  Just as Milch’s characterization of Seth Bullock explores the theme of violence and its damage to the soul, Wild Bill is shown as a wounded man, carrying an unspoken burden that no one in his entourage understands.

The story of Wild Bill’s death is taken from historical accounts, right down to the name of the saloon and the words spoken by his killer, although Milch’s take on the story is unique.  The mystery of why Wild Bill would sit with his back to the door during a poker game, aware he was perpetually a target of anyone looking to make a name, has lingered for years.  One popular theory states Bill actually suggested that someone else take his seat, but his celebrity had diminished so much by this point, no one bothered to listen to him.  Milch instead paints Wild Bill’s death as a passive suicide.  He examines the empty chair before taking it.  He thinks through the consequences and makes his decision.  Wild Bill knew what was coming and accepted his fate.

As mentioned above, the earliest episodes of Deadwood can be an acquired taste, but Keith Carradine’s performance of Hickok would draw in even a casual viewer.  Deadwood has almost no interest in traditional western conventions, and the death of Wild Bill is very likely a symbolic statement about the show’s intentions, but as the classic western hero, Keith Carradine is perfect in this role.  (Carradine is given one of the starkest examples of Milch dialogue ever and delivers it perfectly -- “Can you let me go to Hell the way I want to?” Wild Bill asks his friend, Charlie Utter, hours before his death.)

Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane
I believe the character of Jane is only obliquely referred to as “Calamity Jane” once during the entire run of the series.  Actress Robin Weigert received much of the show’s critical attention after its debut, with her portrayal of Wild Bill’s vulgar sidekick, who hides her intense sensitivity behind a comically harsh façade.  After the death of her friend, and the end of her days serving as a scout for the legendary General Custer, Jane finds herself rudderless in Deadwood.  Like many of Milch’s characters, this means Jane will drink herself stupid but also on occasion find the inner strength to reach out and connect with others in the community.  The arc that has Jane sobering up during the smallpox crisis and nursing the afflicted, but then tossing it all away because she can’t ever let go of the bottle, is genuinely touching.  Yet, I’ll have to acknowledge that I can’t stand Robin Weigert’s “drunk voice,” which is how around ninety percent of Jane’s lines are delivered.  Recognizing that I’m in the minority with this opinion, I actually think the show is more watchable when Jane isn’t around.  (She tends to disappear for several episodes at a time in Season One.)

Molly Parker as Alma Garret
Commonly referred to as “The Widow Garret,” Alma is the young wife of a wealthy claim seeker, who finds himself swindled by Al Swearengen in the pilot.  After pressing the point, Al arranges for his main henchman to kill Alma’s husband.  Al assumes the recently widowed Alma Garret will sell the gold claim for a song, due to her mourning and her not-exactly secret addiction to opium.  Alma goes through a startling transition throughout Season One, however, kicking her drug habit (with the secret aid of Al’s main prostitute, Trixie) and seeing through the schemes of Al Swearengen and his proxy, E. B. Farnum.  Not only does Alma recognize the value of her gold claim, refusing to leave the mining camp for New York, but she also adopts an orphan named Sofia, the sole survivor of a botched robbery by Swearengen’s thugs.

I’ve tried to trim this down to only the characters that have noticeable influences on the major plots, which means I’ve omitted plenty of great characters.  Two of my favorites, Sol Starr and Doc Cochran, are amazing supporting players, for example, but they’re not influencing the arc of the first season in a major way.  Part of the appeal of Deadwood lies in the unexpected connections between the characters, and as Deadwood develops, it becomes clear that Milch is more interested in using world building and small character arcs to explore the themes of the series than he is in a master storyline.

If you’re curious about the series, it’s available on HBO Go, in addition to free streaming with Amazon Prime membership.  Given that NYPD Blue was dropped from free streaming not long after I began reviewing the series, it’s possible I just jinxed Deadwood, however.

Next time: Why does this g&#$%&@ show cuss so f&$@ing much?


  1. "Deadwood" is, in my opinion, the most underrated of HBO's "prestige" programming from around the turn of the century. "The Sopranos" had a monstrous audience, "The Wire" was the Hope diamond of critical fawning, "Six Feet Under" had the gimmickry, "Rome" poured on the sex and violence with buckets while other shows used brushes, and "Big Love"... uh, "Big Love" had five seasons somehow.

    And "Deadwood" seemed to run under the radar of just about all of them at some point or another. It's a damned shame(or should I say "motherfucking shame?") too, because it's such a unique and often beautiful show, with characters and scenes that stand up to the best of HBO's other series. A decade ago, Todd VanDerWerff over at the AV Club proposed "Deadwood," "Rome" and "The Wire" as a perfect trifecta of exploring a society's birth, maturity and decline (respectively.) And that's one of "Deadwood's" hidden charms: for all its visual and moral crudeness, there's an underlying thread of optimism in scenes like the occasional informal town meetings (and how they become more formal as the series progresses.)

  2. In one of those YouTube videos, someone tries to prod Milch into discussing the critical praise for the show, and he comes close to saying there wasn't much. Outside of Ian McShane's Golden Globe win, Milch couldn't come up with too many examples of critics fawning over the series. It has been oddly overlooked in a way, but it's continued to endure after its death, unlike many of the other HBO series from the era.

  3. I've been skimming your Milch articles, but I haven't had much to contribute since I never watched any of the shows. I did, however, watch DEADWOOD and I mostly liked it. If nothing else, it introduced me to Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant (the latter of whom went on to portray one of my favorite TV characters in JUSTIFIED), and reaffirmed my love of Powers Boothe (I'm still bummed about his death).

    I liked this series well enough, though I wouldn't say it set my world on fire. And there was way, way too much profanity. I'm not exactly a prude, but this show just piled it on to the point of absurdity. I get Milch was trying to shock viewers, but it was just too much most of the time. I vastly prefer judiciously used swearing over non-stop curse-fests.

    Anyway, since this one I actually watched and remember, I'll be paying closer attention to your posts on it!

  4. Bullock -- “helps with the drop” since the fall from the porch isn’t actually enough to kill him. (Meaning Bullock physically pulls the man’s body down until he finally chokes.)

    I understand he rather yanks the man so he breaks his neck to kill him quickly, which I believe was the idea how it was supposed to happen when done correctly, as opposed to the horrible slow suffocation by strangulation. This was the usual concern for the customer behind the worry if there's "enough drop".

    I have had the episodes waiting for my attentions on my internet tivo thingy for two years now. I'll try to binge to stay in pace for season two review.

    Gosh, there's not much of the lovable rogue that is the dealer-in-antiques Lovejoy to be found in Ian McShane's performance.


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