Photograph by Doug Hyun
I wouldn't trust a man who wouldn't try to steal a little: The wit and wisdom of Al Swearengen (Ian McShane).
'Deadwood,' on DVD for a second season and HBO for a third, tells a tale of organized crime in the Old West every bit as tangled as 'The Sopranos'
By Richard von Busack
HAS THERE ever been a Western less interested in pictorial values than Deadwood? Season Three just began last Sunday on HBO, and fans have been readied by the Season Two DVD collection that came out a few weeks ago. (As HBO prevaricated over keeping this most profane of Westerns on the air, an online effort to save the show just ended in a draw, with a pair of two-hour made-for-TV movies scheduled after Season Three ends.)
Deadwood doesn't dwell over the widescreen beauty shots of the Rockies, but it does begin with a taste of Marlboro Country in the titles. A wild horse runs free, out of the hills. It passes by a thief purloining a chicken, blood coagulating over a block of ice and a grubby, plump prostitute lowering herself into a bath. Still, the mustang can't get into town fast enough. Deadwood's makers understand the pioneer sentiment that a camp full of ruffians is better than a howling wilderness.
The show is shot on a low budget at Gene Autry's old Melody Ranch near Newhall, where 70 years of Westerns were made. What would the squeaky-clean Autry have made of the dialogue? The word "fuck" is used frequently, but maybe not excessively, considering the tough conditions of the 1870s. There's more violent language than violent deeds in the show.
Deadwood is best known as the town where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered. The first season assured us that Sheriff Seth Bullock would take Hickok's place as hero and avenge this Greek-tragic killing. As Bullock, Timothy Olyphant is the image of well-dressed, well-figured law.
On the face of things, Bullock is a courtly, completely standard Western hero. Among the many crimes committed in the town of Deadwood, the strangest must be the stealing of the show by the villain.
The most distinguished creation by executive producer David Milch is an outlaw, Al Swearengen, played by English actor Ian McShane. The Gem Saloon's owner is a dyed-whiskered pimp, a schemer. He's a milky-eyed killer with a look of contempt that never softens, even in pity for business associates who can't understand Swearingen's many gambits.
Swearengen is a lion presiding over less-bright jackals, including hotel keeper E.B. Farnum, a marvelously comic weasel ("I am a born follower"), played William Sanderson. In this and other ways, Al is much like HBO's Tony Soprano. A villain becomes an antihero when we see how hard he works. Swearengen busts his hump, as Tony Soprano puts it. Both he and Tony had abusive childhoods; recently, both of them almost died—Tony from a bullet; Swearengen from a case of bladder stones.
Finally, both Tony and Al have meaner, crueler rivals to make them look more human. Tony has Johnny Sack. Swearingen has the bad-bastard rival saloon keeper Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe). Boothe, famous for playing silver-haired, nobly browed swine, demonstrates the rotten side of looking too handsome. Moreover, he has a fine hissing voice, like a rattlesnake sent to Harvard Law School.
Throughout the second season of Deadwood, Swearengen consolidates his power, which is endangered by the new telegraph line arriving in town. Rival politicians seek to incorporate Deadwood into either Montana or the Dakotas. There's a stranger in town who combines the worst qualities of venture capitalist and Jack the Ripper. And the wealthy miner George Hearst is lurking about. Hearst (William Randolph's father) is an expert spoilsman, even by the exacting standards of the Gilded Age. Balancing the demands of these would-be empire builders, Swearengen must combine the ruthless talents of Al Capone and Plunkett of Tammany Hall.
The series' creator, David Milch, formerly of NYPD Blue, was interviewed at MIT (see http://
web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums/great_writer.htm). In front of an Ivy League audience, Milch felt safe dropping the names Melville and Hawthorne; he also claims that Deadwood's nerveless doctor (Brad Dourif) is a lift from Conrad.
The process of writing Deadwood is a species of improv. In a long profile of Milch, The New Yorker's Marc Singer describes Milch composing the dialogue on the set, surrounded by hushed, seated interns: an "equal parts master class and séance."
Since the interns on the show are mostly female, Deadwood gets credited scripts from a unusually large number of women writers. TV writing is still mostly a man's profession, which may be a way of explaining why so much TV is unwatchable.
The female cast of Deadwood is formidable—the rich widow and love interest Alma (the graceful Molly Parker); Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), a hoarse alcoholic at loose ends since Wild Bill was gunned down; Paula Malcomson as Trixie, a conflicted "hoor," working for Al but drawn to Bullock's partner, Sol. The town's whores and madams are strivers, too, involved in lethal scams and dangerous wagers.
Milch has commented that the town of Deadwood interested him "because it was acknowledged to be a criminal enterprise." Milch mentions family connections to upstate New York organized crime. He claims his surgeon father operated on wise guys to keep them laid up, right at the time they were supposed to be testifying to Sen. Estes Kefauver's Special Committee on Organized Crime in the 1950s. In addition to his heroic struggles with booze and drug addiction, Milch says that on one occasion he illegally buried a dead man in Mexico.
Writers love to scent themselves with brimstone. Milch's stories might be too good to be true, but they suggest that Deadwood's creator has lived both sides of life—unlike his frat brother, George W. Bush, whom Milch describes as "a genial boob."
Since he knows something about how dirty money gets refined by politics, Milch made his Western town a mirror of business corruption today. Yes, no other Western has cared so little about horses and skylines, but more importantly, no Western has been as serious as Deadwood has been about following the money.
Deadwood plays Sundays at 9pm on HBO.
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