One of my Facebook friends posted a comment about my recent essay on the HBO series, Deadwood. He stated that he stopped watching the program because of the excessive use of the f-word in the episodes he saw. He considered it a sign that the writers don’t “have the skills to express thought other than shock.”
I agree that the series overuses the word as well as some other pretty raunchy ones. But I cannot agree that it is because of any lack of skill from the writers. In fact, I think the writing is brilliant.
Deadwood is about a raw, unruly town of endlessly muddy streets, soiled revolting men, the subjugation and debasement of women, corruption and scheming so widespread hardly anyone is honest. It’s a drab, filthy town of derelicts and degenerates, con men, and crackpots.
Al Swearingen (Ian McShane) owns the Gem Saloon and Brothel and he’s about the vilest character you’d find in an HBO series. He seems invincible in spite of a brutal beating by Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and a stone in his bladder that nearly killed him. I’ve never seen such writhing pain, which left Al temporarily paralyzed in his right arm and with a bloody right eye with a hideous glare. He finally recovers. The only thing left as damaged as ever is his soul. He does not recover that.
His competition comes from Cyrus Tolliver (Powers Boothe), owner of the Bella Union Saloon. It’s a brothel as well, though a more upscale establishment than Al’s, if that is possible in a place like Deadwood. “Cy,” as he’s called, is a polished, well-dressed owner with wavy salt and pepper hair. He may be more cultivated but he matches Al Swearingen’s ruthlessness if not his sleaziness.
Sheriff Bullock is a straight-laced man with a powder keg with a sizzling fuse inside him. He seemed to be the only moral man in town until he slept with the lovely widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker) who then becomes pregnant. Bullock is married and his wife and son arrive in Deadwood just as the news of the widow’s condition is known across the camp. You want to root for this guy, but he keeps making it difficult to do.
And there is the ravaged, forever hammered, gutsy Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). I love that character. Horrendously abused as a girl she found a way to display a grit and fearlessness that gives her an impossible dignity. Her humor is biting and hilarious. And her alcoholism, though tragic and destructive, reveals deep interior wounds still hurting the little girl who endured them. Inside all of her brokenness is something unbreakable. I can’t help but love her.
The mousy, miserable E.B. Farnum, who operates the local hotel is a man of limited skills. He uses proper English and tries to appear well educated but he’s a man in perpetual defeat. Used by Al Swearingen, dismissed by Cy Tolliver, the power men in town, E.B. flits about trying to find a place of prominence. He craves the gold claims he knows of but he hasn’t the intellectual or character resources to reach them.
There were only three seasons to this great series. Across them came a variety of oddball characters, outlaws, drifters, barbarous men, and women, but also people of heart, grace, kindness, and love.
Deadwood represents a much larger place than a town. It’s a microcosm of a country. It shows us the bawdy, uncivilized part of our humanity. It says evil can be alluring. That goodness, though original in all of us, innate, ultimately indestructible, can be rended, hidden, and ignored for some temporary and useless act of selfishness.
This was not a series to entertain as much as it was one to instruct.
© 2018 Timothy Moody