I’ll say right upfront that Deadwood is a show I am completely in the tank for. It’s a show like nothing television had seen before, and it’s set an incredibly high bar for any drama that’s come since. It’s a show I’ve enjoyed on an intellectual as well as a visceral level, and I’ve always wanted to take a deeper look at it and write out my thoughts from episode to episode. So hopefully anyone out there who might be going through the series again or may be coming to it for the first time will find some value in all of this. And if not, well, piss on you.
I’ll also say that even four and half years after the show aired what would end up being its finale, I still haven’t seen the last seven episodes. What?! If you haven’t seen them all, how can you say it’s the best show ever?! HAVE YOU NEVER SEEN THE WIRE??!! Well, the answer to that last question is that I’ve seen the pilot and I imagine I’ll get to the rest eventually. The answer to the first question is that I don’t need to see every episode to know that Deadwood is the best TV show past, present and future. You see, Deadwood didn’t ask to be the best, it simply is. Like gravity and electromagnetism, it’s an underlying force of nature. For those who disagree, and I’m sure your numbers are legion, all I can say is that haters gonna hate. But don’t take my word for it. Onto the review!
Because Deadwood – the town as well as the show – is so unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, it’s fitting that the pilot opens in a small town in Montana Territory which much more closely resembles the western genre we grew up with. Dirt roads and faded storefronts, yet somehow all so clean. In the beginning we’re introduced to Seth Bullock, who along with Sol Star is soon heading out to Deadwood to open what he calls a hardware bid’ness. Bullock’s currently serving as Marshall of the territory, and those first minutes of the pilot tell us some important things about him. One, he believes in the rule of law, first and foremost. When a mob comes seeking retribution from a horse thief Bullock has in his custody, rather than let them lynch the man, he takes him out front and hangs him himself. It’s dirty, but it’s also legal – more or less. Two, Bullock is a man so rigid in his principles that on some level it’s broken him. The mob coming for the horse thief sped up their departure a little earlier than Bullock had intended. Before he leaves, he gives a letter with the thief’s last wishes, along with his badge to a member of the mob. No ceremony. He just leaves, almost as if he’s sneaking out the back door. What is it about Deadwood – a town settled on Indian territory and so outside the reach of U.S. law – that would draw Bullock in? Is it possible he’s running from something?
As Star and Bullock make their way into Deadwood, we see others also entering the camp. Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Charlie Utter among them. It’s always interesting to see how groups of like-minded people are able to recognize each other when they eventually cross paths. While almost everyone Wild Bill meets fawns over his celebrity, he’s able to fall perfectly in step with Bullock, as if the two were old friends. And while the history isn’t there, they’re obviously kindred spirits.
Inside the camp we’re introduced to Al Swearengen, Dan Dority, Trixie, and the others who frequent the Gem Saloon. In the beginning of the series, Al is portrayed more as a straight up villain than he becomes further on. We see him beating up on Trixie after she shoots an abusive customer in the head, ordering said customer fed to Mr. Wu’s pigs, and learn other unsavory details, like the fact that he keeps a gimp around the saloon to keep the place clean. We see him conniving with hotel owner E.B. Farnum and Tim Driscoll to rob Brom Garrett by selling him a worthless gold claim, then order Dan to kill Driscoll to make sure word of what they’ve done doesn’t spread. So it’s obvious he’s involved in all sorts of nefarious sh%t.
So our characters have come to Deadwood in search of different things. Bullock and Star are looking for a new beginning. It seems as if Wild Bill is looking for a place to die, despite that fact that he’s recently married. And Swearengen is looking to keep firm his hold on the camp’s less desirable elements. All of these threads converge in the pilot’s main (more or less) plot, which is the massacre of a Norwegian family we saw on their way out of Deadwood in the beginning of the episode. A rider comes into town claiming to have seen a “terrible thing,” supposedly carried out by Indians. Bullock and Hickok lead a group out to the massacre and find Sofie, the family’s youngest daughter, still alive. At this point they both suspect that it wasn’t Indians, but the rider who may have orchestrated the attack, and so deliver the girl to Jane rather than make a scene by bringing her back into camp and alerting others to her presence. Bullock and Wild Bill confront the man and when he tries drawing on them they kill him. And that’s that. Life goes on. We see Trixie climb into bed with Swearengen, who stares off into space. The look on his face can be interpreted in several different ways. It isn’t emotionless, although there is a certain amount of apathy toward the rider who’s just been shot in the face. You can tell the gears are turning, though. Bullock and Wild Bill together present an interesting problem to him and his interests in the camp, and how’s he going to deal with that?