Welcome to 12 Days of Deadwood, in which Matt Zoller Seitz, author of the upcoming A Lie Agreed Upon: The Deadwood Chronicles, revisits the first season of the landmark HBO drama one episode at a time. Up first: the premiere episode, “Deadwood,” written by series creator David Milch and directed by Walter Hill, which originally aired on March 21, 2004.
Deadwood opens with a lawman thwarting the lynching of a prisoner by killing the man himself.
The lawman, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), sheriff of a town in the Montana territory, wouldn’t call the act a lynching, or even a murder, seeing as it occurred, in his words, “under color of law.” The prisoner, Clell Watson (James Parks), had planned to leave town to pan for gold in the Dakota Territory, then stole a horse and shot at Seth, grazing his arm. As the story begins, Seth sits at a table in the sheriff’s office, bad arm in a sling, good hand scrawling in a journal. Clell speaks to Seth through cell bars, noting that the sheriff himself was preparing to ride to Deadwood (with his business partner, Sol Star, played by John Hawkes). Clell suggests they travel together and, upon arriving, pretend not to know each other.
It’s possible to interpret Clell’s death as a mercy killing and insist that, at the very least, Seth did the deed as fast as possible, whereas the mob might have made it a night’s entertainment. But the truth is even more unpleasant. In a functioning democracy with elected officials and a separation of powers into legislative, judicial, and executive branches, Seth shouldn’t be killing anyone at all, except to thwart potentially lethal violence. Executions are the province of the judiciary. Seth is a sheriff, not a judge.
But there’s a difference between the world that we want and the world that we’re stuck with (another preoccupation on Deadwood), and in the world that Seth inhabits — that of unincorporated United States territories in the post–Civil War era — sheriffs sometimes act as judge, jury, and executioner to strike fear in the hearts of those who think of the law as a largely theoretical restraint. Seth’s on-the-spot execution doesn’t prove them wrong, but it does insist that the state is supposed to have a monopoly on violence, and that’s enough to assert control over the course of that night.
“Under color of law” means any act carried out by a person serving as a designated enforcer of existing statutes is presumed legal if undertaken in the name of society’s best interests. Ergo, if a man is arrested for horse thievery, a capital offense, and a sheriff summarily executes him (assuming, of course, he was guilty as charged, as Clell confirmed that he was), then the sheriff is a public official carrying out a sentence ahead of schedule, rather than a murderer. The tin star changes everything. That’s what the scene is about. And that, among other things, is what Deadwood is about.
Before entering the camp with Seth and Sol, we should pause to establish salient facts about the Western, the genre that David Milch’s Deadwood is part of — and that it stands apart from. The Western is a genre practiced by an array of novelists, playwrights, illustrators, and filmmakers in the U.S. and around the world, starting in the 1890s. It is about the end of the frontier and the beginning of civilization. It’s about law and order versus the wilderness; civilization versus savagery; freedom versus security, or, viewed a different way, locating freedom within security. It’s about wide-open spaces being mapped, carved up, deeded, incorporated, and fenced in by farmers, ranchers, land barons, railroad barons, or whomever the storyteller deems the Bad Guy. It’s about the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th and the persistence of 19th-century values into the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s about what we gave up versus what we got in return.
Taxonomically speaking, Deadwood is an example of the “town Western,” a subcategory that sets significant action within a town or camp, largely avoiding the manhunts, capers, and journeys the genre tends to be associated with. There aren’t too many images of wide-open spaces in this pilot. The handful of times you see a wide shot of the Dakota mountains, humans and horses are made specks in the frame. The vegetation is mostly scrub, and the trees are nothing to write poems about. Nature on Deadwood is not a thing admired for its beauty; it’s a force to be endured, transcended, or conquered. The transcendentalist reveries of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and their descendant Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven) are AWOL, and if they were to appear, we might feel as if the show had lost its mind — so vividly does that opening set piece, as well as Seth and Sol’s arrival in camp, establish the old West as a brutal, dirty world driven by power and profit and controlled by violent men. Not one Deadwood character expresses an appreciation of nature, and you can see why: Outdoors is where people get robbed and assaulted and killed by strangers, like the poor Norwegian family murdered on Spearfish Road by highwaymen, their corpses mutilated to cast blame on the Native Americans that many whites still treat as all-purpose bogeymen, despite their having been effectively neutralized by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
The characters are urbanites even though they might not think of themselves as such. Ninety percent of the action in this pilot occurs in a town or camp, which is where travelers not looking to homestead end up; the lion’s share of that action occurs indoors, in spaces lit in the daytime by shafts of sunlight, and at night in sooty shadows cast by torches, candles, and oil lamps.
Gold is the reason everybody goes to Deadwood, whether they seek the ore itself or the fruits of the financial ecosystem that sprang up around it. The blabbermouth horse thief Clell Watson; the would-be hardware magnates Seth Bullock and Sol Star; the faded gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), his best friend, Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), and his No. 1 fan, the alcoholic gunfighter Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert); the affable miner Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver); the straitlaced Easterner Brom Garret (Timothy Omundson) and his laudanum-addicted socialite bride, Alma (Molly Parker): These characters and more have pinned their hopes on Deadwood. “A hell of a place to make your fortune,” promised billboards and print ads for the show.
Prerelease promotion made Deadwood look like The Sopranos in cowboy hats, a neo-noir centered on brothels, gambling, and criminal conspiracies. HBO made the comparison official by slotting season one at a time right after new episodes of season four of The Sopranos. But while Deadwood was self-evidently more than that from its inaugural hour, it’s not wrong to describe it as a crime show. Not only does it feature the requisite amounts of violence, profanity, whoring, gambling, civic corruption, and conspiracy to satisfy such a descriptor, but it shares with more traditional gangster tales a fascination with capitalism as a set of legal protections that legitimize criminal behavior. As it happens, this was always a point of crossover with the Western, which liked telling stories of little guys getting trampled on (financially but sometimes literally) by big guys.
The gravitational center of this drama is a human-genre hybrid: Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), de facto boss of a camp with no law or government. Al is a loquacious pimp and power broker with a Vandyke he strokes while pondering his next move. McShane’s alternately droll and terrifying performance evokes such Dickensian baddies as Fagin from Oliver Twist and Shakespeare’s Richard III. Even if transatlantic tells didn’t creep into McShane’s Yankee-fied bluster, and even without the exchange in which Ellsworth asks if Al is descended from nobility (“I’m descended from all o’ them cocksuckers,” he mutters), we still might have gotten an English vibe from Al.
McShane is a careful listener, a surefire mark of a stealth protagonist; that and his Pacino-esque hound-dog eyes — particularly in this hour’s closing image of Al in bed with his employee and lover Trixie (Paula Malcomson), an abuse victim who crawled back to her pimp even after he bounced her off a wall and choked her with his bootheel — suggest there is more to Al than greed, lust, and cruelty, though we haven’t seen evidence yet. Something about McShane’s delivery of the line “They better not try it in here” hints at a better self in Al, though his customer Ellsworth doesn’t notice it, declaring, “I enjoy the way you lie!” and calling Al “a conniving, heavy-thumbed motherfucker” as if it were an endearment.
Either way, all roads lead to the safe in Al’s office. Sol and Seth pay Al each day to rent their plot of land near the Gem. E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), proprietor of the Grand Central Hotel, is Al’s toady, helping him stoke a phony bidding war to boost the price that tenderfoot Brom pays prospector Tim Driscoll (Dan Hildebrand) for his iffy gold claim. After Trixie shoots a violent customer through the temple, Al promises the alcoholic Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) a day’s worth of whiskey if he’ll “keep the gun out of the whore’s hand” when telling others what happened. It’s the profit motive that sparks Al’s beating (“You don’t shoot nobody; that’s bad for my business and bad for the camp’s reputation”) and delivers the corpse of Trixie’s abuser to Chinatown, where it’s fed to hogs owned by Mr. Wu (Keone Young), a baleful presence who might be Al’s doppelgänger: Pacific to his Atlantic.
These actions and others cause us to suspect the Limey as mastermind when highwaymen kill Norwegian settlers and claim Natives did it. “If every rumor was true, we’d all have been scalped now by the Sioux, or the government would’ve tossed us out as treaty violators,” E.B. tells Wild Bill, confirming white settlers’ disregard for Natives’ already meager property rights and the corresponding fantasy that the whole Indigenous population wakes up each morning dreaming of ways to murder the white man.
Al wasn’t behind the massacre, but he could have been. The killers were associates who acted without Al’s blessing. He is guilty of many crimes and sins, including bamboozling Brom into paying $20,000 for a gold claim that everyone aiding Al with the scam agrees is worthless. Where Spearfish Road is concerned, he’s guilty by association only, but that’s enough to make us fear for the life of the only living witness: the trauma-mute Sofia Metz (Bree Seanna Wall). If Sofia identifies a sometime Swearengen associate as a member of the murder party, everyone who jumped to assume the worst of Al will feel vindicated, and both the Gem and Deadwood will suffer by association.
The stink of gendered social constraints hangs over many scenes in the pilot — not just in the Gem, where sex workers risk death at the hands of customers, but in the room where Brom Garret clears his throat the morning after overpaying for a claim, hoping to wake Alma (faking sleep) and extract a hero’s fare-thee-well; in the muddy thoroughfare, where Jane is treated as a freakish eccentric force of nature by those who aren’t already friends with her; and in the sleeping quarters of Al, who welcomes Trixie into his bed, restarting a cycle of oppression disrupted (briefly) by her derringer.
Indigenous people are never seen in this hour, but they are talked about in terms that slur them as rapacious beasts. Confirming HBO’s early positioning of Deadwood as The Sopranos on horseback, Indigenous people are treated the way Black people are treated in gangster films about European Americans: as scapegoats and patsies. The whites in Milch’s screenplay are sore winners. White power (backed by the force of the U.S. government, the military, and major corporations and their hired guns) had already dominated the continent for more than a century, but this hour is set on the eve of a point of no return. We overhear editor A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) telling patrons at Tom Nuttall’s saloon that the Treaty of Fort Laramie — which Deadwood’s settlers flout by their mere presence — was effectively negated by two entwined events: the discovery of gold in South Dakota during the Black Hills Expedition led by General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which ended in defeat for the U.S. Cavalry and the deaths of Custer and his men, enraging the country’s white majority and emboldening then-President Ulysses S. Grant to crush remaining pockets of resistance. By 1881, most of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne would be limited to reservations.
And yet the “godless” Natives slurred by Al and others are still treated as an active, insistent threat. Having already pinned his compatriots’ murders of multiple whites on the Sioux, Ned Mason (Jamie McShane, no relation to Ian) fends off Seth’s barroom interrogation by stating he won’t visit the massacre site again that night because he fears the loss of his scalp. “I’ll guarantee your scalp,” says Bill in a tone that certifies Mason’s full-of-shitness.
As a counterbalance to Al’s devilish energy, Deadwood offers matched sets of emotionally constipated lawmen: Seth Bullock and Wild Bill Hickok. Where Seth is a stick of dynamite whose fuse is always lit, his partner, the legitimate businessman Sol Star, suffers fools patiently and is always looking for peaceful resolutions. Bill is as deadly as Seth, as Ned’s death attests, but less volatile: a cranky old grizzly. His associates are Charlie Utter, who’s like a combination valet and manager to Bill, and Calamity Jane, an angry drunk who blasted her way across the frontier in Wild West shows but goes pie-eyed in Bill’s orbit. It’s clear from Keith Carradine’s performance that Bill is a man in existential crisis, so burned out that he can barely do anything but drink, play cards, and push away those who love him most. Seth projects a younger, more impetuous vision of the strong, silent vibe that made Wild Bill a paragon of 1880s white American masculinity. Seth has some of the same hard-macho allure as Bill, but the energy is purer because Seth doesn’t have fans, debts, a public image, and an underground economy trying to leech off him every place he goes.
Bill seems to sense all this even though he can’t articulate it. When Bill assigns Seth the nickname Montana and backs him up when the Spearfish Road massacre conspirator Mason refuses Seth’s order to dismount, it’s as if he’s honoring a nearly vanished vision of his younger self. A mantle is being passed. Legends have nicknames, and since Seth doesn’t have one yet, Bill assigns him one. It’s like being knighted but without all the fuss. That Seth accepts the nickname without being so gauche as to acknowledge the honor and fawn over Bill is proof that Bill picked the right fella to knight.
The image that Wild Bill Hickok brought into Deadwood weighs him down, compromised in ways that Bill can’t understand because the terms of that discussion did not exist in the 1870s. Like “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Sitting Bull, and other regulars on the 19th-century Wild West–show circuit, Bill is a celebrity of the early photographic era, one of the first. Witness Calamity Jane in the episode’s opening section, hastening the unsticking of Bill’s wagon by alerting strangers to his presence (“It’s only Wild Bill Hickok ya got stalled here in the muck, ya ignorant fuckin’ cunts!”). Witness slurry-voiced prairie rat Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt) baiting Bill at a table in Nuttall’s saloon by claiming he “outdrew” him in poker.
Witness too Charlie’s disgust and self-loathing as he negotiates with Nuttall (Leon Rippy), securing Bill $50 a day in credit to play cards exclusively at Nuttall’s saloon and more cash on top for Charlie to squirrel away as a stake for Bill’s marriage, in the likely event he never gets anywhere near a gold claim. Nuttall feigns blank disinterest in the second part of the proposal, but there’s an offensive knowingness in the way he tells Charlie “That’d be your affair.” The phrase makes it seem as if both men are a party to an act of managerial exploitation but have agreed not to name it. Contrast Nuttall’s mercantile gamesmanship with the uncontainable kindness of Ellsworth, who assures the busted-up Trixie that he doesn’t poke his nose in others’ business, then offers to pay her a dollar a minute to recount the origin of her black eye; or, for that matter, with the unnervingly earnest Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon), who, like Hickok, has come to Deadwood to earn a matrimonial nest egg for a spouse waiting in another state.
Thing is, even though Bill exudes self-negating hedonism, his reputation looms so large that his arrival still fills Deadwood’s power brokers with dread. What if he’s here to “clean the place up”? He’s done sheriff work, after all. When Bill ambles into the Grand Central with Charlie and books two rooms, Al assumes he’s come to anoint himself The Bringer of Law. His invective blends projection and wishful thinking. When Brom mentions Bill’s presence in town, Al says, “Does that give you the vapors?”—a homophobic impugnment of Brom’s manhood that’s really a projection of Al’s insecurities upon witnessing the simultaneous arrivals of Bill and Seth. Another projection: Al inveighs against the “heathen” savages that killed George Armstrong Custer, and blames Custer and his scout and close friend Bill for the 7th Cavalry’s defeat by a coalition of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Sioux. It’s as if Al thinks he can weaken Hickok and keep him from donning a tin star by calling him a has-been behind his back (a thing he’d never do to Bill’s face). The joke of it all is, Bill hasn’t given any indication of wanting to be Deadwood’s sheriff. Al’s fixation on the possibility confirms what he’s most scared of.
The pilot’s director, Walter Hill, is the last link to the era when filmmakers like John Ford could say “I make Westerns.” He lays out all of the episode’s action, nonviolent and violent, in clean, exact images. Shooting with multiple cameras on 35mm film, with simulated torchlight and oil lamp-light selling the idea that we’re seeing images from an era before electricity, Hill establishes a visual grammar that will persist throughout the show’s run (and that will influence subsequent big-budget primitivist dramas, especially Game of Thrones). Hill and his crew treat the set as an existing, working camp where things happen and we get to watch. Most of the shots are handheld, though not ostentatiously so, shifting emphasis to convey the intimate vastness of Milch’s snowglobe world. We might start on a closeup of somebody’s face, then rack focus to show what’s happening on the other side of a saloon or street, the midground action remaining a slipstream of bodies in motion, every blur a tale untold.
The feel of this hour evokes Hill’s hard-edged, period-dress Westerns—in particular 1980’s The Long Riders, which cast its configurations of gunfighting brothers with actual brothers, including Keith Carradine as Jim Younger opposite David and Robert Carradine as Cole and Bob Younger. But the pilot also genuflects toward Hill’s Wild Bill, a booze and opium-saturated 1995 mood piece starring Jeff Bridges as Hickok, and based on Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood, which features some of the same historical personages but treats them differently.
A documentary impulse guides the cinematography (by Lloyd Ahern II, who shot five Hill films and would go on to shoot Hill’s Western miniseries Broken Trail). The geography of the camp’s main thoroughfare and assorted storefronts and hotels is established via prismatic angles revealed from many characters’ perspectives. Sometimes the camera takes the point-of-view of folks surveilling events through windows, as when Alma sees Hickok and Bullock shooting Mason from her hotel room. The curtains create a frame within a frame as she watches Ned Mason facing the duo on horseback; in a reverse angle, the same confrontation is flipped and superimposed on the glass in front of Alma’s face, as if she’s been transported to the 20th century and is watching the climax of a Western unspool from the inside of a movie theater’s projection booth.
What does that final closeup of Al mean? Though undefined by dialogue, it radiates anxiety, perhaps about the future. Will law and order take what he’s built? Will things change in Deadwood, or stay the same? Or will they appear to stay the same while changing? Will Al, or Trixie, or Bill, or Seth, or Alma, or Brom, or anyone, have a say in what happens next?