Of course, the first thing people notice, and accordingly mention about Deadwood is its profanity, and indeed, the language used on the show can be quite shocking. At the same time, characters lace their curses together with lyricism and eloquence in weighty, Victorian-flavored monologues that emulate nothing less than Shakespeare. The extremes of the language serve to both create a sense of place (whether fortune-seekers in 1876 did, in fact, use “fuck” with such abandon, or Milch simply uses it in place of words that have lost their capacity to shock is immaterial), but also highlight the show’s most persistent theme—the dialectic forces and impulses that animate history and build a community.
The synthesis of conflicts or opposites, and the compromises required, is a central concern of Deadwood, mostly keenly expressed and studied in the tense antagonism and alliance of Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock (each based on historical figures). Both were drawn to the Deadwood camp in the hope of making their fortunes unburdened by law, but find themselves building a new law in spite of themselves. Al, a pimp, thief, schemer, and dope-dealer, finds that as many riches as the wild, anarchic camp offers, a stable town offers even more. Bullock hopes to contain his rage by leaving Marshal service behind and simply run a business, but finds that if a just man isn’t meting out justice, and unjust man will fill his place. They hate each other instantly. Their antipathy boils over into a brutal melee that sets the entire town on edge—everyone seems to realize how important the two men are. But in the end, they forge an alliance, knowing they are stronger together than apart.
But Al and Bullock and just two threads in a delicately woven social history, multifaceted and deep, loaded with great characters plucked from history or crafted from scratch. Each is written with poignancy and wit—clever, dark, ribald, or even stupid wit—and performed with the same as they further expand the show’s study of compromise, concession, cunning, community, and self-reliance. Alma Garrett arrives in town in the tow of a pampered stooge husband (a trade in exchange for the clearing of her father’s debts), but soon after his death must decide if she should run away with a new, profound love, or stay and develop the camp’s richest claim. Wild Bill Hickok rolls through looking to stake his own claim, but finds his self-destructive impulses too strong to deny, and though he hears death coming, he does little to avoid it. He leaves behind Calamity Jane, and Charlie Utter, one rapidly descending into depression and booze from the loss, the other unable to slow the fall, both keenly feeling the void their friend’s passing has left. Doc Cochran must continually reconcile a multitude of factors—his desire to treat patients, his ability, their willingness, their expectations, his own psychological trauma. The cast of known character actors and newer faces—Ian McShane, Tim Olyphant, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Brad Dourif, Powers Boothe, Anna Gunn, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Dayton Callie, Jeffrey Jones, Titus Welliver among many, many more—are of course key. In the years since Deadwood’s end, appearances by these actors in other shows always get me excited—it’s one thing to say this about Lost, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, or Justified, but quite another to say it about Harper’s Island, Swingtown, Damages, or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.Always at the forefront, though, are the precarious balances the individuals of Deadwood must walk—to keep what they’ve earned, to maintain their honor and dignity, to meet their obligations, to mitigate the horrors they’ve seen, to simply live as the sort of people they can live with being. They do so together, united by their sorrows and joys in the South Dakota wilderness. The town was brought together by tragic deaths and shocking murders, but also by weddings, the town’s first bicycle, and a talent show, events as joyous as the others are sad. Fighting to lucidity, Reverend Smith puts it plainly: “It is good to be among friends.”