Greatest TV Pilots: Deadwood

Deadwood-Seth Bullock

“… I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you, but I enjoy the way you lie.”

On a still night in 1876, Seth Bullock executes a man. He hangs him out in front of his jail, from the rafters while a mob demands that the thief be handed over to them for their own version of justice and/or revenge. It’s Bullock’s job as the marshall to perform this act of justice but it’s one that he doesn’t want anymore. There are so many ways this night would be easier for Bullock; he could hand the man over to the mob or he could consider the thief’s propositions for his quick and speedy release with the promise of stolen riches on the way to their mutual destination of Deadwood, a small town well outside of the United States’ borders. Just like Bullock, the dead man’s plan was to head to Deadwood to meet his glorious future there. “No law at all… in Deadwood,” the man ponders, thinking about the promise of that place while realizing his own mortality awaits him. The horse thief doesn’t make it out alive of even the first 10 minutes of this series but he exists as a perfect little microcosm of the hope and reality of what Deadwood could and would be.

David Milch’s Deadwood is about a different kind of wild west. It’s not about cowboys or adventurism or the promise of a new tomorrow although those are all elements that Milch uses in this first episode of HBO’s 2004 series. Revolving around the real-life South Dakota town of Deadwood that grew out of the 1870s gold rush, Milch would blend reality and fiction to explore this lawless town. Deadwood really existed; Seth Bullock, one time lawman and now hardware dealer existed; Al Swearengen, bar/brother owner, really existed. Deadwood was out beyond the borders of the United States so it fell under no jurisdiction. For Bullock’s horse thief, even as he awaited his own execution, Deadwood was the promise of freedom.

As played by Timothy Olyphant, Bullock is a difficult man to read. Why he left Montana for Deadwood is not brought up in this first episode. It’s hard to believe that it was to fulfill a dream of selling boots and porcelain commodes to the greedy men of a greedy town. Once their hardware store is open, Bullock never appears comfortable hawking his goods with his partner and friend Sol Star so when the news of a butchered family reaches him in the middle of the evening, Bullock’s instincts kick in. He is determined to ride into the night to investigate what happened and look for any possible survivors. In that opening prologue, he tells that blood thristy mob, “You called the law in, Sampson. You don’t get to call it off…” Even that early in this episode, Milch establishes the idea of a permanence of law that is tied into more than men’s desires for revenge.

Deadwood- Bad for Business

In the town of Deadwood, there may not be law but there is order and order’s name is Al Swearengen. Owner of the Gem Saloon (and brothel,) Swearengen embodies the heart and soul of Deadwood. Ian McShane makes sure that words of Swearengen and Deadwood are delivered with such righteous cussing to show just how rotten the heart of Deadwood really is. Swearengen is a pimp, a swindler, a con man and a black hearted scoundrel but from behind his bar, he controls everything that goes on in his town. The brilliance of this opening episode is that it sets up Bullock and Swearengen as the competing forces of the dark and the light but it never puts the two of them in a scene together. At the end, after Bullock finally delivers maybe the first bit of true justice that the town has ever seen, Swearengen looks down on the dusty street and sees his true opposite.

Milch and director Walter Hill perfectly construct this episode to show these two forces of nature encircling each other in this town by simply showing us their reaction to a murdered family. As Bullock is riding off with a posse that includes Wild Bill Hickok, also newly arrived in Deadwood, Swearengen’s mind races toward calculating how news of the murders could affect his bottom line. Giving a rousing speech about how it would be best to use the night to plan what they’re going to do when they ride out in the morning, he concludes his speech with the offer of cheap booze and even cheaper whores to the delight of everyone in the saloon. He doesn’t care at all about the family; everything that Swearengen ponders comes down to how can he profit (or worse, lose money) on the situation at hand.

Few other shows have been able to capture the poetry of deceit and foul language like Deadwood does. While Olyphant only has two modes in this episode (angry and angrier,) McShane and other fantastic actors like Jim Beaver, Dayton Callie and Brad Dourif deliver Milch’s words with such grace, beauty and power even as their spitting out some of the filthiest words in the English language. McShane particularly delivers a performance worthy of the Devil’s poetry that he’s given. Ellsworth, a prospector who has found his gold in Deadwood, says to Swearengen, “I like the way you lie.” All Swearengen does is plot and lie but you can’t help but fall in love with the way that he does it.

In the prologue where Bullock has to kill a man in the name of the law, Milch and Hill set up the Heaven/Hell dichotomy of Deadwood. The promise of there being no law as you find your riches is also accompanied but the curse that there is no law as everyone else is on the same quest to find their riches. We see so many ideas of what Deadwood could be that obscure what Deadwood is. It is neither Hell nor Heaven but a Purgatory as these men and women are judged by their actions in Deadwood. Men like Bullock and Swearengen find themselves in this frontier and it is up to them to build or corrupt it for the future.

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

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