Friday, April 10, 2020

Deadwood Review

I think the biggest question on the minds of those who have not had the chance to tune in to the latest HBO hit TV series "Deadwood" is, does it actually live up to the hype?

The simple answer is: a resounding YES!

From the show´s astoundingly multi-faceted stories to the complex characterization of this frontier town´s many colorful inhabitants, there is just so much to like and admire. In fact, "Deadwood" is such a realistic portrayal of a turn of the century lawless town in what is now South Dakota´s Black Hills, it is hard to discern between the actual historical events that happened there and those that are fictional. "Deadwood" series creator David Milch ("NYPD Blue", "Murder One") makes it a point to put forward the notion that the show is not meant to be a historically-accurate docudrama. This, presumably, is to fend off those history buffs who are poring over every frame of the show looking for inaccuracies. What Milch has accomplished with "Deadwood", through detailed research, is to portray, as closely as humanly possible, most of the significant events that happened in Deadwood during the most important period in the town´s history and have it blend seamlessly with the various fictional sub-plots that craftily intersect and influence one another in the most interesting of ways.

Deadwood, South Dakota may not be as famous to the average layperson as other Western frontier towns of the 19th century like Tombstone, AZ or Dodge City, KS. However, in the mid to late nineteenth century, specifically in 1876, Deadwood became a major hub of activity when news that gold was discovered a year earlier, had prospectors and every other misfit and all sorts of criminals swarming into the area in hordes. The Black Hills area, around the borders of Wyoming and South Dakota, was initially Sioux Indian country, given to them in the Fort Laramie Treaty signed in 1868. General Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 that first trumpeted the discovery of gold in the area and subsequently sparked the last great gold rush in the continental United States. However, in 1875, the U.S. government, intent of upholding the treaty, sent in the cavalry to remove the gold prospectors from Indian land but by 1876, the miners started returning and staked gold claims in Deadwood Gulch. Enraged by the intrusion, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull led the Indians in massacring Custer and his men in the infamous battle at Little Big Horn, which is located just a stone´s throw away from Deadwood.

The story in "Deadwood" starts two weeks after General Custer´s defeat at Little Big Horn. The so-called "town" of Deadwood is actually an illegal settlement in Indian country that is made up of a collection of buildings and temporary tents, from saloons and hotels to bathhouses and various types of stores. As Deadwood is located outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, it is therefore not subjected to any U.S. laws. However, the pervasive lawlessness is only a clever illusion as certain powerful individuals have taken the liberty to impose their own kinds of "order" to Deadwood. Essentially, everything that goes on within the boundaries of the town has to go through one Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the owner of the busiest saloon and brothel in town, the Gem Saloon. Swearengen institutes a Machiavellian-like grip on the town and its people, manipulating them with both a carrot and a big stick. He swears worst than a drunken sailor, he abuses the prostitutes who work for him and he kills anyone that crosses him. That, believe it or not, is just a regular day for Swearengen. However, just like every character in "Deadwood", Swearengen is not the total villain that he is made out to be. For all his ruthlessness and cunning manipulations, Swearengen is nonetheless a victim of his own past and believe or not, behind his abusive and merciless facade, there is actually a humanistic side to him. The pull of the Swearengen character is made more believable by the wonderful acting of McShane, a British actor, who last made a lasting impression in "Sexy Beast".

One day, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) rolls into town together with his business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes). Bullock is the former Sheriff of the Montana Territories but has decided to leave the life of law enforcement behind him and pursue an entrepreneurial path with Star. Instead of prospecting for gold like everyone else, both men are moving to Deadwood with the intent of establishing a profitable hardware store to supply the burgeoning mining community. Like Swearengen, both Bullock and Star are actual historical figures that feature prominently in Deadwood´s history. At first glance, Bullock looks to be the heroic figure in this series, with his strong sense for fair play and an honorable bent that keeps him apart from the conmen, the criminals and the misfits who happen to populate this still-lawless outpost. However, no one in Deadwood wears a white or black hat and that goes for the good guys as well. Bullock´s belief in drawing a moral baseline in the mud leads him to sometimes do things that he might not be proud of later. And that is exactly why "Deadwood" is so fascinating as it is able to keep its audience on their toes by being so unpredictable with both its characters and stories.

As if dealing with one former lawman is not enough for Swearengen, now he has to deal with two, when the legendary James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (Keith Carradine) moves into Deadwood as well, looking to make his fortune prospecting for gold. Hickok, whose reputation of being fast on the draw and a dead aim precedes him wherever he goes, causes a great stir with his presence in Deadwood. There are those who are in awe of his legendary status and show him the proper respect but there are also those who are just plain jealous and want to cut Hickok down to size. In actual fact, Hickok is really a heavy drinker and a gambler, which tends to keep him from doing what he originally set out to do in Deadwood and that is to earn money for his new wife by staking a claim and prospecting for gold. Accompanying Hickok to Deadwood is his longtime friend Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), who is almost as famous as Hickok himself.

Other newcomers in town include the New York City socialite couple of Brom (Timothy Omundson) and Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), who are hopelessly out of place and out of their depth in this rough and tumble town and Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth), Al Swearengen´s direct competition and biggest nightmare, who is the equally wily owner of the just-opened Bella Union Saloon. Alma´s marriage to Brom is actually one that is carved out of opportunity and convenience rather than love. We learn that the only reason Alma married the extremely wealthy but dense Brom Garrett is to help wipe out her scheming father´s mounting debt. On a dime, Brom decides to foolishly move to Deadwood to seek adventure and make his own fortune, dragging his unhappy and drugged-up wife along. Through a series of schemes hatched by Swearengen, and with the help of a few associates, Brom gets taken for a ride and Alma is left to pick up the pieces. Cy Tolliver brings to Deadwood, his relatively upscale gambling den and whorehouse from Chicago and together with his most trusted lieutenant, Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay), pulled off a coup of some sort by keeping the advance purchase of the Bella Union building under a tight wrap without tipping off Swearengen. Also helping Tolliver keep his place running smoothly is Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), the beautiful and savvy Madame of Bella Union. Although the characters of the Garretts and Tolliver are fictional, Milch is able to craft a realistic storyline for them that quite seamlessly overlap and weave into the fabric of the other historical characters´ well-documented lives.