Amid all of the Friends reunion bollocks, I opted for one that’s worthwhile, by watching Deadwood again.
If you haven’t seen Deadwood, drop whatever shit com, reality TV or any other drama you care to mention (with a few exceptions) that you’re degrading your brain on and binge watch this. Not only is it captivating, compelling, idiosyncratic and poignant, but also hilarious ‘I won’t fuck a Chinese, I got a mother living yet’.
Once you get past the initial pre-occupation with the profanity’s frequency (thanks mostly to this infamous scene) and you get your bearings around the dialogue’s structure, the profound commentaries of the characters penetrate more effectively. At one point Seth Bullock indirectly muses with Sol Starr about feeling guilt at his clear attraction to Alma Garret, with Bullock being married to his dead brother’s sister out of loyalty;
I don’t suppose you need me to say it. But if there’s a Heaven, your brother sees what you did and he’s grateful.
Perhaps he sees me borrowing his life so that I didn’t have to live my own.
People have made good lives out of borrowed ones before.
This is only one example, but there’s many more, so many that it’s practically Shakespearian level gear.
Unknown to me when it first aired, a number of the events and characters in Deadwood are based on historical fact. However, given the show’s unique construct, it’s best to be utterly indifferent to any level of authenticity, be it partial or inconsistently applied. Regardless, splicing modern profanity with period dialogue firmly punctures realism. It’s an effective trade-off though, as the emotional struggles and plight of these characters, who lived in a period of immense geopolitical change in America’s formation, become more relatable to a contemporary audience.
Deadwood’s unusual amalgamation makes most other westerns feel tawdry and stoic, because so many elide sophisticated insight into the human psyche, characterisation and multiple plot strands in favour of the aesthetic. Deadwood takes a different tack, it’s character and plot driven first, with the characters often adopting a pessimistic, cynical, even nihilistic tone that’s synonymous with Cormac McCarthy’s work in the genre and far more suited to the setting and their existences.
It’s Deadwood’s structures of timber and canvas that ubiquitously convey the pathos of life here, as virtually all the narrative’s events occurs within its confines. Deadwood is still designated a camp, and has been as quickly cobbled together as the rush for gold. All of the dwellings and establishments are dingy, made of wood and exist in varying states of squalor, the ground of the town’s main street is a mud pit, dirt and dust constantly swirls through the air and some of the characters look so filthy and their clothing dishevelled that you could sense the stench and discomfort was unimaginable. Prostitution, drugs, drink and gambling, which constitute a large portion of the establishments in Deadwood, abound. The amount of booze consumed would shame Keith Floyd, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole and clearly there was no such thing as an alcoholic in the 1870’s. Life here, or on any frontier, is, in this period of history, all about adversity, and hardship makes for good theatre as it inevitably exacerbates tension whenever squabbling over money is involved. But it’s the threat of annexation by the wrong (read unsuccessfully bribed) state confederacy potentially ruling all existing titles and claims void that makes for entertaining manoeuvring by the central players.
While the sanctimonious Bullock offers a foil for all the cut-throating, stealing and scheming, and Calamity Jane brings a quixotic mix of caustic drunken levity while showing immense charity for the plight of others, the most enjoyable turns in Deadwood are still the most despicable. The insatiable greed of George ‘power comes to any man who has the colour’ Hearst and his bagman the Patrick Bateman like Francis Wolcott. Cy Tolliver is deliciously ghastly, as the cigar toting, suave, psychotic, constantly conniving pimp who’s not quite as clever as he’d like to think he is. His rival in that line of business, Al Swearengen, is in a league of his own. Al, to borrow a word he regularly uses, may be a cunt, but he’s a cunt always worth watching. No more so than when operating the grift, as a salesman temporarily offering discounts on booze and girls at his establishment, his one per episode ranting soliloquys (usually at the stupidity of someone else or as means of therapy when recalling a scarring experience from his youth – often while being fellated) or as a Svengali figure manipulating the townsfolk and his underlings, a selection of brutes, halfwits and the rodent like E.B. Farnam – the useful idiot hotel manager, camp mayor and perpetual spy – all of whom would be lost without his leadership and the sense of place, value and meaning being in his orbit provides them.
For those of us who grew up in the UK above a certain age, seeing Ian McShane’s turn as Al Swearengen; Machiavellian, lewd, unapologetic, and speaking to a severed Sioux Indian head he keeps in a box, after famously turning out as the luvvie duvvie Lovejoy, a dealer of Victorian antiques (a suitable connection given Deadwood’s set during the Victorian era), in the show of the same name, is a jarring juxtaposition. But as Jane Austen rightly observed even despots have admirable and endearing elements to their nature, and in Deadwood, where the law is decidedly grey, nothing is ever black and white. We see Al’s humane and generous side; a mercy killing, employing a heavily palsied cleaner and showing complete loyalty to those who return the favour.
I’ll avoid delving too deeply into linguistic anthropology, and without keeping a dedicated count of all the shit, cunts, fuck and fucking used, (this should help) ‘cocksucker’ is also commonly used, and serves its purpose in all contexts. In Deadwood’s era it works as a demeaning slur equated to the lowest profession, and in its modern context it packs additional heft, as in this day and age it’s seldom heard, rightfully banished for its homophobic connotations. That said, the visceral glee with which it’s used, and its scarcity in the modern lexicon, does highlight that an insult, rarely used, packs far more heft than one that often is. As with any vice from yesteryear that’s been banished as being bad for you hedonists and or the collective, or is well on its way to being; Phrenology (kidding), cigarettes, sugar, red meat, the word cocksucker has been so suppressed that its prevalence in Deadwood makes it feel like a quaint artifact. Housed within these boundaries it’s guilt free, and even offers us a safe space to enjoy it.
So what of the Deadwood film released in 2019? An epilogue of sorts set ten years after the TV series. I have no idea whether it’s good. I suspect so, but even if it disappoints, at least it enticed me to blitz though all three seasons of Deadwood proper as a refresher. And that brings us to the only negative, this show got cancelled after season three. It’s unforgivable. We deserved more. It deserved more than a two hour film for closure. It’s a good reminder to treasure something great when it comes along, as there’s no accounting for taste or common sense of the stupid cunts and fucking cocksuckers that don’t have any.