My Favorite Westerns: The Western Subversion of Deadwood

It’s time for me to talk about Deadwood. I’m a bit hesitant to do so, as Deadwood is my favorite television show ever. I’ve watched through David Milch’s Western HBO opus quite a few times, and it just keeps getting better and better. It only got three seasons, compared to The Wire’s five and the Sopranos’ seven, but it’s still the best of those Golden Age HBO shows. I’m sure that a lot of this is personal opinion – I do love Westerns, after all – but I think that Deadwood is both darkly hilarious, amazingly entertaining, profoundly insightful about American history and has changed, forever, how Americans look at the past in their TV shows and movies.

Is that a tall order? Well, have a look at period shows before and after Deadwood. Before, there was often a kind of austere grandeur to the looks at the past – the costume drama and so on. Even Revisionist Westerns, like Unforgiven, had an epic scope to them. Deadwood changed that. It showed that the past was dirty, corrupt, racist, and brutal instead of epic. It gave history feet of clay and made the past feel like an actual place, instead of something to visit in museums. After Deadwood, historical TV shows, books, and movies have struggled to do the same to whatever historical era they’re portraying. However, a great many of them learn the wrong lesson, packing their shows with the three S’s – sex, swears, and scheming – instead of the compelling, sympathetic characters, insightful look at history, and narrative complexity that made Deadwood great.

One of the reasons Deadwood stands out from other Westerns is because it deliberately subverts almost everything that an audience expects to see in a Western. I’m going to write about how Deadwood does that in three ways. Tomorrow, I’ll probably talk about the characters of Deadwood and why it’s my favorite cast in modern television.

The first thing most people notice about Deadwood is the language – and all the swears. ‘Cocksucker’ is a constant refrain, along with all the derivations of ‘fuck,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘son of a bitch.’ A viewer will be a little taken back by the swearing and probably ask ‘did they really talk like that?’ The answer is a complex one. Those words existed at the time and were probably used occasionally, though maybe not as often as they are in Deadwood. More importantly, those words are never used in previous Westerns. Milch and the Deadwood writers put the swears in the show for a reason – the religious oaths that might have been more popular at the time would sound too tame for a modern audience and not give them the proper idea about the wildness of this lawless frontier town and set Deadwood apart from other Westerns. But the words around the swearing are far more important. Characters in Deadwood talk in an ornate, circuitous rout. They use vocabulary words, antique phrases, and complex metaphors. In short, they sound like characters in Victorian literature. Did real people talk that way? Again, it’s hard to say – but the elaborate dialogue of Deadwood creates the illusion of historical reality as well as being insanely quotable, and that’s something very few other historical shows can acquire.
Other shows attempt this level of dialogue and rarely succeed. They’ll throw in one ten-dollar word now and then and rely on profanity to make up the rest, often with no regard to if those words are fitting. Black Sails has pirates talking about ‘getting laid,’ and Turn has colonial gentry saying ‘gonna,’ and those sounded anachronistic and tore me out of the show immediately. Deadwood’s frequent ‘cocksuckers’ always did the opposite. Other writers of historical fiction need to capture the ornate quality of old timey dialogue before they can get away with profanity. Ripper Street comes close, and True Grit captures it perfectly, but very few others can reach the quality of Deadwood’s dialogue.

Deadwood is undoubtedly a violent show – a spectacularly violent show – but it’s not violent in the way that we expect from Westerns. There’s only one high noon gun battle, put at the end of the very first episode to get it out of the way, and then violence takes the form of backstabbing and beat downs. There’s the occasionally gunfight, like the battle in the Gem with Hearst’s men, but it’s always the exception instead of the rule. This fits the overall plot of Deadwood, which is the scheming of various factions for control of revenue and the town’s survival. Scheming and plotting is something you rarely see in a Western, which are usually defined by big men and bold decisions, but Deadwood is set in a different kind of world. Big gestures and bold moves – “I’m calling you out!” – will only get you killed. A knife across the throat is much more effective. This contrasts with the Westerns we know, but is probably more in line with the corrupt Old West of history. When Deadwood does have a physical battle, such as the climactic showdown between Dan Dority and Captain Turner in season three, it’s an intense fight to the death involving lengths of wood, puddles of water, mud, biting, and eye-gouging. That fight is a clumsy, stupid, and ends with both fighters gasping for breath, crawling in the mud, and near collapse. It takes an extremely long time. Again, this isn’t how fights in Westerns are supposed to be. Deadwood provides a dose of realism to physical combat. There’s no honor and no grace. I still think this battle is the most harrowing and greatest bit of combat ever appearing on television. A few shows have come close, but Deadwood remains the king.

How the West was Lost
Deadwood was cancelled after three seasons and the show’s ending is a point of contention to many watchers (spoilers ahead). Swearengen and Hearst assemble their armies – outlaws versus Pinkertons – and the stage is set for a big, climactic battle. But that battle never happens. The Widow Garret makes a deal with Hearst, he rides away the victor, and there’s no need for bloodshed at all. The series then ends. This may seem like a bad ending, but it’s fitting for Deadwood’s overall tone. In language and violence, Deadwood subverts the Western and it does the same in its ending. In reality, there were no cinematic battles between the corporations that took over the West and the iconoclastic outsiders who dwelled there. Business just bought everyone out, turned frontier outposts into company towns, and that was the end of the Wild West. Civilization happened, and we’re all living with the result. It makes sense for Deadwood to close on such a subdued note – not with a bang, but with a whimper. Even if Milch had more plans for Deadwood that never came to fruition (fire hitting the town! Teddy Roosevelt! John D. Rockefeller’s ancestor as a snake oil salesman!), the ending is still the perfect close to a perfect show.

Next, I’ll be talking about Deadwood’s characters through the lenses of sympathy, addiction, and good and evil. Stay tuned!

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