There are many things that make a show great. We’re drawn in by the plots, by the action, and sometimes even by the production design or the ‘feel’ of the show. But more often than not, it’s the characters that hook us. They’re the faces that we relate to, the actors who we talk about, and it’s their dialogue that we repeat when we’re thinking back on the show. Thankfully, Deadwood has one of the better casts in TV. The characters are complex, flawed, humorous, often likeable and – above all – compelling. Quite a few of them – Seth Bullock, Sol Star, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Al Swearengen, and more – are based in reality, but they’ve been changed around to fit into the world of the show. Today, I’ll be writing about some of the ways that Deadwood make its cast so interesting. Oh, and this is regards to the writing more than the acting, which is probably also extremely responsible for Deadwood’s success and is universally amazing.
Oftentimes, particularly for modern shows, writers seem to think that readers will sympathize and care for characters just because the camera is running behind them and they do cool things every now and then. I suppose there’s an appeal to anti-heroes, but the writers often forget to make us sympathize with their flawed, morally dubious protagonists. Unless they can do that, unless they can make us care about flawed and complex people, than all the cool stuff doesn’t matter. Deadwood doesn’t have many real heroes, but all of its characters are sympathetic. The first character we meet, our viewpoint into the world of Deadwood, seems to be unambiguously good. Seth Bullock is a tough former marshal trying to make his way in a Western world, and in his first scene he stands up to a lynch mob – undeniably brave and heroic behavior. Bullock’s morality wavers during the course of the story, but we know that – deep down – he’s a good guy and that gives us someone to root for.
Another reason we like Bullock is because he’s got a friend, the amiable Sol Star. That concept of giving characters friends and making those friendships matter is another reason we sympathize with Deadwood’s characters. Bullock and Star appear to have a genuine friendship and while it’s tested throughout the show, you can see why it remains. The same is true is the morally dubious gang in the Gem Saloon. Al, back-stabbing and monstrous, is far from a good guy, and he’s quick to give his employees a verbal tongue-lashing or even the occasional physical beating (as he does to Trixie in the first episode). But he also cares for them, worries about their well-being, and brought them in from a cruel outside world. When Al gets kidney stones in Season Two, his friends rally around him and help him recover – a testament to how much they like the guy. Al is even contrasted with a nastier saloon keeper, Cy Tolliver, who treats his employees cruelly, and you can easily see the difference. When characters care about each other, we do as well. Even when it comes to simple politeness, something which we see with Bullock when he meets Wild Bill Hickok or the stricken minister, friendliness goes a long way.
What also goes a long way is giving each character a definite past – even if it’s only alluded to – which somewhat explains their behavior. The obvious example of this is Al. During his frequent profanity-ridden monologues to severed Indian heads or blow job-dispensing prostitutes, Al Swearengen reveals a harrowing past involving being abandoned in a hellish Chicago orphanage and seeing his mother sailing away after abandoning him. It shows that Swearengen may be cruel, but it’s the world that made him this way. Other characters have pasts that are unclear, but similarly harrowing. Jane reveals to Doc Cochran that she was abused, horribly, while she panics after being scared by Swearengen. Doc Cochran himself has a painful prayer to uncaring God, in which he relates his traumatizing experience as a surgeon in the Civil War. We don’t get the whole story here (and we never do with Jane or the Doc), but it’s enough. It explains their behavior and shows what drives them to their vices. It makes us care about even prickly and ornery characters like Al, Jane, and Doc Cochran and quickly turns them into our favorites.
In an interesting coincidence, the three big HBO shows of the new Golden Age of Television (Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos) all dealt with themes of addiction. Maybe it was something in the air during the early 2000s? The Wire, with its themes about drugs and drug addiction, probably does it best with its amazing storyline about a homeless police informer struggling on the streets and eventually conquering his demons, but Deadwood does a good job as well. Most of Deadwood’s characters are addicted to one thing or another. Jane has her alcohol, the Widow Garret had her laudanum, and opium fiends pop up from time to time. But an addiction to violence frequently appears as well. That’s what pushes Seth Bullock closer to the anti-hero spectrum and gives him complexity. It seems that he just likes beating on people, and maybe wears a badge and protects the innocent to restrain his instincts. The sheer depth of addiction drives the characters and gives them more depth – and provides a more realistic, harrowing look at what was probably a historical Wild West staple. The town drunk, after all, is an amusing bit of comic relief in most Westerns. That’s never true in Deadwood, which takes its cases of addiction seriously.
Good and Evil
Deadwood also takes Good and Evil seriously. While Seth Bullock is mostly good and Al Swearengen is fairly neutral (doing what he can to make money, which means protecting Deadwood from outside interests), evil characters do show up. In season one, there’s Jack McCall, a lowdown scumbag and all-around asshole. Season two gives us Francis Wolcott (he and Jack McCall are played by the same actor, Garret Dillahunt), who is well-dressed and seemingly polite, but also happens to be a complete psychopath. Season Three has George Hearst, a bombastic and ruthless tycoon. These villains are the driving force for a lot of the conflict, and all three are undeniably evil (Cy Tolliver probably is as well, and gets used as a pawn by Wolcott). They’re evil in different degrees, too. McCall’s just a jerk. Wolcott is actually a little sympathetic, in that he can’t control his urges and knows there’s evil. Hearst (which is suitable for being the last season’s villain) is something else. He’s a devotee of capitalism and has decided that he’s necessary to civilization, meaning that everything he does is right. These guys contrast greatly with Swearengen and make us root for a saloon-owner and crime boss. The different levels of morality, all on display on one show, add an additional complexity that makes Deadwood great.
Tomorrow, I’m talking about history in Deadwood – corruption, race, and capitalism! Keep in the saddle ’til then.