Over 4 days, I watched 38 hours of the HBO series Deadwood. A western show about the real life town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Why you might ask, did I spend that much time in such a short amount watching this show? It’s partly because I have been playing a ton of Red Dead Redemption 2’s online component, and the other part is because it’s a western that I haven’t seen.
Back in 2008, as I was in Colorado, and took a motorcycle ride alone on Mother’s Day to Buffalo Bill’s gravesite and museum, I got hooked back on my love of Westerns. When I got home and was doing some research online, I heard about a show on HBO that was a western. I never had HBO growing up and the shows it did have, for the most part never interested me. Once I heard about it being a show about the wild west, I knew I had to see it. I spent the time downloading it on my pretty crappy DSL internet connection in my apartment and got ready to sit down and binge watch it.
After a long title and credits opening, I saw Timothy Olyphant as a weird stiff moving sheriff leaving everything behind to go to a new town and a shot at starting over. Then we get to Calamity Jane, and that’s where I stopped watching. Jane was so ugly and foul mouth and unapealing in the way she talked and spit and was so butch, that I just stopped right there and deleted it.
Fast forward years later to 2015, I tried to start it again but got to Jane and could not get through the first episode. Then in 2019, there was a Deadwood movie that was made, and it piqued my interest one last time. I knew it was a good show, and I knew that I hated it before, but something kept drawing me back to it. I wanted to watch this show, and after spending a solid couple weeks digging into the western genre again with Red Dead 2’s online portion and just wanting more Westerns in my life, I decided to give it one last shot.
I started late on a Friday night, grabbing some snacks and a soda or two and sat down and prepared myself. Remembering Jane was allied with Wild Bill, this got me passed the hatred I had of her character and just powered through it. Knowing now who Ian McShane is, and having a better love for his acting, thanks in no small part to the John Wick movies, I realized he was playing the “bad guy” of this show.
I’m not going to recap the entire show, or even major plot points, that would take too long and frankly I’m not interested in that. What I want to do, is chronicle what I thought of the show. As it had three seasons, each 12 episodes, and takes place over a couple years, and then a movie that time jumps a bit. It’s interesting to see how this show holds up.
The show itself is well produced, like any HBO production was/is. The way scenes are set up, the lighting of the interior shots, and how everything is carefully crafted to make this show the best it could be.
There are several stand outs of the show, but one that is immediately noticed is the dialogue, it’s quick, snappy and way overly complicated like a David Mamet production. For something that is shot as a period piece, in the old west, where people weren’t exactly well spoken, each character in this town seems to rival vocabularies that Shakespeare would be jealous of. It’s a blending of verbal styles that seems anachronistic at first, but as the writer explains, the idioms for the time would seem mostly silly and come off with an unintended purpose, so it was changed to mix modern sayings that would work well and seem semi-period correct.
The acting as well is mostly top notch. There are so many characters that are lovable, and some that you love to hate, and only brought to life by the superb talents of the actors who portray them. Sheriff Bullock, who is played by Mr. Olyphant does seem to be off in the first season, but does get the hang of the character, and makes him his own, and his quirks stop becoming bad acting, and change into a person who you believe is just different, in a town full of abhorrent humans. It seems almost as if he has to switch into a robotic mode to keep his sanity and his morales.
Just like in Game Of Thrones, it feels like one of the gimmicks of the show is that “no one is safe”. Anyone and about everyone seems to meet a terrible and gruesome fate on this show. And as enjoyable as it is, there are definitely times where I wanted to just stop watching because a lovable character got axed. It’s a bummer, but understandable as this show is actually based on reality, which does seem to be semi-accurate, at least from the very minor research that I did after watching the finale and movie.
One thing that does get a bit predictable about the show, is its formula. And it’s probably hindsight, as you can see it in other shows and here too, like Game of Thrones. The musical cues come up, the finger picking guitar notes gather a quick pace as something big is about to go down every single time. Again, not a knock against it, as it probably wasn’t as noticeable back when it originally aired, but it’s definitely a formula now.
The other irk that I had with the show was how often there were major plots that seemed to never resolve fully, and maybe that’s because of how the show was based on real life events and people, but it felt like there was just so many unanswered questions and plots that just went nowhere. I would need several hands to count the times where someone just didn’t talk about a major event that happened to them in the prior scene or episode. Like everything was just resolved off camera. It was odd at times, but nothing so jarring that would make me upset.
The show ends with an absolutely abrupt ending, and a very unhappy conclusion. Without absolutely spoiling it, there was no sense of redemption or that there was any resolution. Things just kinda move on without explanation, and that’s because apparently the show got cancelled. And that’s where it was left, for over a decade. The show was done and ended and without a clear finale.
Thirteen long years later, there was a movie that saw almost every single character back. One main exception was the character of Psy Tolliver, who was played by Booth Powers, and it’s only because he died a couple years ago. The movie actually time jumps to 10 years later and stays true to every single character’s arch and motivation. Everyone is back and better than ever. Time has progressed not just in the fictional world, but in real life as well, everyone looks older and I rather like it. Instead of trying to pretend these characters are as spry as they were over a decade earlier, they mature and grow and we see everyone move on with their lives.
Luckily, since this is a movie, they can wrap up some loose ends and answer those unanswerable questions from the finale that pissed so many people off that never got the closure that was due. It picks up the story arch from the series and gives more of what the series finale should have given us viewers. But in typical Deadwood fashion, it doesn’t wrap every single thing up in a bow. It leaves things a bit open ended, while giving glimpses and hints at what would happen in the future just after the camera fades to black.
The series of Deadwood is exactly what you think a HBO western show would be. Crass, filled with obscenities, nudity, gore and lots of talking. So much talking. That was the biggest gripe of the whole series, is that it rarely ever ventured out of the few small interior sets, and this is only again exacerbated with hindsight and shows that pulled this off better in the future. Seeing this after AMC’s Hell On Wheels, shows you exactly the main ingredient that was missing from Deadwood, and it’s The West. The Frontier. The Great Outdoors. Almost everything in the show and movie take place indoors and 90% of the show is sitting around talking. Not that I don’t like dialogue, but there needs to be a sensitive balance between action and dialogue and it just feels like the show was more focused on how fast the expletives can fly instead. Largely this show could have taken place at anytime period if you just looked at the script, and there are very few instances where you can see they are a land unto themselves outside law because of location and time.
I don’t regret any moment of watching this show and prefer it over Game Of Thrones or any other HBO show to date, thanks to it being in my favorite genre. Being able to view everything in one go, and not have to wait thirteen years definitely makes me feel better about the series after finishing it, because “cliffhanger” endings or shows that don’t get to wrap up themselves because of cancelation are much more difficult for me to enjoy. I feel like it was a great show, with great characters and does an excellent job at everything it sets out to do. But I would have loved to see more of that Western expanse, and consider this the third best western show ever made… behind Westworld, and my favorite, Hell On Wheels.