A woman I know recently appeared on a TV game show. She was asked a question about the 39th and 40th states to enter the Union, which happen to be North and South Dakota. She answered the question correctly. How did she do it? There were a few factors in play. First, she figured that the two states had to be closely associated; second, she knew that Benjamin Harrison – the president whose administration admitted the states, according to the clue – was in the White House in the late 19th century. But ultimately, the key to her getting the question right, and winning the game, was everything she learned from the dearly departed HBO series Deadwood, which makes the history of the Dakota territory look like The Odyssey, Faust, and GoodFellas blended together and served with a shot of whiskey.
Deadwood was lauded by virtually every critic on earth, and has a respectable and devoted fan base, but was canceled at the end of its third season with no resolution to its storyline – not exactly a bust, like John from Cincinnati, but far short of the epic successes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. It’s not hard to see why HBO put the show out to pasture: the period setting, replete with armies of extras and endless quantities of mud and horse shit, reportedly made Deadwood extremely expensive to produce. And even though America has occasionally given its seal of approval to Western-themed entertainments in the last generation – Young Guns, Dances with Wolves, and Unforgiven come immediately to mind – a massive prejudice against the genre counterbalances any resurgence in its popularity. Why? Because the story of the West is the story of ruthless greed, unbridled machismo, and genocide. Let’s face it – America is built on double-dealing and the mass murders of brown people. This makes movies about cowboys, prospectors and homesteaders seem, at best, phony, and, at worst, evil to folks not raised on Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
Yet many of these same people grew up watching Little House on the Prairie and/or reading the (semi-autobiographical) novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, myself included. While the show attempted to insert 20th-century values into a 19th-century story (for example, marrying Nellie Oleson off to the only Jewish boy in Minnesota!), the books are matter-of-fact about the Indian/Euro conflicts of the period; indeed, the Ingalls family ultimately settled in South Dakota, just a few days away (by wagon) from the gold-rich Black Hills, where Deadwood popped up smack in the middle of what was supposed to be the permanent territory of the Sioux. Guess we all know how that ended up. However, ugly as they may be, the stories of the frontier are essential American stories. City slickers like myself may get tired of hearing endless propaganda about how the nation’s heartland is the “real” America, but without comparing apples and oranges (who can really say whether a Nebraska sodbuster or a New York City garment worker was the greater contributor to society?), we cannot deny that those plucky pioneers, sleazy Gold Rushers and Indian-hating Army officers are part of our cultural DNA.
Deadwood deserved to be watched by every adult in America for so effectively blending the entertainment value of the old-fashioned horse opera, incredible historical detail and context, and wall-to wall profanity and bloodletting worthy of Tony, Christopher and Big Pussy, minus the automatic weapons. The show also reveled in ethnic and racial prejudice (the Chinese are “celestials,” Indians are “dirt-worshipers,” and Norwegians – Norwegians! – are “squareheads”), gender-balanced nudity (sometimes full-frontal), and widespread recreational use of opiates. It made possibly the best casting choices in the history of TV, including Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok, Brad Dourif as cranky frontier surgeon Doc Cochran, Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney as millionaire miner George Hearst, and in a small but memorable guest appearance, former UPN cutie Kristen Bell as a foul-mouthed con artist who really should not have messed with Powers Boothe. Even the actors you’ve never heard of before do amazing things on this show, largely because the writing, liberally peppered with “fuck” and “cocksucker,” sounds like a hybrid of Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet, and Larry David. (Yes, it’s often hysterically funny – a running gag about canned peaches kills me every time.) No character gets away with simply being a stock Western figure – for example, Calamity Jane is a deeply damaged alcoholic as well as a total badass, and Al Swearengen, bar owner, pimp, and self-appointed prince of the camp, is alternately a loose cannon, a political genius, and an existentialist philosopher with a bad case of kidney stones.
I wish I could say that it was my high regard for HBO’s excellent track record with original dramas that turned me on to Deadwood, but that’s not really the case; during its 2004-2006 run, I didn’t even have HBO. My obsession with the show came about through a combination of lust and opportunity. I had (have) a massive crush on gangly character actor John Hawkes, previously best known for playing a doomed fisherman in The Perfect Storm and a lovelorn shoe salesman and single dad in Me and You and Everyone We Know. When I discovered that he was in the cast of Deadwood, I determined that I had to see the show somehow, even though it was between seasons. As if by magic, my roommate came into possession of a VHS screener of Season 1, and suddenly I found myself in a filthy, fascinating world of neurotic gunslingers, psychotic whoremongers, and corpse-eating pigs. Hawkes plays Sol Star, who, like Nellie Oleson’s hubby, is the lone Jew in town; however, Sol’s love interest isn’t a prissy merchant’s daughter (not that Deadwood has any of those), but a hard-nosed prostitute named Trixie, who when asked to give her last name, offers “The Whore.” Charmed by Sol’s gentlemanly and flirtatious attempts at courtship – as if he simply didn’t notice that she has sex for a living – Trixie accelerates the development of their relationship by visiting “the Jew” at his hardware store at midday and shyly inquiring, “Would you like a free fuck?” It turns out that Sol would, and he gets one, right there in the back room of the store. If this scenario simultaneously makes you swoon and turns you on, like it does to me, then Deadwood is clearly your kind of show.
I came for the crush, but I stayed for the excellent performances, the sublime writing, and the sheer boldness of the show’s vision. Just as it seems the storyline is veering into total nihilism, some glimmer of hope for humanity shines through the haze of cigar smoke and dim gaslight. Then, right when you begin to feel all warm and cozy, violence and madness erupt, socking you square in the gut like a toothless miner whaling on a hapless drinking companion. Deadwood ain’t for sissies, and all the corsets and waistcoats can’t pretty up its portrait of the vice and sin at the heart of the American dream. But there is no cooler study guide for 19th-century history nerds. Go fuckin’ watch it, cocksucker.