Talk Pretty

The linguistic brilliance of HBO’s Deadwood.

Deadwood: Purty durn lively

In scheduling their new Wild West series Deadwood (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET) to appear immediately after The Sopranos, HBO’s head honchos are guilty of a massive programming screw-up. Several people have told me that, after that first Sopranos episode, they just couldn’t bear to spend another hour immersed in the kind of violence and squalor suggested by the fulsome use of the f-word in Deadwood’s dreary promos. Others actually watched the first episode and—perhaps already in a weakened state from the Sopranos’ taxing combination of crime and psychoanalysis—wilted in the face of Deadwood’s relentless cursing, casual violence, and total moral chaos, never to tune back in.

This is understandable. Executive Producer David Milch (the former English Lit lecturer at Yale who created NYPD Blue) has created a harrowing example of the imaginary condition of pre-governmental lawlessness that political theorists have called a “state of nature.” To be more precise, Deadwood shows a combination of Locke’s commercial utopia and Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” where a person can top off a day of fruitful labor by being murdered in his sleep. Milch renders that condition palpable by saturating Deadwood with unpleasant tactile detail—blood, pus, piss, and, above all, mud. Milch appears to be torn about what’s a more important missing feature of the state of nature—settled laws and recognized authority or effective drainage.

Watching the first episode, you felt like you had actually been cast into a lawless corner of the old West, with strange characters coming at you from all sides, cursing and killing each other. The show began with a hanging—a gruesome, do-it-yourself job where the gallows was a porch beam and the hangman had to yank down on the condemned man’s hips so as to break his neck faster—which was presented, oddly, as an act of mercy. The next scene captured the chaos of a wagon train broken down on a mountain road, and the scene after, which introduced the defining filth of the eponymous camp, culminated in a prostitute shooting a man through the head for “beatin’ on” her.

If you gutted out that first exhausting night and tuned in to subsequent episodes, you’ve witnessed a show both politically insightful and aesthetically rousing. As the season has progressed, the characters’ motivations have become more transparent, their relationships more stable and human, and public crisis has spurred them to form a loose political order. Plot lines have become not just discernable but elegant and bracing. And the saturated setting has become—thanks to an aching mandolins-and-fiddles score and the stunning natural-light cinematography—sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful.

But Deadwood was a real place—a 19th-century gold mining camp on Sioux treaty land in the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota—not a thought experiment, and this is where Milch has courted some trouble and confusion. In interviews, he has insisted that the show, particularly the flamboyantly vulgar dialogue, is based on rigorous historical research. Milch might be right that the quantity of swearing is historically accurate , but his show’s language is dotted with obvious neologisms (one character uses the term “triangulate”; a drug addict refers to some opium as “good shit”). Some dimly literal-minded critics have used Milch’s assertions against him, tallying up discrete anachronisms and mistaking these for aesthetic shortcomings. This is predictable but unfortunate, as it is precisely the dense mix of accuracy and artifice that makes Deadwood such a gorgeous creation.

The show centers around Al Swearengen (played by Ian McShane), a vicious operator who controls Deadwood’s gold claims and owns the Gem Saloon, where he also pimps for a stable of extremely haggard prostitutes. Early on, Swearengen seemed destined to butt heads with celebrity gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine, in a lovely, mournful portrayal) but, as in life, Wild Bill is shot dead not long after he enters Deadwood, and former U.S. Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) emerges as Swearengen’s primary antagonist. Seth—laconic, feral, hot-tempered, and a little vain—is not so much played as embodied by Olyphant (best known for his turn as the unnervingly attractive ecstasy dealer in Go). He seems to represent the promise—especially to the women he encounters—that order will emerge out of the town’s chaos, simply because he’s so damned sexy.

Milch uses Swearengen to push the conceit of Deadwood’s historical verisimilitude, primarily by having him use some form of the word “fuck” at every conceivable opportunity. (This is an unfortunate distraction in the promos and comes off as a bit excessive in the first episode, but you get used to it and, in fact, come to anticipate the word’s emphatic consonants with a certain pleasure.) McShane, a dashing, hawk-faced English actor who’s made a career as a villain in B-movies and miniseries, is a strange actor to choose if verisimilitude is what you’re after, as his idea of realism is a bit, well, operatic. He thunders and snarls through the first episode, though, like much else in the show, he settles down. As the camp’s chaos subsides, Swearengen uses his Machiavellian acuity to civically useful ends (if for selfish reasons), and his aggression is increasingly expressed not in physical violence but in high-wire verbal gamesmanship and hilarious insults.

Milch’s attempt to capture a sense of historical distance with the speech patterns of Deadwood succeeds marvelously, but not because the dialogue achieves true realism or gritty accuracy. Deadwood’s characters don’t talk quite like us, but neither do they talk like Dakota scalawags in 1876 probably talked. Instead, the show’s fidelity to the idea that the past is a foreign country results in dialogue that is just slightly stilted and formal, even as Deadwood’s characters say the earthiest and vilest things. The combination yields the most deliciously literary television dialogue I’ve ever heard. For example: Wild Bill Hickok’s killer, Jack McCall, is acquitted and he bellies up to Swearengen’s bar to celebrate. But the threat of retribution hovering around the acquitted killer is bad for business. So, as Swearengen sees it, McCall’s future doesn’t involve celebrating in Deadwood:

“You buy me a drink and I’ll make my mark,” McCall crows.

“Stick around camp, Jack, and I’ll make mine for you.”

“What in the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means there’s a horse for you outside you want to get on before somebody murders you who gives a fuck about right and wrong, or I do.”

Deadwood’s characters utter long, serpentine sentences, in diction that—depending on the speaker—can ascend to courtly abstraction or sink to the ripest vulgarity. Newspaperman Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), distraught over Hickok’s death and disgusted with McCall’s acquittal, offers a sarcastic toast: “Should it ever be your misfortune, gentlemen, or mine, to need to kill a man, then let us toast, together, the possibility that our trials be held in this camp.”

Given the show’s treacherous context, the formality of much of the dialogue offers all kinds of room for strategic insincerity and corrosive irony. When a Deadwood character talks he’s almost never saying just one thing. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Deadwood is observing what characters are doing when they speak, where they’re heading, whom they’re trying to fool and what secret messages they’re transmitting. The camp’s doctor (Brad Dourif, in perhaps the finest performance of his weird career) examines the corpse of a man who apparently fell to his death, but who was actually pushed off a ridge and then bludgeoned, as he lay groaning on the rocks, by one of Swearengen’s men. When the man’s widow (Molly Parker) presses the doc on whether he was murdered, the doc—who fears Swearengen like everyone else—responds with a perfect touch of overstatement: “Mrs. Garrett, I do not know how your husband’s skull got caved in.” Say no more, doc.

While this linguistic artfulness serves the necessary caution of Deadwood’s inhabitants, it signals the sheer audacity of David Milch and his writers. They have staked themselves to a dramatic idea that, in its openly literary ambition, could have been laughable. Deadwood is a funny show alright, but that’s because, in the unflagging brilliance of its execution, it fulfills its ambition.