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Escape to ‘Deadwood’ and Stay Awhile

Thanks to ‘Deadwood: The Movie,’ this forerunner of peak TV is now prime binge material.
Binge Header Deadwood
By  · Published on March 28th, 2020

This article is part of our One Perfect Binge bracket project. Follow along with here for updates and on Twitter, keep tabs with #OnePerfectBinge.

Binge Stats DeadwoodThe magnum opus of the legendary TV writer David Milch, Deadwood is three seasons and a movie of impeccably crafted, utterly binge-able Western delight. The fictionalized tale of the real-world gold mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the 1870s, is ironically enough an often overlooked gem as far as binging is concerned, thanks largely in part to its unique trajectory. After its third season came to a somewhat abrupt end in 2006, the series languished in the TV equivalent of purgatory for over a decade until Deadwood: The Movie finally gave this masterpiece the closure it deserved in May 2019.

The premise of Deadwood is pretty simple and will sound familiar enough to anyone who has ever watched a Western: Montana marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) decides he wants a change of pace and sets out for the gold-mining camp of Deadwood in the Dakota territory with his good friend Sol Star (John Hawkes) and plans to establish a hardware store. The straight-laced Bullock quickly makes both friends and enemies upon arrival, rubbing elbows with such legendary figures as Wild Bill Hicock (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and wasting no time before butting heads with the most powerful man in town, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the cunning, cut-throat proprietor of the Gem Saloon.

I could go on about the brilliance of various character arcs or the series’ enormous significance as a forerunner of “peak TV,” but the question of the hour is not “what makes Deadwood a masterpiece?” but “what makes Deadwood a perfect binge?” — a related but ultimately unique query that is best served by a three-pronged answer.

The first reason why Deadwood is a perfect binge-watch is that it presents an ideal blend of fantastical escapism and compelling verisimilitude. Although in many respects heavily fictionized, the series is grounded in extensive historical research, and it shows. Filled with compelling renditions of historical figures and composite characters, the period detail put into Deadwood gives the world of the series and the people who populate it the kind of textured nuance of authenticity that can’t be faked. It’s fantastical escapism in the sense that the 1870s Dakota territory is a world away from 2020 anywhere, and compellingly realistic in that the grimy, cutthroat picture that it paints and the characters who live there feel utterly, engrossingly real.

As Film School Rejectsown Sheryl Oh noted, Deadwood is a “perpetually unpleasant” place to live, but as a viewer, it’s a hugely engaging tribulation to watch. The world the series depicts is unapologetically cruel, but the series views this world with deep empathy towards all the characters struggling through it, and that makes all the difference. “Somethin’s not my affair, I don’t pretend it is,” prospector Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) tells the battered Trixie late in the series premiere. “Contrary wise, if you feel like talkin’ about that headlight, I’ll pay a dollar a minute to hear ya. Get anything off your chest you feel like.” It’s an unexpectedly wholesome exchange, one of the first of many such glimmers of light that Deadwood scatters throughout what would otherwise be unpalatable darkness. It’s the moment the series upgraded from having my curiosity to having my attention. Binge mode engaged. 

The second reason why Deadwood is ideal binging is that it’s a show that has something — or, more accurately, someone — for everyone. If the well-intentioned but somewhat pedantically straight-laced Seth Bullock is not your cup of tea, that’s fine, because while he might technically be the main player he’s hardly the star attraction. Whether you’re someone who loves the standard Western archetypes of gunslingers and sheriffs, madams and schoolmarms or finds them irritating, this series has something for you. It elaborates familiar character shapes into satisfyingly nuanced people, from hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Trixie to the outspoken country doctor “Doc” Cochran (Brad Dourif). Weigert’s passionately outspoken but socially awkward Calamity Jane is a standout, but the true jewel in Deadwood‘s crown is undeniably Al Swearengen.

Antiheroes have been having a “moment” on TV for a solid two decades now, from Tony Soprano to Walter White to Thomas Shelby, but even among the crème de la crème of the most mesmerizing scoundrels television has to offer, pimp and saloon proprietor Al Swearengen is something special. After introducing him as a deliciously loathsome villain right out of the gate, Deadwood brilliantly complicates him into an empathetic monster. To be clear, there are no redemption arcs here — his nature does not evolve so much as his character is explored in such a way that his soul is bared to a point that you can’t help but empathize with the tortured self-loathing that expresses itself by turns in violent outbursts and quiet acts of kindness. Ian McShane as Swearengen is a performance for the ages, brilliant to the point of hypnosis, a true masterclass. He elevates swearing to high art, elocuting the term “cocksucker” with such verve it feels sacrilegious to hear it uttered by anyone else. The mix of McShane’s skill and impeccable character writing is the exact brand of alchemy great television is made of and utterly addictive to watch.

The final reason why Deadwood should move to the top of your to-binge list is that it is an ideal binge length and has a prime binge trajectory, long enough to require a multiple-day investment but not so long that getting totally hooked to the exclusion of all else will impact personal relationships or productivity to a dangerous degree. With some dedication, you can power your way through all 38 hours in a weekend (if you include Friday), or those who walk the path of moderation watching two episodes per day can make their stay in Deadwood last nearly three weeks. In terms of quality, it’s admirably consistent, growing and expanding over its three seasons without ever losing its early strengths, and culminating in a long-awaited film that, as Val Ettenhofer’s review elaborates, makes for a fitting farewell.

It’s hard to stick a good landing, especially when it comes to television, where most series constantly expand and/or collapse storylines in anticipation of either renewal or cancellation as opposed to embarking with a solid trajectory in place. As a TV watcher, I have little loyalty; a few uncompelling storylines or lackluster episodes in a row and I jump ship. With longer running series, I often wait for finales to air to see how viewers respond before getting invested; it’s why I have never seen Dexter or How I Met Your Mother. Aware of the third season’s inconclusive finale, even my John Hawkes phase in high school could not tempt me to start Deadwood with the prospect of disappointment looming over my head. But the belated but welcome conclusion of Deadwood: The Movie 13 years later changed everything. As soon as I heard the film was being well received, I finally took a trip to Deadwood and enjoyed my stay from start to satisfying conclusion — and highly recommend others do the same. You won’t be disappointed.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.