Tell Him Something Pretty: The 10 Greatest 'Deadwood' MomentsMay 29, 2019
If you’re a diehard Deadwood fan, then you might be amazed that the day has finally come. The day, of course, is the arrival of new Deadwood, in the form of a two-hour movie premiering on HBO this Friday, May 31. Yes, it’s real, despite years of promises and failed plans to bring something to light. The continuation of the three-season series inspired by the real camp in Deadwood, South Dakota has been a long time coming, and honestly felt like it would never happen for most of the intervening 13 years. Fans of the show love it for its ornate dialogue, its distinctive and consistent profanity, and its unexpected depths of emotion, empathy and humanity.
So with that in mind, let’s count down the 10 best moments from Deadwood, both the series and the film itself (so, yes, major spoilers from the series and some light spoilers from the movie ahead).
10. Cy Tolliver shows two kids who’s boss, “Suffer The Little Children” (2004)
A rival to Al Swearengen, Cy Tolliver (the late Powers Boothe) is a seemingly smooth operator of a saloon that offers more refined gambling. But Cy is quickly revealed as a murderous psychopath, somehow more terrifying than Al ever could be. For example: midway through the first season, Cy realizes that there are two young con artists in his midst, a brother-and-sister team (the sister played by a pre-Veronica Mars Kristen Bell). Before they pilfer any more of his cash, Cy teaches them a lesson by having his men beat them publicly and then torture them a bit further in his private quarters. It’s a grim and intense sequence that heightens one of David Milch’s strengths: mixing the cruelest violence with the most welcome empathy, because in this scene, death is a blessing.
9. The town bands to protect Alma Ellsworth, “A Constant Throb” (2006)
It’s a sign of just how far the characters on Deadwood have come, how much they can change, to watch Al Swearengen literally leap at the effort to protect Alma Ellsworth from the prospect of being gunned down by hired men in the final episodes of the third season of Deadwood. One of the series’ first major subplots is Al being convinced that he should probably murder not only Alma, then the drug-addled wife of a New York fop, but also a “squarehead” child who doesn’t speak English but could identify her parents’ killers (who worked for Al). But when, near the end of the third season, famous prospector George Hearst (played fiercely by Gerald McRaney) has his men try to kill Alma so he can purchase her wealthy gold claim, Al (and just about everyone else in town) does his best to save her. Specific to Al, he literally leaps off the balcony of his saloon to save her; it’s not the first time Swearengen jumped off the balcony (we’ll get to that), but the moment is no less gasp-inducing. The way these characters formed a community, so literally, over just a year pays off in spades in moments like these.
8. Al bucks up A.W. Merrick, “E.B. Was Left Out” (2005)
Every small town has to have people take on certain roles, from doctor to sheriff to mailman. One of those roles, too, is journalist; in the Deadwood camp, that role falls to the loquacious A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones). Merrick, through much of the show, is an overly chatty (yes, even for this show) type who’s fairly harmless. Thus, after his office is ransacked by some hooligans in the midst of machinations regarding the future of Deadwood in South Dakota, he’s down in the dumps. It’s a feisty Al who comes over and reminds Merrick, by slapping him, that no amount of physical or emotional hurt should stop him from fighting back: “Pain or damage don’t end the world, or despair or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man — and give some back.” It’s an intense worldview, but as delivered by McShane, it’s weirdly hopeful.
7. An auction goes south for George Hearst, Deadwood: The Movie (2019)
In the long-anticipated revival of the show, Deadwood: The Movie, the year is 1889 and the past weighs heavy for all of the returning characters. It’s time for South Dakota to celebrate its statehood, and one of the attendees to the celebration is Hearst, now a Senator for California. But he’s still on the prowl for control of Deadwood, wanting to buy a powerful piece of land to help put phone lines through the entire camp. There’s just one holdout — one of the series’ original cast members — who ends up murdered by one of Hearst’s men. Everyone else in town knows what happened, which makes the inevitable auction for the dead person’s land all the more tense. A furious Marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) begins to outbid Hearst just to drive up the price; as Hearst mocks Bullock for doing so, other people at the auction, including the returned Mrs. Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), further outbid Hearst to the point where he has to lose out on the parcel of land. It’s a long-overdue case of revenge on Hearst, and a truly satisfying emotional climax.
6. Dan Dority and Captain Turner fight to the death, “A Two-Headed Beast” (2006)
One of the throughlines of the third and final season of Deadwood is that the characters we’ve grown to love (in a warped way) are arguably ill-matched to face off against George Hearst. Hearst is well-known before we even meet him in the second-season finale. Once he arrives, he makes his intent clear: to own as much of the camp as he can. His enforcer, the largely taciturn and silent Captain Turner (Allan Graf), is a mirror image of Al Swearengen’s fierce second-in-command Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown). Both men are large, good fighters, and violent. So it stands to reason that they’ll need to face off, as they do at the midpoint of the fifth episode of the third season. The ensuing fight is one of the most intense and gruesome sequences in the series’ history, a real battle to the death that ends with Dan victorious…only because he gouges out Captain Turner’s eye before beating him with a log. This show has never been grosser, more visceral, and more jaw-dropping.
5. The death of Wild Bill Hickok, “Here Was A Man” (2004)
A good chunk of the characters on Deadwood are based on real people, from Seth Bullock to Al Swearengen himself. But in the early going, there are two characters most people would recognize: Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine). Wild Bill died in Deadwood, shot to death in a scene captured at the end of the fourth episode. As portrayed by Carradine, Wild Bill has a warped kind of grace, almost as if he knows his days are marked even before he’s shot in the back by a drunken lout (Garret Dillahunt). The death scene is intercut with the inexplicable but ominous arrival in town of a miner carrying the decapitated head of a Native American chieftain, amplifying how quickly the Deadwood camp’s prospects could change and for the worse.
4. “You can go now, brother”, “Sold Under Sin” (2004)
Deadwood, in its opening episodes, doesn’t seem to suggest that it could break its audiences’ hearts. But one of David Milch’s great strengths in writing the show was allowing just about every one of its characters the capacity for good and decency. Such is the case with Reverend Smith, played with the right spirit and hope by Ray McKinnon. When we first meet the Reverend, he’s overly friendly but easy to like even to the non-churchgoing. As the season progresses, it becomes clear that the Reverend is ill, likely with a brain tumor that’s getting worse. His illness affects almost the entire camp, from the war-haunted Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) to Al Swearengen. The latter, who obliquely reveals that his own brother suffered a similar malady, takes it upon himself in the finale to put the delirious Reverend out of his misery just as the Doc prays to God to deliver his son back to Heaven. The death is one of the saddest in the show’s history, and played with no amount of melodrama. It’s a gut-punch and a half.
3. Al soliloquizes on his bed, “Jewel’s Boot Is Made For Walking” (2004)
Throughout most of the first season of Deadwood, Al Swearengen is primarily a terrifying villain rarely seen before on television. As brought to life by the excellent Ian McShane, Al is extremely smart, vicious, and cutthroat when dealing with the prostitutes in his saloon, drug users, and anyone else in his path. And until the final moments of the season’s penultimate episode, we really know very little about Al except that he presumably has some English heritage. As events continue to press upon Al, we see him in his bed as one of the prostitutes begins to perform oral sex on him. And, of all times, it’s now that Al begins to fiercely ruminate on his past, as an orphan whose path was set by the woman who ran the orphanage and also ran a whorehouse. It’s a ridiculous scene in so many ways, as a proto-Shakespearean monologue is delivered at the height of sexual pleasure. But McShane reveals hidden depths to Al here that help shade the character further in years to come.
2. Seth loses a son and a nephew, “Advances, None Miraculous” (2005)
Near the end of the second season of Deadwood, there’s a brief moment of shared levity, in which saloon owner Tom Nuttall (Leon Rippy) rides through the thoroughfare on an old-fashioned bicycle, to the delight of just about every denizen of Deadwood. It’s a rare scene where everyone is brought together to watch something in which they can share joy. But creator David Milch taketh away as he giveth — in the next episode, Tom shows the son/nephew of Seth Bullock (who married his brother’s widow and took her son as his own after the brother died) how the bicycle works. At the same time, a runaway horse tears through the camp and tramples the boy. “Advances, None Miraculous” concludes this storyline as Seth and his wife Martha (Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad) sit at the boy’s bedside, knowing he’s about to die of his wounds. The death itself is handled with something rarely heard on Deadwood: quiet. As violent as this show could be, the death of young William Bullock is heartbreaking all the more because it’s one moment when everyone’s rendered speechless.
1. Al and Seth fight it out, “A Lie Agreed Upon: Part I” (2005)
In the first season especially, one of the core conflicts of Deadwood was between newly arrived hardware store owner Seth Bullock and saloon owner Al Swearengen. Bullock had left behind a position as Marshal in Montana for a quieter life, but he quickly gets drawn into the life of the law in Deadwood in spite (or because) of his volcanic temper. Swearengen, on the other hand, is nothing less than a drug-pushing pimp looking to make money wherever he can. In the season-two premiere, Bullock, now Deadwood’s sheriff, is pushed to his breaking point when Al taunts him for his affair with the rich widow Alma Garret. The two of them have words which turn into fisticuffs, climaxing as they fall over the balcony of the Gem Saloon to fight in the mud. Al’s about to knife Seth for good when he looks up, seeing a wagon bringing none other than Seth’s wife and son. Bloodied and bruised, he shouts, “Welcome to fucking Deadwood! It can be combative.” The fight ends here, but this scene is, in so many ways, a microcosm of Deadwood the show: violent, intense, intelligent, profane, and unexpected. May it live on forever.
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