I just finished the third season of Deadwood and wow, what a phenomenal show. If you’re unsure of what Deadwood is, it’s a TV show that aired on HBO from 2004-06. The show takes place almost entirely in the camp of Deadwood, South Dakota in the years 1876 and 1877. Because I started the show more than a few months ago I can’t remember every detail, but I also don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll keep it mostly spoiler free.
The show has a mixture of fictional characters and real life people who lived in or visited Deadwood. I don’t think the show ever means to say it’s an accurate historical piece, but the extensive use of real people – such as Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen - gives the show a more authentic feel. There are of course many liberties taken with their day-to-day lives, but the accuracies of who the people were make the show ever more enjoyable.
But what also makes the show so good are the actors who portray these figures. While Timothy Olyphant is perhaps the main character with his portrayal of Seth Bullock, it’s most definitely Ian McShane‘s portrayal of Al Swearengen that steals the show. He’s ruthless and he’s scary, but he’s also what keeps the camp going and in a somewhat orderly manner. However, I think my favourite character is Charlie Utter, played by Dayton Callie. He’s just an all-around great character.
One aspect of the show that seems to garner both criticisms and applause is the extensive use of swearing. A couple viewers even took it upon themselves to see how many times the word “fuck” was used, and it’s a lot. Over three seasons, that word was uttered 2980 times with an average usage of 1.56 times per minute. And that’s only one word. But as linguist professor Geoffrey Nunberg from Berkley writes, “‘fuck’ wasn’t actually a swear-word back then. It was indecent, of course, but people only used it for the sexual act itself. Whereas swear-words are the ones that become detached from their literal meanings and float free as mere intensifiers.” Additionally, other swearwords used in the show weren’t considered offensive back then, and were simply a description of a body part or sexual act. Examples of words that would be offensive in the 1870s include: “‘darn,’ ‘doggone,’ ‘dadburned,’ ‘tarnation,’ ‘goldarn,’ and ‘gee-whiz.’” However, as Nunberg states, “if you put words like ‘goldarn’ into the mouths of the characters on “Deadwood,” they’d all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam.”
I am personally not insulted when so-called curse words are used, but I guess I can understand how one might be. However, I would argue that the use of these words in Deadwood makes for a more enjoyable and authentic feeling experience. The viewer is supposed to be pulled into the world of a chaotic Nineteenth Century gold camp. The extensive use of swearwords is one way the unlawfulness and chaotic world of Deadwood comes alive. And I found that the swearing fit the main theme of the show: the struggle between chaos and order. But within this struggle we are treated to other themes of the era, such as life, death, politics, race, sex, capitalism, violence. The show is definitely not for the weak-hearted: there’s swearing , there’s sex, and there’s killing. But each act of violence, each sexual act, and each word is chosen for a specific reason. Every scene is in the show is to either advance the plot, portray who the characters were, or demonstrate a specific theme.
Now with all that said, like anything the show is not without its faults. At times, it can be temporarily difficult to follow what’s going on because the dialogue can be so unique, sometimes almost poetic. At times, the show can be a bit plodding, especially a few of the sub-plots that don’t really advance much. And at times, there are so many characters that some feel left out or not used to their full potential (thinking primarily about Cy Tolliver). But these are simply minor gripes about a show that is superior to almost any other show out there.
From the beginning to the end, the camp of Deadwood was a living entity that grew and evolved along with the people that lived in it. The viewer sees this small camp grow as more people come, a post office is started, a telegraph makes it way there, a bank is founded, and the many other on-goings of a growing town take place. The creators do an excellent job at making the viewer feel he or she is seeing a real camp grow. Even though the series technically ended unfinished, as it was cancelled by HBO, the end of the third season could act like a finale. It doesn’t tie the show up in a nice little bow, but it does give closure to a major plotline. And with a show about the growing camp of Deadwood, I don’t really see any other way to end it other than knowing Deadwood and its inhabitants will live on and adapt to new changes.