A few months back I wrote about the comparison between Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Sopranos, likening the political world of knights and kings to Mafioso. I promised an update when I got around to watching the latest ‘reinterpretation’ of the Wild West: Deadwood. The crux of the argument was archetypal characters playing a deadly political game.
Deadwood fits the mold to a degree, but its such a rich show that it brings with it a bunch more observations. Sure, we can compare the amoral businessman Al Swearington with Tony Soprano, and the straight-backed sheriff Seth Bullock with some honor bound knight like Jaime Lannister. It’s certainly an acceptable thesis. But the while the players in those other dramas are fighting over pieces of the pie, the cast of Deadwood are doing something more – building.
A bit of background in the 1870s, the black hills of North Dakota had a gold rush. Thousands flocked to the remote wilderness (which at the time was Indian territory), eventually setting up the camp of Deadwood. The rapid growth was fueled by not only the gold, but the ability to start fresh, leave behind old sins. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, rising up out of the bloody muck and dirt to fashion a workable town.
The show is extremely character based, bolstered by very strong performances (Ian McShane taking the cake). So while the plot meanders at times, the strength and depth of the acting carries it through. My favorite characters (each representing a unique and important part of the American west)-
Seth Bullock – once a sheriff in Montana, now a hardware store owner in Deadwood (along with his friend Sol Star). Bullock and Star are the “clean businessmen” of the camp, logical, fair, just (and sometimes violent).
Doc Cochran – civil war doctor moved to Deadwood, played by Brad Dourif (same as Wormtongue from LotR). You can tell from the Doc’s strained yet diligent speech and mannerisms he’s seen hell (on the battlefields of the civil war). Even so, he has a real concern for all people, even in the squalid camp of battered whores and smallpox sufferers.
Reverend Smith – eloquent and loquacious, the reverend has the best of intentions for the people of deadwood. His transition to madness from a terminal brain tumor is one of the heartbreaking threads of the first season.
Al Swearington – played by Ian McShane, one of the most complex villains in any show or film I’ve seen. He resorts to dubious methods, but at heart he’s a businessman, and will sacrifice short-term profits for long-term gains (in terms of camp stability and survival).
The story of Deadwood is quintessentially American – the transition from a virgin wilderness of untouched resource to a center of commerce and civilization. The growing pains are bloody and painful, but hey, that’s been an American legacy from the onset. Great show.