‘Deadwood’ – TV’s greatest western at 20 on Max

David Milch reinvents the TV western in Deadwood (2004-2006), a brilliant, unpredictable, utterly original take on the frontier drama.

Walter Hill won an Emmy and a DGA award for his superior direction of the pilot episode, which indelibly establishes the muddy, grubby, dusty frontier atmosphere of the undeveloped west pushed to the extreme in the town of Deadwood, a lawless gold rush town established on sovereign Indian land in Dakota Territory and thus outside of American marshals.

Timothy Olyphant is former Marshall Seth Bullock, who has come to Deadwood start a new life as a hardware store owner with his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) and is reluctantly drafted to serve as the lawman in an otherwise lawless town. Ian McShane is the money-grubbing, foul-mouthed, British bar owner Al Swearengen, who runs the town on graft and expediency and murder, making his fortune off the miners with the hooch and hookers in his sawdust floor saloon. But just when you think he’s the most evil mercenary in town, along comes dandified competitor Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth), who brings elegance with his gambling house and chaos with his scheming.

This is frontier Shakespeare. It’s not just a matter of themes but of language. Milch and his writing team script the dialogue with an ear never heard before in screen westerns, delivering an elevated manner of speech echoing the formality of 19th century literature mixed with frontier slang and (in the case of Al Swearengen) some of the most entertainingly profane epithets uttered on TV. But it is also a microcosm of the taming of the west, as the lawless outpost of miners, settlers, entrepreneurs, criminals, and freebooters coalesces into a community, and the crucible of individual endeavor (both honest and criminal) gives way to government oversight and the exploitation of corporate power.

Keith Carradine plays the doomed Wild Bill Hickock (any western buff knows of the notorious demise of Hickock in Deadwood, holding the legendary “dead man’s hand”; look quick and you’ll see it in the show) and Molly Parker is the refined but drug-addicted Eastern woman Alma Garret, dragged out west by her deluded husband.

The cast bubbles with brilliant supporting characters who buzz around the edges of the town’s drama: Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), Hickock’s business manager Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Swearengen’s bartender and chief henchman Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), town conscience Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), bruised and beaten hooker Trixie (Paula Malcomson), prospector Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), and gambling house hostess Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) among them.

The second year follows the political maneuvering, the economic wars and the power struggle as the grubby frontier camp transforms into a town and the territory moves closer to statehood. Bullock and Swearengen, by definition and by nature nemeses, become wary allies against Tolliver and Bullock’s wife arrives with his stepson, while Alma’s fortunes take a turn when her dead husband’s “worthless” mine turns out to hold a motherlode. And the third season—which, frustratingly, was the last full season for the show—introduces George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), a robber baron who tightens his iron grip over the town and makes his play for the mine owned by increasingly resilient widow Alma.

Milch was the co-creator of NYPD Blue, another show that reinvented a TV genre, and the sui generis John From Cincinnati, a labor of love project that was cancelled after one season yet was blamed for HBO ending Deadwood before the four-year arc was completed. More than a decade later, Milch reunited the cast for the feature-length Deadwood: The Movie (2019), which brought a belated end to the story. It never quite recaptured the magic of those original three seasons, though it did finally bring closure.

Meanwhile the original run is the most unglamorous portrait of how the west was won ever put on TV and a frontier drama where the American Dream—the entrepreneur and the rugged individualist staking their claim in the world and making their way (and possibly their fortune) by the fruits of their own intellect and hard work—collides with the hard reality of money and power and greed. The difference between the outlaw and the robber baron is a matter of weapons and scope.

It won eight Emmy Awards (out of 28 nominations) and it is still hailed by some as the one of the greatest shows ever made.

Rated TV-MA

Deadwood: The Series

Deadwood: The Movie

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.

Deadwood: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
Deadwood: The Complete Series (repackaged) [Blu-ray]
Deadwood: The Complete Series [DVD]
Deadwood: The Complete Series (repackaged) [DVD]
Deadwood: The Movie [Blu-ray]
Deadwood: The Movie [DVD]

Don’t miss a single recommendation. Subscribe to the Stream On Demand weekly newsletter (your E-mail address will not be shared) and follow us on Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter).

The special edition box set releases feature commentary on select episodes, featurettes, and two superb interview featurettes on the first season set with actor Keith Carradine interviewing creator David Milch about the ideas, issues, and fictional and historical characters, as well as the creative process, the mix of history and fiction, and the now-notorious use of language.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

Related posts