“Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or f***ing beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you’ve got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man… and give some back.” In another series, that line might have read something like “Life is pain. It won’t kill you. Give as much as you get.” But not in David Milch’s world. When colourful saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) sits down to comfort the town’s newspaper editor after a particularly unfortunate event, his advice sounds like Shakespeare filtered through Tarantino and then Steinbeck until it winds up as something dusty and profound.
Deadwood begins with Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) performing his grim final duty as sheriff before lighting out for the eponymous lawless town, where Bullock wants nothing more than a quiet life running a hardware store with his friend Sol Star (John Hawkes). But nothing makes God laugh more than men making plans and Bullock has no idea of the chicanery and bloody deeds he’ll encounter and the positions he’ll be forced into over the next three seasons. Suffice to say, it results in some of the most brutal and profane television ever made.
Most of said deeds are brought about by the aforementioned saloon owner Al Swearengen. Swearengen can’t be said to be the show’s villain, although he initially appears that way, yet it’s a serious stretch to call him an antihero. Far more villainous characters rear their heads over the coming seasons, maybe none more so than the loathsome Francis Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), yet nobody captures the imagination more than Swearengen and his wonderful way with profanity. Ian McShane, previously best known for playing the title role in the ever-so-English Lovejoy, is a revelation as the sweary, greasy, hypnotically amoral Swearengen, a man who could outmanoeuvre even Tony Soprano and Walter White.
Famous names from real life dot the storyline – most memorably Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickock and Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane – but the fact that most of the characters are indeed based in truth makes Swearengen all the more terrifying and compelling. When rival saloon owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) arrives in Deadwood, his more obvious villainy only serves to ally viewers even more resolutely with Al Swearengen, to say nothing of the entire town’s battle with ruthless magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Alas, this marvel of modern television ended abruptly, cancelled before Milch could bring about any sense of closure. The sets were torn down, the cast moved on and it seemed Deadwood was dead and buried. But, in 2015, Garret Dillahunt suggested that the idea of a Deadwood movie was being touted. Whether Dillahunt was referring to solid information or just trying to will it back into existence, the story gathered pace and HBO confirmed that a script was in the works.
The last we heard was Olyphant claiming it “will never f***ing happen”, but even he admitted that he would jump at the chance. Once you’ve been inducted into this dirty, dusty world of skulduggery, you’ll have everything crossed that we get one last chance to return to the black hills of North Dakota.