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Reviewed by:
  • Deadwood, HBO
  • Victoria Addis
Deadwood, HBO, (2004–6)

HBO’s Deadwoodpresents a raw and violent image of the Old Midwest. The acclaimed television series draws on historical details, including persons and events, to advance its vision of the turbulent years before the annexation of South Dakota. In focusing on the frontier history of the Midwest, Deadwoodreminds viewers accustomed to associating the frontier with the West alone—rather than the larger area of the “Great West” which included midwestern, northeastern, and Upland South regions—that the Midwest in fact connects with that broader narrative of American “progress,” as well as the attendant economic fervor and relative lawlessness that arose in those early days of community building.

A mining town founded during the Black Hills gold rush, Deadwood was constructed on land that had been legally ceded to the Lakota-Sioux in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. An illegal town in a dangerous location, Deadwood attracted a host of rough and tough characters, seeking their fortune in the gold-rich land. While lawlessness and avarice were undoubtedly a strong motivation for the majority of settlers, there were others seeking refuge, escape, and a new start in the fledgling town. HBO’s series brings together characters from across this spectrum, exploring the good, the bad, and the morally grey, across three dirty, bloody, and foul-mouthed seasons.

The images of Deadwood’s opening titles—mud, blood, fire, whiskey, women, and gold—speak to the feel of the show as a whole. It is a smashing together of peoples and cultures in a half-built, half-civilized, lawless, and potently masculine environment. While scholars like Victoria Johnson have pointed to “the national viewing audience’s presumed, consensual understanding of the Midwest as a presumptively rural, white, and ‘straight,’ pre-modern, hermetically sealed land of hopelessly un-hip squares,” Deadwoodpresents a very different image of the region and its people. 1It shows us a melting pot of nationalities, as American, Canadian, Dutch, English, and [End Page 155]Chinese characters establish themselves as trappers, traders, miners, criminals, and businessmen in harsh and unforgiving conditions.

Beneath the murderous violence, gambling, and whoremongering, one of the most interesting aspects of this show is the way in which Deadwood is imagined as a place of opportunity, however fraught and uncertain, not only for the white men who make up the majority of the populace, but also to some extent for the small number of women who made it their home. Deadwood’s frontier capitalism speaks to the possibilities, as well as the more obvious dangers, of a pre-political, pre-civil society, where the controlling forces are individuals rather than public bodies. Interestingly, the opportunities men find in Deadwoodoften grow into great success or official recognitions of status, whereas those found by women are all eventually quashed.

The first season opens in 1876, just after The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Deadwood is beginning to form as a community with permanent structures gradually replacing its various tents and stalls. When Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and his friend Sol Star (John Hawkes) first arrive to set up their hardware store, the only signs of civilization are: Al Swearengen’s (Ian McShane) Gem, a saloon and brothel; the Number 10 saloon where Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) famously met his demise (an event depicted in season one, episode four); and E. B. Farnum’s (William Sanderson) Grand Central hotel. The soundscape of these early episodes is as spartan as the setting, as it is entirely constructed from ambient sounds: men and horses, drinks pouring, chairs and tables scraping and banging. It is not until the Bella Union arrives in town with its higher class of entertainments that music comes to Deadwood and something resembling a traditional soundtrack is built into the series. Over the course of the show’s run, the town coalesces into a tentative form of society. We witness the ad-hoc appointment of several officials, including Sheriff Seth Bullock, and a general move towards the appearance of legitimacy if not its actualization.

Without laws or limits, the denizens of Deadwood are free to barter, trade, prospect, and engage in criminal...


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pp. 155-159
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