"I wouldn't trust a man who didn't try to steal a little." - Al Swearengen

A new dramatic television series produced by HBO, Deadwood is one of the few shows on television that I find the time to watch. Following on the blockbuster success of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, the hour long adult drama template was applied to a frontier gold rush setting, with very pleasing results. Critically acclaimed, the series also caused a minor stir in media channels because of its fabulously foul language. Considering the 1876 Gold Rush setting, full of prospectors, whores and purveyors of vice, it isn't out of place. Much like the Sopranos, foul language, violence and interpersonal conflict keep the plot rolling right along, and each of the vast array of characters is unique and compelling. While the historical accuracy of the cast of characters is questionable, the writers have used actual events and people from Deadwood, South Dakota's history, and its key claim to fame as the place famous gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok met his grisly end. The story of a rough and tumble town springing to life on the frontier, with all its over the top characters and events, makes for an entertaining hour of television every week. Exclusive to HBO, and re-syndicated in Canada on TMN, Deadwood airs Sundays at 10:00 PM.

Created by David Milch, famous for his previous work on "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues", the series has attracted a very accomplished cast, including television veteran William Sanderson, famous for his work on "Newhart", Actor Jeffrey Jones, Star Trek veteran Brad Dourif, and the stunning Canadian actress Molly Parker. A key to the success of the first season of the series is the brilliantly Machiavellian performance of Ian McShane, an amazingly skilled English actor who seems to have been born to play his role as seedy town boss Al Swearengen. Deadwood is rough, ugly and unabashedly historical. The warts of the past are on full display: racism, sexism, abuse of the handicapped, politically incorrect slurs and epitaphs, and extremely blue language all roll past as if they were everyday things, largely because they were.


The year is 1876. General Custer has been routed at Little Big Horn, Rutherford B. Hayes is contesting the election for the Presidency, and gold is found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The town of Deadwood is born, springing up over night on lawless Indian land. No law means no limits, and it attracts all sorts.

The Main Characters:

Seth Bullock, a grim faced ex-law man who is seeking his honest fortune in the hills, comes to Deadwood with his partner Sol Star to start a hardware store and stake their own claims. Timothy Olyphant plays Seth Bullock as a man who is trapped by his responsibilities, as he has elected to take care of his dead brother's family, who are traveling to join him in the town. Bullock has a past that seems to haunt him, and he is seldom happy.

Al Swearengen, the proprietor of the Gem Saloon, is an unabashed bastard. Born in Manchester, England, Al has parlayed his business skill and his eye for deception into a de facto position of town boss. The Gem is the hub of most of Deadwood's activity, and the heart of all of Al's shady business. Nickel whiskey and $5 whores call the Gem home, and Al racks in the dollars. Ian McShane was born to play Swearengen, the definitive bastard that you just have to love. Swearengen also gets the most memorable lines of any one in the show.

Brom and Alma Garret, New York socialites seeking fame and fortune on the frontier, are in way over their heads. Accustomed to the more civilized environs of the big city, the Garret's came to Deadwood after purchasing a plot of land that they come to think is worthless. Brom, played by Timothy Omundson, desperately tries to sell the claim, while his laudanum addicted wife Alma stands by her husband, genuinely lost in the wild frontier world. Alma Garret is played by Molly Parker, and her role as committed wife expands greatly as the season progresses.

Sol Star, Seth Bullock's Jewish partner in the Deadwood hardware business, came to the town to seek his fortune selling goods to the booming population. Sol is a consummate gentleman, and the perfect foil to Seth's slowly boiling temper. Played by John Hawkes, Sol looks to bring some civility to Deadwood, while making a few honest dollars.

Wild Bill Hickok, infamous gunslinger and famously bad gambler, comes to Deadwood as he comes to most frontier towns, looking for a poker table and some peace and quiet. Keith Carradine portrays Wild Bill as man tired of his reputation as a killer, but unwilling to back down from a fight.

Calamity Jane, Wild Bill's erstwhile companion, is as gruff and uncouth as it is possible for a person to get. Jane is a hothead, a drunk and a fighter. Robin Weigert gives Calamity Jane an edgy, sunburned and wild personality, and a close friendship with her kindred spirit Bill.

Charlie Utter, played by Dayton Callie, is the calm voice of the Bill/Jane friendship. More often than not, Charlie is the guy left to steer Wild Bill out of a jam. He is a slow talking kind man, with a hot temper if pushed too far.

Trixie, a whore from the Gem Saloon, is like many of the women who find themselves at the mercies of Al Swearengen: broke, lost and desperate. With no other path in the world, Trixie sells herself at the Gem, and finds a special place at Al's side. Her role in his schemes seem to be given out of a strange, unspoken love on Al's part. Trixie is played by Paula Malcomson.

E.B. Farnum is a world class weasel. Desperate to secure his place at the top of the social ladder, E.B. is hopelessly outclassed by master schemer Al. Acting as a middle man of sorts, E.B. acts only to curry favor with the locals, and runs the town's hotel and restaurant. Played by William Sanderson, E.B. is a man who is desperately waiting for the invention of Pepto-bismol.

Dan Dority, played by W. Earl Brown, is the bartender at the Gem and Al's number 1 thug. Dan knows his place and is happy to leave the scheming to his boss. When Al wants somebody dead, its Dan who is wielding the knife.

Doc Cochran, is the town's only doctor, and as such, he makes a fair trade keeping the whores at the Gem and the Bella Union in good health. Doc Cochran served in the Civil War, and his generally acidic nature is tempered by his genuine skill as a physician. The Doc played by Brad Dourif, and his snarling, bug-eyed ill humor is a joy to watch. He is one of the few people in town that is not afraid to tell everyone off, regardless of their stature.

Tom Nuttall runs a small saloon off the main street, and his quite happy to let his small clientele gamble away their hours at the poker table in the back of his joint. Tom has no grand designs, happy to run his small business off the beaten path. Played by Leon Rippy, Tom is particularly scared of Wild Bill Hickok, who takes a liking to his quiet poker table.

A.W. Merrick, a blowhard newspaper man played by Jeffrey Jones, comes to Deadwood to establish print shop. Merrick is an optimistic big city stuffed shirt, and he goes to great lengths to convince those around him that he is a man of education and grand ideas. He comes off as a buffoon, and his large waistline is often the topic of conversation. It is fortunate for Merrick that no competing papers have set up shop.

Reverend H.W. Smith, the town's self appointed preacher, is played by Ray McKinnon. Reverend Smith is a kind hearted gentle soul, and he wanders in a dreamlike fugue, seeking to save the souls of the teaming masses of outlaws in Deadwood. There is something not quite right about the Reverend, who grins and extols virtues politely in the face of overwhelming vice.

Jack McCall, famous murderer of Wild Bill Hickok, is played by Garret Dillahunt. Jack is a drunken, washed-up waste of a man who stares at the world with his scarred hooded eye. McCall is a bum who hangs around the camp, gambling his last dollar and shooting off his mouth at every opportunity.

Cy Tolliver, the first real competition to roll into town for Al Swearengen, came to Deadwood to setup a high class establishment called the Bella Union. Cy caters to a more sophisticated audience, offering up painted ladies and craps tables, over the run of the mill poker at the Gem. Powers Boothe plays the sneering Cy, the premier foil to Al's plans.

Joanie Stubbs runs the ladies at the Bella Union. The object of Cy's unwanted attentions, Joanie is unhappy in her roll as the lady of the house. She is looking for a way out from under Cy's thumb, but he isn't going to make it easy for her. Joanie is played by Kim Dickens.

Eddie Sawyer is a slick operator who runs the gambling tables at the Bella Union for Cy. A partner in crime for Cy, Eddie is Joanie's only real friend in the camp. Ricky Jay plays Eddie as a slick swindler who has a flare for cheating people, be they friend or foe.

Mister Wu, played by Keone Young, is the boss of the rough side of town. As the boss of the immigrant Chinese who have flocked to the town for work, Wu holds a position of some strength, and he operates a legitimate butchery business. He has a working relationship with Swearengen, who seeks Wu's services in "body disposal" from time to time. Wu's pigs are never too long without food.

The story so far:

Having watched most of Season one, I have pieced together a bit of a synopsis of the goings on. This is by no means complete, but it will ruin some of the better plot twists that have cropped up, so be warned.

A wagon train on the way to the new settlement is attacked by Indians, who proceed to kill all the settlers except for a young girl named Sophia. Sophia is found and rescued by Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and Charlie Utter while the town is forming up from tents. Jane takes the mute girl into her care, fawning on her.

Seth and Sol wheel and deal with Al Swearengen to get a plot to build their hardware store while Brom Garret seeks to relieve himself of his claim. Everyone turns up their noses at it, assuming it is worthless. Al has some murky connection to the deal, and arranges for Brom to met his end while prospecting the claim with Dan, Al's right hand man. Dan does his bit and tosses Brom to his death off a cliff while searching the claim. When he goes to inspect the body, Dan trips over a massive deposit of gold. Al has E.B. try to purchase the deed from the Widow Garret, who remains unaware of its worth. E.B. skims some of the money from Al's offer, and the hesitant Widow Alma enlists the aid of Wild Bill and Seth Bollock to help her see if the deal is worth it.

In the meantime, Sol and Bullock have built up their hardware business while Wild Bill gambled and drank his way across town. Loudmouth Jack McCall runs afoul of Hickok in a poker game, and plots his revenge. While gambling in Tom's Saloon, McCall shoots Wild Bill in the head and flees town. Bullock hunts him down and turns him over to the authorities for a trial, much to the disgust of Calamity Jane, who turns to the bottle for her solace. Sophia finds herself in the care of the Widow Garret, to whom Al Swearengen has sent Trixie to help with the child. Al seeks to curry favor with the Widow so she will sell him the claim, all while Trixie keeps her high as a kite, supplementing her laudanum habit with opium supplied by Al, by way of Wu. Trixie losses her nerve and confesses to Alma, while helping her care for Sophia and weaning Alma off the dope.

Meanwhile, Seth employs a prospector named Elsworth to survey the claim with him to see if it is worth the money. Elsworth discovers the gold, with some help from Dan. Bullock tells Alma not to sell. While the wrangling over the claim continued, Cy Tolliver came to town and opened the doors of the Bella Union, the Gem Saloon's first real competition. Al and Cy come to an unsteady truce, dividing up their respective vices. The Bella Union is not long in operation when an old friend of Cy's comes to town. Cy's friend, however, brings a plague of smallpox with him. Cy quickly has his friend taken out to the woods and left for dead when his fever flares up.

The smallpox outbreak rolls through the town and prompts a bit of civil organization, as lead by Al Swearengen. Riders are sent out for nearby forts where the vaccine is available, and a pest tent is set up. Jane happens upon Cy's friend who was left for dead in the forest and cares for him. Upon returning to the town, she is pressed into service by the Doctor in the pest tent, where she works beside Reverend Smith tending to the sick. Jane and the Doctor see that the Reverend is acting strangely, and he is struck by an epileptic fit. Seems that the Reverend is likely dying from a brain tumor, which slowly robs him of his sanity.

Riders come back with the vaccine not long after and the town rides out the plague. Meanwhile, a brother and sister team of grifters comes to town and tries to rob the Bella Donna. Caught in the act, Cy slowly tortures the pair while Eddie and Joanie watch, finally killing them. Joanie decides to try to leave and setup her own place, while Eddie struggles with the realization that his boss is a cold blooded murderer. Cy is in love with Joanie, and offers to fund her new brothel, but Joanie conspires with Eddie to steal the funds from Cy and operate on her own.

In the wake of a peace treaty brokered with Indians brokered after the Battle of Little Big Horn, the legislature in Yankton sends word that they are going to annex Deadwood and establish a government there. The specter of the law coming to town prompts Al Swearengen to setup a de facto governing committee which would be grandfathered into the new town government. E.B. is appointed Major, as his comical over reaching secures him the job. Bullock turns down the post of Sheriff while others are fit into roles. The messenger from Yankton also brings a message to Al. Seems a warrant for his arrest in connection with a murder in Chicago has followed him out west, and a fee of $5000 will make it go away. Al pays reluctantly.

After the bagman leaves for Yankton, a pair of opium fiends rob and kill one of Wu's couriers and steal his cargo. One of the addicts works for Al, and the other for Cy. Wu is furious, and demands the heads of both men. Al finds the robbers and consults Cy on who should be given up to the Chinese boss. Cy, who doesn't deal in opium, flatly refuses giving up his man to a "lowly Chinaman", so Al kills his man and keeps the peace with Wu. Cy's man returns with the story, and Cy uses the opportunity to fan the flames of racism in the camp, painting Al as a traitor for giving into to Wu's demands.

Al also finds he has trouble on the home front. Trixie, his erstwhile lover, has fallen for Sol Star. In addition, the bagman from Yankton returns, and the bounty for taking the taking care of the warrant on his head has increased.

The season finale for season 1 is set to air on June 13, 2004.