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Deadwood: Season 1 Review

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Bold, rich and stylish US series set in a lawless Dakota town in the 1800s

★★★★★

A warning: if you have sensitive ears, a frail constitution or a dedication to the glad tidings of family entertainment, it would be best to steer clear of Deadwood. When it comes to wretched hives of scum and villainy, it makes Mos Eisley look like Milton Keynes, its denizens lost to the unholy trinity of cards, whisky and “pussy”.

As for the cussing… Cover your ears, you delicate souls. In the space of a single sentence, Ian McShane as saloon proprietor and proto-mobster Al Swearengen (a second coming of Travolta-in-Pulp validity) expresses the C-word no fewer than five times. This is history’s scabby underbelly. Tough times require a tough vocab.

If you don’t have the disposition of a lower-ranking Von Trapp singer, welcome to the finest, boldest, richest piece of American entertainment since The Godfather. Creator David Milch has done what Martin Scorsese sorely missed in Gangs Of New York and created a masterpiece out of America’s harrowing childhood.

In 1876, deep in Dakota’s unreliable gold country, Deadwood isn’t even part of the Union yet. It’s lawless, but the point, for all of Swearengen’s manipulations, is that it is a town seeking law, to crawl out of the dirt. And the forces that shape civilisation are often of the ugly variety. This is a Western in the Unforgiving sense, not a re-strumming of John Ford’s mythopoetics.

In Deadwood, myth is drawn out into the cold morning air to lie facedown in pigswill and think over the error of its ways. There’s an inspired gradient to the slowburn plotting as Milch gradually orientates the story away from the boasts and legends of Wild Bill Hickock’s (Keith Carradine) demise and the mewling derangement of Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), into the wheeling fortunes of the township, chiefly perspicacious anti-hero Swearengen and Earp-inflected lawman Bullock (Timothy Olyphant).

Shot in a sepia-tinged dusk-light, the colour of worn leather and dry-brush, its full immersion in character vitality, shit-strewn naturalism and knuckle-hard brutality is as bracing as a cup of stove-blackened coffee. Shame the UK box set
is missing the features of the Region 1 version, but you’ll still be up past bedtime to catch every note of its foul-mouthed mastery.

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