Most people remember HBO’s “Deadwood” as “that show where they swore a bunch.” To put that in perspective, the word “fuck” is used 2980 times in 36 episodes, at a rate of 1.56 FPM (fucks per minute). The fan-favorite “cocksucker” is said less, but is uttered more than 300 times. “Deadwood” ran from 2004 to 2006, and I was only vaguely aware of it until sometime last year. I watched the show’s 36 episodes over the course of a month while crocheting a large, striped blanket. I concluded that although enjoyable, watching it would have been a very long, slow process if I hadn’t seen it all in one stretch.
The hour-long drama was based on real people and actual events from the 1870s gold rush in Deadwood, South Dakota, before the territory was annexed to the United States. The show follows the ensemble cast of characters as Deadwood develops from a prospecting settlement to a civilized town. Imagine airquotes because the town is still rampant with murder, prostitution, and corruption, under the thumb of ruthless saloon/brothel owner Al Swearengen.
The show often centers on themes of bringing order from chaos, and the length of each episode gives the dozens of supporting cast members ample time to develop and become fully realized characters too numerous to list here. Like an 1870s “Mad Men,” the show is replete with shrewd business deals, misogyny, racism, and cheating husbands. But although I’m a fan of Old West history, I didn’t find the politics as captivating as the cutthroat ad world of Madison Ave., despite the actual cutting of throats in every other episode.
Easily the best part of the show was the evolution of Al Swearengen from a villain to a sympathetic character. In a squirm-in-your-seat series of season two episodes, we see the tortures of 19th century medicine as he attempts to pass a kidney stone. The painful event humanizes him, rallying us to his side as the arrival of Cy Tolliver, who moves in with a newer, classier brothel across the street, threatens to put Swearengen out of business. As the show continued, I began enjoying Swearengen’s plotlines more than leading man Seth Bullock’s, whose loveless marriage and unrequited love with widow Alma Garrett made him more unlikable by the day.
Ultimately, the first two seasons of the show felt more coherent than the third, which introduces a new villain to the town, a vindictive California businessman looking to ruin Deadwood. The show began relying more and more on the viewer making sense of financial and logistical particulars to get properly absorbed in the story, and introduced new characters that weren’t as interesting as the rest of the cast. While the cancellation was sudden, the finale was unsatisfying as an end to the season, much less to close out the series.
I will say that over the course of the 36 hours of “Deadwood,” I managed to finish crocheting most of a 7’x7′ blanket. With thick, alternating black and white stripes, it replaces my bright green Ikea blanket, more closely matching my new bedroom decor.
The show kept me sane when I realized I was pulling the yarn too tight for the amount of stitches, making the blanket uneven, and had to undo and redo six stripes. Each stripe is seventeen rows wide, and each row takes ten minutes to crochet from beginning to end. I started measuring how much “Deadwood” I’d watched that day by how many rows I’d completed.
I’d recommend the show if you have a passion for revisionist Westerns and don’t get squeamish over violence, and definitely think it’s better watched in close succession. Each episode feels like the chapter of a book, maybe not as good on its own, but better understood in the context of the whole.