This article previously appeared on Crossfader
At times, it seems like the point of DEADWOOD was to make GAME OF THRONES look shittier. The aggressively sad nature of GoT is what makes it refreshing and unpredictable, and I used to think that Benioff and Weiss were the masters of their niche. That was true – until I found out that in 2004, David Milch created three seasons of the most grippingly depressing television drama to ever air. Milch took the various stories and characters from America’s Western Expansion in the 1860’s and thrust them into a world so disgusting, so vile that they can’t help but destroy themselves. The tone and structure of the show are markedly similar to GoT, but to tell the truth, DEADWOOD accomplishes everything GoT tries to, but in only three seasons and almost a decade earlier.
These rough sum’bitches would whup those Westerosi fucks anytime, anywhere
Like GoT, DEADWOOD makes it seem like there’s a main character at first, but the side characters quickly become far more interesting as the focus shifts off the show’s moral center Seth Bullock. The show opens with Bullock pulling up stakes and heading out to the camp/town/pit of sin called Deadwood in the Dakota territory. He spends the first few episodes building a hardware store and generally being disgusted with the camp’s inhabitants, who’ve all fractured into factions competing for power and wealth. Sound familiar? Ensemble casts are difficult to pull off, and DEADWOOD pulls it off in a hugely satisfying way.
DEADWOOD’s most unique trait is the nature of its dialogue. The writing style is most easily described as Shakespearean with modern day profanity. Every character speaks with unbelievable elegance and verbosity, but also the word “cocksucker” comes up at least 10 times an episode. They even have a character that only says “cocksucker”! Your move, Hodor. This is a show that unfortunately necessitates closed captions due to the sheer density of the dialogue as well as the gruff, drunken mumble that the characters tend to speak in. All of this works together to create a deathly harsh atmosphere while at the same time capturing the spectrum of human emotion, giving their entire ensemble cast a chance to really talk about themselves and how they deal with their fucked up world.
To this day, people still walk up to Keone Young and shout “COCKSUCKER”… Oh, the rewards of playing minor characters
Nothing captures the spirit of the show more than the nihilistic confessions of self-loathing and anger delivered by the show’s breakout star, Ian McShane, as Albert Swearingen. I’ve heard people say that Al is clearly the main character of the show, mostly because every scene with Al is amazing. The emotionally crippled, sarcastically ruthless owner of the town’s first saloon is undeniably the most effectual character on the show; his actions and reactions are usually the crux of the plot. Moreover, Al provides a very attractive power-trip fantasy for male viewers, as he’s brilliant with his words, deadly with his hands, fucks major female characters and commands more respect than anyone else in the camp. But limiting the scope of DEADWOOD to “Al vs. The World” woefully misses the point of the show. While Al is fascinating to watch and is at times downright sympathetic, he’s just as disgusting as the rest of the ensemble if not more so.
Fun fact: Pausing DEADWOOD at any point will produce this image
Punctuating the long stretches of gorgeous poetry is classic HBO blood and guts. This is the one area where GoT may have DEADWOOD beat, although the nature and the message of the violence in the two shows is fundamentally different. While GoT has grandiose battles with high body counts and glorious animated set pieces, DEADWOOD depicts pure hatred between two humans that manifests as a horrifying exchange of blows that leaves both parties mutilated and empty. Pushing the boundaries of violence is one of the hardest things to do on television in 2016, but DEADWOOD continually proves itself to be ahead of its time with scenes that had me screaming at my laptop. DEADWOOD even paved the way for GoT in terms of abruptly killing off major characters, which is often seen as their trademark.
The only problem with watching DEADWOOD is that it was cancelled without much notice, so the end of the show is in no way the end of the story. I didn’t watch until years after it was dead, and I consider myself blessed for that. Watching the season three finale was painful enough with the full knowledge that there’d be no more. The sheer terror of watching the end of season three only to find out that it would be the last we’d ever hear from Al Swearingen and friends is simply unimaginable. The creators have teased us mercilessly with promises of a feature film that would tie up the countless loose ends, but I refuse to feel any joy from those promises until I see a trailer.
If you like GoT at all, you will love the shit out of DEADWOOD. If you hate GoT but wanted to like it, you will love the shit out of DEADWOOD. If you are a breathing person that doesn’t mind reading closed captions, you will love the shit out of DEADWOOD. I seriously cannot hype this show up enough. It’s a show that feels like it captures everything, a wholly encompassing work of art despite the fact that it’s literally incomplete. The next time you find yourself looking for a new series, reach back into HBO’s vault and treat yourself to 36 hours of amazing.