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Deadwood: The 15 Greatest Moments Ranked

1 June 19

After a thirteen year wait, HBO is finally taking us back to Deadwood, the lawless 1870s South Dakota setting of their series that ran from 2004-06. Having cancelled the show after the third series cliffhanger, relentless campaigning from both the fans and members of the cast finally bore fruit, resulting in a feature-length film set ten years after the events of the original series, which airs on Sky Atlantic on Saturday 1 June at 9pm...

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what made David Milch's Deadwood such an endlessly rewatchable masterpiece. The cast, which included Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Brad Dourif, W. Earl Brown and Robin Weigart, were as accomplished as any ever assembled for a television series. The visuals were stunning in their grimy authenticity, be it darkly menacing corners of Al Swearengen's Gem Saloon, or the muddied thoroughfare of Deadwood itself. The writing was as violently poetic as it was meticulous, striking a rare balance between genuine moments of humour, humanity and absolute terror. But there was something more to Deadwood, which only ran for three seasons of thirty-six episodes - something in the fabric of the show itself that was present in every scene.

Its meditations on morality and justice, picked over by the most morally ambiguous of characters, presented a view of the world that could have existed, in one form or another, at any point in history. It was about the unreachable, both inward and outward. Regardless of the objectives, it was a show about the unknowable things that motivate us, be they unresolved childhood tragedies, greed, the desire to look ourselves in the mirror without feeling shame, the need to fill an inner emptiness, the relentless climb for power or the need to find shelter and protection for our loved ones. It was far more than a Western TV series - at its best (and for the most part, Deadwood was always at its absolute best), the show was about the flawed, complex nature of humanity, where often the most basic of human interactions were amplified by the harsh nature of the living conditions. You get a sense that it owed a lot to the troubled genius of creator Milch, but the quality of the show is also reflected in the sheer relentlessness of the campaign to bring it back to our screens after such a long absence. There are plenty of shows that are killed before their time, but you can probably count on one hand the ones that have been resurrected, particularly shows that are as expensive to make, and feature such an enormous ensemble cast of successful actors. 

So, in celebration of Deadwood's rejuvenation, let's crack open the canned peaches (hold the cinnamon) and take one last foray into the hills of South Dakota, and have a look back at fifteen moments that defined one of the greatest televisions series ever created. And all for free (gratis)...

15. The Hanging of Clell Watson

You called the law in, Samson. You don’t get to call it off because you’re liquored up and popular on payday

Season One, Episode One: Deadwood

Try as you might, you'll struggle to find a ballsier opening to any show than this. As our first introduction to Sheriff Seth Bullock (Olyphant), as well as his trusty Deputy Sol Starr (John Hawkes), we see the pair watching over Clell Watson, a prisoner the pair have just arrested for stealing a horse in Montana. Nursing a bullet injury (courtesy of Watson) in his shoulder, Bullock is preparing to leave the state for Deadwood, a town supposedly rich in gold and, more importantly, without any formal law. 

Ignoring the bargaining pleas of their prisoner, who is to be hung the following day by Bullock's replacement, their plans are interrupted by the arrival of a drunken lynch-mob, headed by the imposing figure of Samson, whose horse Watson has recently stolen. Not only is this our introduction to Bullock, but also our first taste of his stubborn attitude towards justice as, with a pistol in his one good hand, and Starr watching over him with a shotgun, he bullishly talks down the mob and leads his prisoner outside to be hung under the rule of law. There's something hauntingly matter-of-fact about the final interactions between Sheriff and prisoner, as Bullock promises to help Watson with his fall. True to his word, as Watson takes his final step from the stool of his makeshift gallows, Bullock seizes his legs, and pulls downwards, breaking his prisoner's neck. Welcome to Deadwood.  

14. Someone’s Shooting at Mrs Elsworth

My goodness. I believe someone’s shooting at the former tenant

Season Three, Episode Ten: A Constant Throb

As the third and final series rumbles to its inevitably bloody conclusion, tensions between George Hearst, the nefarious, brutish miner who is seeking to add Deadwood's gold to his already considerable fortune, and the camp's residents reach fever pitch. Alma Ellsworth, owner of the richest claim in the region, and the last to sell out to Hearst, has provided an unlikely stumbling block to the businessman's plans for domination, finding herself as a focal point for the overspill of other rivalries between Hearst and the camp. 

Having already lost two husbands in the town, Alma, who also established Deadwood's first bank, finds herself being shot at from an anonymous source, which we suspect to be the hired Pinkerton guns Hearst has brought in to reinforce his position. As Hearst calmly watches on from the window of his hotel, Alma seeks the unlikely refuge of Al Swearengen's Gem Saloon. Despite her brush with death, Alma summons her inner strength and, spurred on by Swearengen, continues her walk to the bank unaided. 

13. Swearengen and Bullock Finally Duke it Out

Bullock! I do have a knife. It come to me now…

Season Two, Episode One: A Lie Agreed Upon

The conflict that seemed inevitable from Deadwood's very first episode definitely did not disappoint when it finally arrived at the beginning of Season Two. Since his arrival in camp, former lawman Bullock had struggled to come to terms with the state of forced symbiosis he'd found himself in with Swearengen. As the town's shady, unofficial leader, it was from Swearengen that Bullock and Star had first rented the property to build their hardware store and, from that fiery opening meeting, the pair had found themselves at cross purposes ever since.  

But outward restraint soon disappeared when Swearengen went a step too far in his questioning Bullock's relationship with Alma, resulting in a brutal dust up for the ages. What started out as a fairly routine (for the Wild West, at least) fight in Al's office above The Gem, soon descended into the pair taking a tumble from his balcony, into the mud and blood of the Deadwood thoroughfare. With both seeming to take the upper hand at different points, the rumble was only concluded by the arrival of Bullock's wife and son to camp, the sight of which prompted Swearengen to look up and, squinting through one bloodshot eye, utter the immortal words, "Welcome to fucking Deadwood."

12. Hearst Takes Al’s Finger

As far as making your way into her… act averse to nasty language, and partial to fruity tea…

Season Three, Episode Two: I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For

It was in the genius of Milch's writing and Ian McShane's portrayal of Al Swearengen that, over his three-series arc, the audience had gone from loathing a character that at different points had sanctioned the murder of an innocent family of travellers, attempted to murder the one young girl that survived the attack, offered a bounty of $50 for every decapitated Native American head that was brought to camp and been the brains behind pretty much every other villainous going-on in the camp, to rooting for him to succeed. Much of this came down to the arrival of George Hearst, who threatened to swallow both the entire town and its colourful cast of inhabitants who we'd grown to love. 

The relationship between Hearst and Swearengen played out like a tense game of poker following the former's arrival in camp, with Al never sure whether the millionaire's presence could be turned to his advantage or not. That was, however, until Hearst showed his hand, revealing the depths of his ruthlessness by taking a pick axe to Swearengen's middle finger. The scene itself is brutally visceral and difficult to watch, but its true strength is revealed in a later speech from Swearengen, where the deeper impact of the trauma is tied to previously concealed details of his past. 

11. The Death of Ellsworth

What’s transpirin’ that we need guarding from?

Season Three, Episode Eleven: The Catbird Seat

A regular cast-member since the very first episode, Jim Beaver's laissez faire miner Elsworth quickly found himself as a fan's favourite. Ostensibly a simple man, he was not without his convictions but, particularly in the first season, revealed his ambitions to be relatively simple: find enough gold in his claim to eat, drink and entertain himself for the following day. But after accidentally witnessing the murder of Brom Garret, poor Elsworth found himself sucked into the schemes of the camp whether he liked it or not and, through a series of events, ended up married to Brom's widow, Alma. 

Having encountered Hearst's brutality in the past, Elsworth is the one Deadwood resident to fully understand the lengths to which he will go to in securing the town's gold resources and, despite not being your traditional television hero, stands up to him heroically during a wonderfully scripted confrontation. However, Hearst is not a man to let personal insults pass by, and promptly gives the order to have Ellsworth murdered. In a heartbreaking final scene, he speaks his final words - which question what will happen in the future, and what decisions he needs to take to further safeguard his wife and adopted child - to his beloved dog, before a Pinkerton gun slips through the opening of his tent and shoots him dead. The tragedy of this scene is only increased by the camp's outpouring of grief when his lifeless body is carried back into town. 

10. Cy Tolliver Shows No Mercy

Your beady little rat eyes don’t look like they’re taking in the view…

Season One, Episode Eight: Suffer the Little Children

One of the great tragedies of the thirteen year hiatus between the cancellation of Deadwood and its reemergence this year was the passing of the brilliant Powers Boothe, who unfortunately died in 2017. In a career-best performance, he played the sinister Cy Tolliver, purveyor of crooked card games, high-class prostitutes and one-time rival to Al Swearengen following his arrival in Deadwood. 

The appearance in camp of Flora and Miles, two young hustlers posing as a road-weary brother and sister seeking their lost father, sees Flora (Kristen Bell) situated in Tolliver's joint, seemingly to be groomed for a life of prostitution. Under the wing of Joanie Stubbs, with whom Tolliver has a long and complicated history, Flora exploits Joanie's sympathy towards her, and tries to steal everything she can from the place before fleeing town. But, after Flora and Miles are caught in the act and brutally beaten in the street, Tolliver has them brought to a room, where he taunts them mercilessly, callously executing Miles and forcing Joanie to do the same to Flora. Up until this point, Tolliver's malicious nature had only been shown in glimpses, but for the first time we witnessed his barbaric nature in its full extent. It certainly wasn't to be the last. 

9. Al Sings The Unfortunate Rake

And blaze your bright muskets all over my coffin, saying ‘there goes an unfortunate lad to his home

Season Three, Episode Nine: Amateur Night

The power in this, one of the most poignant and disarming scenes in the entire series, comes from just how unexpected it is. Still recovering from the loss of his finger to Hearst, Swearengen is like a cornered animal, pushed to the point of breaking and at a definitive crossroads in his troubled life. He's exhausted all of his tricks, and is at a loss with how to deal with the new superpower in Deadwood, finding himself left with only two choices: flee the town he helped build, abandoning everything he has achieved through blood, sweat and tears, or face off against the far more powerful Hearst and get killed in his prime. 

Standing alone in the bar at his Gem Saloon, he sings the haunting ballad The Unfortunate Rake, the lyrics to which mirror the result of him choosing the second option. We're witnessing the decline of a once powerful man, and a character who has emerged as an unlikely hero in the story of Deadwood, lose grip on all he holds dear. Running out of answers for those beneath him asking questions, slowly losing the ability to protect those he holds closest, and with the end close in sight, he simply sings his wistful tune, casting a longing glance at the deer's head mounted on his wall. 

8. Trixie Goes For Hearst

My goodness! Bare breasted! My word…

Season Three, Episode Eleven: The Catbird Seat

As a former prostitute at The Gem, and one time confident of Al's, Trixie's story is one of the few characters whose lot improves during Deadwood's three series. After falling in love with Sol Star whilst doing the books at his and Bullock's hardware store, Season Three sees her working in the Deadwood bank, and acting as something as a bridge between several factions within the camp.  

But as with everyone in the pioneer town, the arrival of George Hearst has a tumultuous effect on Trixie's life and, seemingly frustrated by the lack of direct action taken after the murder of Elsworth, the distraught Trixie takeS matters into her own hands. Armed with a small pistol, she enters Hearst's hotel and, with tears streaming down her face, and her breasts exposed to distract the Pinkerton's keeping guard, she knocks on his door - only to misfire and shoot Hearst in the shoulder once he answers. Unbeknownst to Trixie, her actions lead to further innocent deaths, and the shockwaves of this event play a key part in the upcoming Deadwood film. But everyone has their breaking point. 

7. The Kidney Stones

There you go, you ox-minded son of a bitch!

Season Two, Episode Four: Requiem for a Gleet

There are few moments in the history of television that had such a visceral impact upon first viewing than seeing Al Swearengen, a man previously shown as relatively indestructible, pass his kidney stones. Having holed himself up in his room, and refused to see anyone for days, it's clear that something isn't quite right with The Gem's owner. With Doc Cochran at hand, as well as two of his most trusted men in Dan Dority and Johnny Burns, the decision is made to perform a makeshift operation to relieve him of what Doc suspects is kidney stones. 

But, as the haphazard trio of carers decide against the risky procedure, the bed-bound, mute Al is instead forced to pass the stones naturally. In a cacophony of screams and grunts, what feels like an endless scene begins with a slow trickle of blood on the floor, and ends in something akin to the very worst of births. Impeccably directed and written, the scene manages to pack so much emotion, be it pain, fear or relief, into such a short space of time. Having watched the entire series about eight times, this is the one scene that is always viewed through squinted eyes and with crossed legs. Not for the faint-hearted. 

6. Wolcott Does Something Very Expensive

Past hope. Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become.

Season Two, Episode Six: Something Very Expensive

It's testament to the acting talent of Garret Dillahunt that, after appearing as Jack McCall in Season One, the actor convincingly returned as a completely different character in Season Two. Sent to prepare Deadwood for the imminent arrival of his boss George Hearst, we quickly learn that Francis Wolcott has an extremely dark sexual peccadillo, the details of which do not immediately reveal themselves. There is something not quite right about the man though, and no one knows it better than himself. 

Beginning a relationship with the madams at the Chez Amis, a new high-class brothel opened by Joanie Stubbs, we discover that his fetish is tied up with his inability to reveal himself to women. So, when one of the girls does eventually see him naked, we know what is about to happen. In any death scene, the emotion comes less from the death itself, and more in the character's knowledge that they're about to die, and this scene is no different. After realising Wolcott's intentions, his poor victim pleads with him not to kill her "in this shithole", before accepting her fate and asking if he knows "how to not make it hurt". Opening her throat with a straight razor, Wolcott emerges from the room to find the brothel's owners anxiously waiting outside. Frantically asking him what had just happened, Wolcott's dead eyes gazed over to their direction, as he simply answered, "something very expensive". 

5. Al Teaches Merrick a Lesson

You ever been beaten Merrick?

Season Two, Episode Seven: E.B. Was Left Out

Deadwood's resident hypochondriac and editor of The Black Hills Pioneer, A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), is utterly distraught at the loss of his beloved newspaper apparatus at the hands of Hearst's hired Pinkerton thugs. On the verge of giving up, he's paid a surprise visit by his friendly neighbour, Al Swearengen. 

In one of the most beautifully-written scenes of the entire series, Al imparts the wisdom of his years for Merrick's benefit, in a bid to inspire the newspaper man to find his backbone. "Pain or damage don't end the world, or despair or fucking beatings," Swearengen tells him, his steely gaze fixed squarely on Merrick's bemused face, "The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got some more punishment in store. Stand it like a man - and give some back."

4. The Death of Wild Bill Hickok

Take that God damn you!

Season One, Episode Four: Here Was a Man

While the casual historian might not be overly familiar with many of the residents of Deadwood, most of whom are based on real-life characters from the town's history, the odds are that pretty much everyone had heard of Wild Bill Hickok before the show came to air. The folk-hero of the Old West, who at various times in his life was a drover, wagon master, soldier, scout, spy, lawman, gunfighter, gambler and actor, spent his final days in the pioneer town, and was an early example of Deadwood embracing and inverting the mythology of the American West. 

Far from being the heroic figure you might think, this Hickok is a compulsive gambler crippled by the weight of his addictions, and carrying the burden of his life's regrets on his shoulders. Keith Carradine's portrayal is inch-perfect, wonderfully foreshadowing the celebrity culture that, although was emerging when Deadwood originally aired, has fully taken effect on the world in the thirteen years since. Having written a final letter to his wife, Hickok finds himself embroiled in yet another losing poker game, when Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt), a man with whom he has frequently tangled with during previous games, enters the room and, aiming a pistol at the back of the famous gunfighter's head, shoots him dead in cold blood. Whilst the resultant fallout is fascinating, the immediate aftermath of the murder is shrouded in grim silence, as the harsh reality of fame and notoriety in the Old West is exposed for what it is: a miserable, lonely existence devoid of a happy ending. 

3. Al Delivers Reverend Smith

You can go now, brother

Season One, Episode Ten: Sold Under Sin

Arguably the definitive turning point in Al Swearengen's character arc, we see the saloon owner enact his own form of mercy upon the long suffering Reverend Smith. Having been an ever-present character since episode one, the eccentric Smith had shown symptoms of a serious, undiagnosed illness - including several fits - that had caused him to behave erratically, much to the concern, frustration and embarrassment of those around him.

In a rare moment of explicit humanity, Al reveals that his brother used to suffer from the same symptoms but, much to Doc Cochran's angry bemusement, adds that he doesn't want to be stuck looking after the rapidly deteriorating Reverend. After a clash between the two, Al agrees to allow Smith to stay in one of his rooms until his passing. Later that night, Al pays a visit to Smith, bringing with him Johnny Burns, an underling who has expressed a desire to get more involved in his illegal activities. Whether using it as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, or as a guise to cover an act of mercy that might be perceived as weakness, Al crouches over the long-suffering Reverend Smith and, cradling his head, imparts his knowledge of killing to the increasingly disturbed-looking Johnny. Placing a rag over Smith's sweat-covered forehead, he asks Johnny, "You want to be a road agent? Deal out death when called upon?" Moving the rag down to cover Smith's mouth, he continues, "Make a proper seal, stop the breath, apply pressure even and firm, like packing a snowball." As Smith's struggling body starts to subside, Al concludes his act of brutal mercy, whispering, "You can go now, brother."

2. Doc Cochran Confronts God

Did you need to hear their death agonies to know your omnipotence?

Season One, Episode Ten: Sold Under Sin

Immediately proceeding Al's act of mercy toward Reverend Smith comes one of the finest pieces of writing and acting in both Deadwood and television history. Brad Dourif's brilliant Doc Cochran, so often the moral compass in Deadwood's otherwise directionless society, has his own dark history - namely witnessing the terror of the American Civil War prior to his arrival at the camp. 

Having witnessed the Reverend, who so often was seen as the only force for pure good in the camp, succumb to what seemed to be a particularly aggressive brain tumour, he retreats to his residence, where he drops to his knees and angrily berates God. Fists thumping into his rough floorboards, and tears streaming down his face, the frustrated doctor angrily screams, "Please, God, take that minister. What perceivable godly use is his protracted suffering to you?" As he grows more and more distraught, his anger takes him away from the situation at hand, and back to the horrors of combat he'd experienced previously. "Mommy!" He screams, as the camera moves to a wide shot, and his pain is temporarily hidden behind a desk, "They shot my leg off... it hurts so bad." So powerfully written and acted, this scene showed Deadwood at its most brutally emotive best. 

1. Dan Fights Captain Turner

I've come back from plenty of shit that looked like it was going wrong

Season Three, Episode Five: A Two-Headed Beast

Whether in The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Wire, or any other great series, I challenge anyone to find a scene as ferociously visceral as this - the climactic fight between Dan Dority and Captain Turner.

As the rivalry between Swearengen and Hearst reach a crescendo, the pair send their two right-hand men to duke it out to the death, all under the public gaze of Deadwood's filthy thoroughfare. Like two Roman gladiators battling it out for the honour of their ludus, this fight was as much about propaganda as it was a personal combat between the two man-mountains. Under strict instructions from Hearst to make the fight last as a spectacle of warning for those who might doubt his authority, Captain Turner looks to have the upper hand for the majority of the bloody brawl. With the beloved, trustworthy Dan seemingly about to be drowned in a grimy puddle of mud, he somehow wriggles free and, fish-hooking the Captain's eye out, looks up at his onlooking boss, before finishing his victim off with a log. 

For a show that was never afraid to show the ferociously violent reality of life in the Old West, this scene stood head and shoulders above any other in terms of sheer animal savagery. About as far from being a polished, overly-choreographed Hollywood-style fist fight, we witnessed the murderous desperation of two men struggling to kill one-another with their bare hands. An astounding spectacle of brutality and power, it was a scene that lingered in the memory for weeks after original viewing. 

Deadwood: The Movie airs on Sky Atlantic on Saturday 1 June at 9pm

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