“No one gets out alive, Doc.”
That’s Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) talking to the tenderhearted, terminally ill Doc Coch ran (Brad Dourif) in Sunday’s Deadwood. Swearengen’s terse statement didn’t just reveal the empathy that has become his watchword; it was the key that unlocked this episode’s unexpected sweetness and wrenching power.
Death has always hovered over Deadwood; like many hard-edged TV dramas, it’s set in a savage universe that kills characters without warning. But Deadwood separates itself from nearly all other such series—with the possible exception of ABC’s “Lost”—by portraying death (and its kissing cousin, near-death experience) not just as random individual tragedies, but as communal events that have the power to change the course of human events.
On this series, unlike many others, no deceased character is ever forgotten; we are frequently and pointedly reminded of their passing, sometimes when we least expect it. Some invocations are straightforward—Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) visiting the grave of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), for instance, and talking to him as if he were standing right there. Others are more subtle: Seth and Martha Bullock (Timothy Swearengen and Anna Gunn) walking the adopted daughter of Seth’s mistress, Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), to school, a ritual they would have done with their own son if he hadn’t been trampled by a runaway horse.
The show’s sensitivity to pain and loss is so acute that it even extends beyond the series’s roster of lead and supporting characters, embracing people you never even knew when they were alive. At the end of the fourth episode of season one, the vigilante pursuit of Wild Bill’s killer was interrupted by the arrival of a horseman who rode into town bearing the severed head of a Native American—a bit of terrorist street theater, designed to divert Deadwood’s citizens from their domestic anxieties and unite them against a (manufactured, it turned out) external threat.
But rather than discard the head after it had served its purpose, Swearengen ended up stor ing it in a box in his office. From time to time—often when he needs to think out loud and can’t endure conversing with characters who likely aren’t as smart as he is—Swearengen will haul out the box and address it like Yo rick’s skull. Grotesque as this description may sound, Swea rengen’s conversations with the head illustrate the show’s empa thy; the gruff Western gangster, who in season one electrified throngs of hoopleheads with speeches about “dirt-worship ping heathens,” tenderly addresses the box as “Chief” and has, over time, gifted it with the personality of a wise warrior—Swearengen’s equal and perhaps even his shaman.