Ten F*cked-Up Things That Happen On Deadwood (Warning: Explicit Content)

Seth Bullock: There’s a blood stain on your floor.

Al Swearengen: Yeah, I’m… I’m gonna get to that.


Here at Horror Boom, we’re all pretty sure I’ll never run dry on premium cable dramas when it comes to these lists.

Deadwood is being re-run on HBO right now every weeknight at 8:00 PM PST. However, the show is halfway through it’s three-episode series run, so I really urge you to watch it from start to finish (Comcast now offers the entire series —with any HBO subscription— should you feel like a serious binge). This is preferable to watching on HBO GO, since you get to see it on your TV, not a device.

I’m going to try to warn you of spoilers, though I’ve tried to avoid them and not used names of characters. This is because I cannot praise, rave over, and recommend Deadwood enough. The writing, the acting, the characters, and the production values (not only did they more or less build the town for exteriors, but any scene taking place during dusk or after dark is lit by some kind of fire; usually torch, candle, or lamplight, and takes on a gorgeous, buttery, warm color palette that makes watching on HD (preferably a large set) a must.  Every single character looks like they just stepped out of a time machine from 1876. Ditto every single prop. Perfect, beautiful (other than the fucked-up things listed below, those ain’t pretty) period detail graces the series. The production design crew takes the same pains to make sure everything is authentic and true to the late 1800s time period as Mad Men does with the 1960s.

Unfortunately, after three seasons, HBO cancelled the show in 2006. Warning: Rant about Deadwood’s cancellation coming up. Even though it was critically acclaimed and had a ton of die-hard fans (including both of us at Horror Boom), the greedy cocksuckers money men at HBO yanked the series with no warning given to, say, you know, the writers or actors after season three had wrapped. It was handled in a really shitty way,  according to nearly all the creative talent, cast, and crew. One actor got pretty vocal—I think justifiably— about the fact that they stumbled upon the news that the show was ending when they went to visit the set after hearing some vague rumors, and saw it being dismantled. There WAS supposed to be two feature-length HBO movies to wrap up the show, then there was talk of a very abbreviated final season (say 4-6 episodes), but David Milch (the creator and showrunner) and HBO never were able to work this out between them (one of them refused to back down *cough*Milch*cough* and it backfired). We are pissed off to this day about it (most Deadwood fans are very loyal, and are also still pretty bitter about it. End of rant (before I get all worked up). If you’re interested, you can read more about the controversy here in a piece from 2006, here’s one with star Ian McShane (who portrayed unarguably everyone’s favorite character, Al Swearengen) from around the same time period, and here’s the Wikipedia entry. You can Google around if you want to know more; there’s plenty. Just who is mostly responsible varies according to whose account you read.

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The series takes place from 1876 to 1877 .This show will make you very, very glad you didn’t have to live back then (specifically 1876-1877).   Plenty of women (as well as the men) had drug habits or drank almost constantly just to get through every shitty day.  Life for all is very cheap; if you’ve read some of Larry McMurty’s Westerns, you’ll be very familiar with that fact.  Several characters on Deadwood shoot/stab someone or blow their own head off just to emphasize a point. The guy who attacks in the below video was just pissed off, and the other unlucky dude was just minding his own business, hanging out at the saloon for a drink, but in the wrong place at the wrong time:


Back then, if you got an infection, were in an accident, ate something that poisoned you, got cancer or anything there wasn’t a vaccine for?  You just died. There’s no hospital out there, or antibiotics. On Deadwood, they’re lucky enough to have a reliable—and very entertaining—town Doc (played to perfection by Brad Renfro—I see he shows up at horror conventions every once in a while; if I’m ever lucky enough to meet him, I’m going to be asking him about Deadwood, not Child’s Play).  He was a “sawbones” in the Civil War, and had to deal with ghastly, blood-curdling duties around the clock, so he drinks on his off-hours. He can dig out a bullet and sew you up (if you got hit in a non-vital area), wrap your ribs in plaster if someone kicks the shit out of you, give you stitches, check whores for social diseases, deal with a pregnancy that needs to be terminated if it had complications that would cause her to die in childbirth. Oh, and amputate. Other than that, you’re on your own.

Anyway, I repeat: can’t recommend the show enough, unless you are easily offended …especially by profanity. According to IMDB, The word “fuck” and its derivatives are used 2,980 times throughout the series. I see they didn’t do a “cocksucker” count, which I think may have been used just as much. Also, two characters–who run brothels, but still– use another word starting with “C” as a casual synonym for women in general.

So, what is a Deadwood list doing here? During the show’s first season, I recall reading a specific a Fangoria article about some new gory horror flick. The filmmaker said he wanted to use (makeup and prosthetic effects professional’s name that I cannot recall here) for practical effects for their horror movie, but there was a schedule conflict because they were doing make-up and gore FX for Deadwood at the time.* A Western period-piece drama mentioned in Fangoria? That’s a big-ass hint right there: no shortage of disturbing, fucked-up things that happen on this show.* Let’s kick it off with…

1. Two large, burly men have a showdown in the thoroughfare (AKA, main travelling road for the town, consisting mostly of a combination of mud and puddles, animal shit, plus several types of human waste that just get tossed out a window when there’s no indoor plumping yet; on good days there’s enough dry dirt to walk on) that turns into a fight to the death. This is all done with their bare hands, no knives or guns involved. It escalates quickly (think of the fight Bobby and Tony get into on the Sopranos episode “Sopranos Home Movies”, only uglier and longer) into complete brutality until one of the men, desperate because he’s being choked from above, reaches up and uses his fingers to pull one of the other man’s eyeballs out. No “tasteful” cutting away here; the eyeball is completely out of the socket and hanging out by its optic nerve as the victim screams like a woman at the top of his lungs. The actor who performed the eye-gouge admitted on the commentary that he still has to close his eyes during parts of it.

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2.  A black man starts to get hot-tarred when he happens to be handy when an angry, drunken mob (who are pissed off about something else the man has no involvement in, and just go for the first black guy they see) attacks. Fortunately, the sheriff intervenes after they’ve tarred only one shoulder, so he survives. Unfortunately, the only method back then for removal of boiling hot tar (which burns like a motherfucker just being applied in the first place) is to peel it off a strip at a time, and the skin underneath comes with it. Even very drunk for the removal, he’s in agony. Getting “tarred and feathered” may sound sort of whimsical until you think about it, because it often killed people back then. (I say ‘back then’ because people seemed to have stopped doing it to each other these days; at least I hope to God they stopped).

Al:  Now THAT’s how you scrub a fuckin’ bloodstain!


3. A man frequently talks to a severed, rotting head he keeps in a sturdy wooden box in his office (we never see it in the box, but it’s fucked-up, trust me).

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4.  We do see the head earlier in the series shortly after it’s cut off; a man on his horse rides into town, whooping it up, and swinging the severed head around by its long hair like the head is some kind of festive party favor (see featured image) .  Pretty sure that’s one of the things they needed the horror practical effects guy for. Oh, and the previous owner of the head just happened to be in the wrong place in the wrong time.

5. A character played by Powers Boothe (who has to be one of the top ten misogynistic characters in the history of TV, unless you count, say, the really horrible rapists/killers on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) says this:

Cy Tolliver: Don’t believe there’s no good women… ’till you’ve seen one with maggots in her eyes.

On the DVD commentary for that episode, both Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant stop their joking around when this line comes, and say, “That was completely uncalled for.”  Shit, I could easily make a list of TF-UT consisting of nothing but Cy Tolliver’s dialogue/actions.

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6. Dead bodies—usually those of someone murdered by a certain major character—get tossed to pigs belonging to Mr. Wu’s (a businessman in the Chinese district) pigs,** who then hungrily gobble them down until the remains are unrecognizable as humans.  Somehow the sound effects accompanying these scenes this are worse than the visual. In one scene, a man cuts another man’s throat, then calls in his muscle to take care of the mess. He’s done it so much by then that he simply says, “Wu,” to them and walks out of the room.

Al Swearengen: Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.

7.  Speaking of murder, a man cuts the throats of two young higher-end prostitutes (and their madam). His arrest for murder isn’t even a remote option, because the awful piece of shit  in question works for one of the richest men in America . When the Madam senses something is wrong and asks him what he’s done, he answers casually, “Something very expensive,” and takes out his money.

Al Swearengen: Sometimes I wish we could just hit ’em over the head, rob ’em, and throw their bodies in the creek.
Cy Tolliver: But that would be wrong.


8. Two young kids (the girl played by a young Kristin Bell) who are undercover con artists come to town posing as brother and sister, claiming they’re looking for their Pa. The young girl takes a job in a brothel, gets a little too greedy and they both get busted. They try to run but only make it out the door before they are beaten so brutally (in public; the only person in the crowd that says anything complains for them to “take it inside”, probably because it’s bad for business) that their visages look horrifying, then later they are shot in the face.

Seth Bullock: Jack McCall!
Jack McCall: [With his back to Bullock] I’m done, I don’t wanna play no more.
Seth Bullock: [Speaking to others] Bein’ a loud-mouthed cunt I guess sometime since he’s been here this fella who “don’t wanna play no more” probably spoke of killin’ Wild Bill Hickok… well, we’re Bill Hickok’s friends. [Everyone scrambles out of the room]

9. A character suffers (and almost dies from) “gleets”, which we first thought were kidney stones, but a family member who happens to be a retired nurse told us what a “gleet” really is. Here’s the definition, but it’s even worse on the show; the gleets*** are thick enough to infect and block up his bladder so urination is impossible) The agony causes blood vessels to burst in his eyes. When the doctor comes to insert sharp thin metal tools into his urethra (hoping to remove them that way) he screams so loud and long that the entire camp can hear it …and he is arguably the toughest, and one of the most feared, characters on the show.  Another character remarks tearfully later that say he’s so blocked up, “there’s piss in his lungs”.

Steve: Fuck you, fuck the institution, and fuck the future!
Hugo: You cannot fuck the future, sir. The future fucks you.

10. This may be at the top of the fucked-up list; not just because it’s horrible, but because David Milch, who researched extensively and continuously for the show to make sure he got every detail right (he did—and by the way, historians have verified that they really did swear like that back then) says it actually happened. Chinese women who have been sold into slavery as prostitutes are not just treated like dogs, they are treated much worse than dogs. Most people feed their dogs, and don’t rape them. They probably have the most wretched existence of anyone on the show, and they’ve got some stiff competition as far as most miserable characters go.  They are brought in by the big business who want to take over/buy out a gold bonanza, to “entertain” the workers. Most prostitutes on the show who work in a brothel make between 5-7$ an …act. These women cost a dime (which I doubt they get to keep), are kept in wooden cages in the really bad part of town, starved, and given no medical care even when they’ll die without it (the town doctor, who is enraged by their treatment, goes to the owners with the offer to treat them for free and gets turned down). Often, when one of them dies, no-one bothers to take her corpse out of the cage with the other poor women until it draws flies (or a customer complains). Their bodies are disposed of by being unceremoniously tossed in a fire and burned along with the trash. Almost everyone but the most vile, racist, misogynistic characters in the town is disgusted by their treatment.  Hell, I’ve watched the series… well, so many times I’m actually embarrassed to say how many, but the scenes involving those poor women still infuriate me when they come up. On the bright side, Jerry Bryant, research curator and resident archaeologist at Deadwood’s Adams Museum, says there were no Chinese prostitutes kept in cages and treated like dirt, because the good folks back then wouldn’t have allowed it. Let’s hope he’s right.

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*Maybe I should check that show out, I recall thinking at the time.

**Fun Fact: Apparently there’s a band called “Mr. Wu’s Pigs” which I learned while doing a Google image search for this piece.

***and do not, I repeat DO NOT, do a Google image search for “gleet”. You’ve been warned. Many of the photos are severe cases in chickens and goats–who for some reason are prone to this, though they don’t have STDs (that I know of). Even those are revolting.

More trivia I might as well include, since this list is already on the verge of turning into a novella-length essay:

  • In the actual town of Deadwood, the murder of Wild Bill Hickok by the coward Jack McCall is re-enacted fourteen times a day in Saloon #10, the actual site of the event.  David Milch says this happens every day, but I think it’s just during the town’s annual “Deadwood Days”.  Click here for the official site for Historic Deadwood, South Dakota that includes tons of information on tourist attractions (and photos of the cast visiting the town).
  • The grueling fight scene mentioned in item #1  took three days of rehearsals to choreograph and practice. Actor W. Earl Brown suggested the ‘eyeball pop’.  A relative of the actor had gotten into a horrible fight, and… well, you’ll have to listen to the commentary, but it was based on a true incident.
  • There’s many mentions about the high number of actors who appeared on Deadwood later being cast members of Kurt Sutter’s biker crime drama Sons of Anarchy.  We’ve been patting ourselves on the back all these years for recognizing them, but turns out we didn’t know the half of it. Plus, it took one of us an entire season to recognize Ally Lowen, Robin Weigert’s Sons of Anarchy character, as the same actress who portrayed Deadwood’s hard-drinking, very butch “Calamity Jane”.  Here’s the complete list (official source: IMDB’s Deadwood trivia page):
Fourteen members of the cast of Deadwood (2004) also starred in Sons of Anarchy (2008). The list includes Tony Swift (Prospector/Biker), Tim De Zarn (Townsman/Nate Meineke), Kevin P. Kearns (Pasco/Luke), Dan Hildebrand (Shaughnessy/Tim Driscoll/Sean Casey) , Julie Ariola (Countess/Mary Winston ), Cleo King (Aunt Lou Marchbanks/Neeta), Dayton Callie (Charlie Utter/Chief Wayne Unser), Paula Malcomson (Trixie/Maureen Ashby), Robin Weigert (Calamity Jane/Ally Lowen), Titus Welliver (Silas Adams/Jimmy O’Phelan), Jamie McShane (Ned Mason/Cameron Hayes), Ray McKinnon (Reverend H.W. Smith/Lincoln Potter), Jim Cody Williams (Terrence/Uncle Vinky). Kim Dickens (Joanie Stubbs/Colette Jane).

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UPDATE: While we were poking around fact-checking, we also found out that there’s a new, quite recent retrospective documentary on Deadwood (10th anniversary) titled A Lie Agreed Upon: David Milch’s Deadwood. Here’s the link to watch it. Obviously, it’s packed with spoilers, so if you do plan to watch the show, watch the documentary afterwards.

So, What Do You Fellow Horror Fans Think?

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