I recently watched Deadwood for the very first time. It’s funny, I was always put off watching it because I knew Ian McShane was in it, and as a Brit, I knew of him only as the swindling antiques dealer Lovejoy. Put off by poor British Sunday TV, I am ashamed to say Deadwood did not appeal. Then everyone at 25YL told me I had to watch it, and I bowed to peer pressure. I am very glad I did. There are so many characters from the show that deserve their own profile here, and I may well get around to that eventually, but I had to start with the main man himself: owner of The Gem Saloon and unofficial boss of Deadwood, Mr. Al Swearengen.
First off, let me say that Swearengen was a vile man. Not too dissimilar to Tony Soprano in the sense that they both do terrible things and treat women especially poorly, yet we love and root for them anyway. It’s a strange phenomenon, and mostly down to great writing. In real life, these men would be terrifying monsters.
Of course, Al Swearengen was a real-life man. Ellis Alfred Swearengen (July 8, 1845–November 15, 1904) was an American pimp and entertainment entrepreneur who ran the Gem Theater, a notorious brothel in Deadwood, South Dakota, for 22 years during the late 19th century. Much of Swearengen’s violent and abusive character was based on stories from that time, but a lot of his personality and story (including when and how he died) was entirely fabricated for the HBO show and film. It wasn’t possible to know precisely what he was like as a man, so the writers could put a lot of imagination into Swearengen—and what a great job they did in making a multifaceted character, and one of the greatest on-screen bad/good guys of all time.
We don’t know too much about Swearengen’s past other than what we hear snippets of in anecdotes and his regular extravagant monologues. What we learn from these is that he was originally from Manchester, in the UK (hence people calling him a Limey bastard on a regular basis). However, he was brought up in a Chicago orphanage, whose Matron also happened to manage the adjoining brothel. Now, this is never explicitly stated, but it is implied that Al himself was pimped out at the orphanage/brothel as a child, which makes his choice of business ventures and his stone-cold attitude (with a splash of secret empathy) make a little more sense. Shortly before leaving Chicago for Deadwood, Swearengen stabbed a man in self-defence. That warrant hangs over him for much of the first two seasons of the show.
Swearengen is very wealthy due to his business dealings and the trade from the Gem, but he doesn’t appear to be too interested in chasing the money. It’s not about greed for Al; it is about power, and money buys influence. He, like everyone in Deadwood, is running away from something, and above all, he just wants to survive.
But the way we really get to learn about Al Swearengen as a person is through his interactions and relationships with his closest allies and his fiercest enemies. Let’s meet some of them.
Swearengen’s most loyal servant comes in the form of Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), his right-hand man and human guard dog. Dan feels he owes his life to Al. We don’t ever hear for certain what Al did to save him, but if Al’s attitude towards him was anything like it is during the three seasons of the show, then it’s likely that Al wangled Dan out of a tricky situation and then gave him a job at the Gem in Deadwood.
As with all his relationships, Swearengen begins his friendship with Dan because he finds him useful. Al tends only to befriend those who can help him succeed in basically running Deadwood—at least in the beginning. Over time he does become fond of the people he keeps around him. Al never really allows his ruthless-leader mask to slip. He doesn’t like people to see his softer side; he talks to his people like they are dirt, continually berating them, ridiculing them, and being hilariously exasperated by their incompetence. Yet, this is his way of showing affection. If Al has the time to call you a c*cksucker or spew a whole diatribe about how useless you are, you are one of his inner circle for life. And they love him anyway. They love him because he is so cunning and ahead of the game, like a chessplayer predicting the board five moves away and covering every eventual outcome. Al’s intelligence, craftiness, and wit keep him alive, and he protects those around him with the same skill and ferocity.
Dan is hard as nails and has few scruples about killing people at Swearengen’s request. Dan would go to the ends of the earth for his boss, and it’s more than just a friendship, it’s a genuine love for him. Al is Dan’s mentor; Dan wants to impress him and gets jealous if Al gives jobs to anyone but him. Swearengen would never admit it, but he puts others in jobs that Dan cannot do because of his hot-headedness. Dan would be long dead if Al didn’t protect him in this way. Dan knows it subconsciously, and towards the end of Season 3, he finally gets to prove his devotion to Al by fighting with George Hearst’s muscle, who is a lot bigger and a lot more violent than him. Because he’s doing this for his boss, Dan will not give up and ends up killing the brute with his bare hands, pulling an eye out of its socket for good measure. Getting that close to death is a wake-up call for Dan, and his recovery is a difficult one. Al could have, at this point, repaid Dan for his services by thanking him, sitting by his bedside, and comforting him. But Al won’t do that. He has to keep up appearances and a distance between his minions so that they don’t get too reliant or needy. I would like to think that Al would also find it difficult to see his friend so severely beaten and kept away so as not to show emotion.
This is Swearengen’s superpower. He is manipulative and calculating without a shadow of a doubt, but if you are in his favour, you want to stay there, for he will keep you safe. He is not the strongest man in Deadwood by any stretch. He doesn’t use a gun, only carries a dagger. He will rarely get into a fistfight. Yet he intimidates everyone in the town with his words, his wit, and his foresight. No one (well almost no one) can outplay him. It garners him great respect in the town, and despite his dealings being mostly of benefit to himself, the townsfolk are happy to have him there keeping his watchful eye on everything happening. He keeps Deadwood ticking over almost without incident, despite the lack of any law in the town.
Trixie (Paula Malcomson) was a character made up entirely for the series, unlike the majority of the others. She was at first Al’s chosen whore and pretty much ran the girls that worked for Al at the Gem, making sure they were all working hard, clean, and checked regularly for STDs by Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif).
Her relationship with Al was wild. He owned her, controlled her actions, and beat her at times. Despite this, she knew that he did genuinely care about her in the same way that he cared about the rest of his gang. He trusted her completely, and she cared for him, nurtured him when he was sick, and rushed to his side if she thought he was in trouble.
As time went by, she began to stand up to him, and he respected her for it. She met and fell for Sol Star (John Hawkes), a Jewish friend of Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who ran the hardware store. Bullock would later become Sheriff at Al’s request despite the pair being hostile toward each other. At first, Al was not happy at all with Trixie and Sol’s blossoming romance but did not put up too much of a fight. Any other pimp would have, and Al would have with any of his other girls, but not Trixie. He wanted the best for her. He let her go knowing that she would be loyal to the very end.
No word was ever mentioned officially between them. He insulted her, and she insulted him, and they both knew what that meant. In Season 2, Trixie was eager to help get Al out of a sticky situation and wanted to be by his side. She offered to go back to sex work, but he wouldn’t allow it. By this point, she was learning to do accounts for the new bank that Alma Garret (Molly Parker) had opened, and although Trixie didn’t feel she could be successful, Al knew that this was her one chance of getting out of the life she once led and to make something of herself. She listened, and she never sold her body again.
It is these acts of concealed kindness that make Al Swearengen such a fascinating character. In Season 1’s finale episode, we see Al taking the life of Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon) who is slowly and humiliatingly dying of a brain tumour. It’s a mercy killing, and one he was pained to carry out. Al was not a religious man, but nevertheless taking the life of a man of God was difficult for him. Leading up to the Reverend’s death, Al struggled to watch his demise, whereas the “good” people of the town barely blinked an eyelid. Al’s own (adopted) brother had seizures and died very young, something his adoptive father punished Al for with repeated strikes to the head over a period of three weeks. To put the Reverend out of his misery, despite the trauma he had been through, was a truly selfless act.
Trixie would later nearly give her life to protect Al by bearing her breasts and knocking the door of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), Al’s fiercest rival and the only man Al ever showed fear of. Trixie shot Hearst but didn’t do enough damage to take his life. Al made sure Trixie was taken into hiding and slit the throat of another blonde prostitute, Jen, under the pretence that she was Trixie and had been made to pay for her crime. It’s so hard to like Al when he can be cruel enough to take an innocent life, yet we all understand why. He did love Trixie, and even though later on in the Deadwood film she is pregnant and marries Sol Star, it is Trixie that is by Al’s side as he succumbs to liver failure, reading the Lord’s Prayer as he speaks his defiant last words and takes his final breaths.
Although Deadwood touches on a variety of issues—including race, prostitution, misogyny, violence, politics, and immigration—most of the major storylines are grounded in the matter of bringing order from chaos. It is Al that brings the order, and over the three seasons, we see him become more and more passionate about protecting the little town that he built (with a little help from his friends).
Those who were once enemies—such as Seth Bullock, the new Sheriff—even understood, respected, and worked alongside Al by the end. He was the lesser of two evils, and Seth knew that Al’s heart was in the right place and that all he did was for the greater good of the town and its occupants.
Take, for example, his friendship of sorts with Mr. Wu (Keone Young), the boss of the Chinese population of Deadwood and a laundry and pigpen owner. Not that it appears to be much better nowadays, but the Americans’ dislike for the Chinese was very apparent in the 1870s. Not Al. While he was undoubtedly a racist—as everyone in the town was with perhaps the exception of Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert)—Al had a lot of time for Wu, even if they didn’t understand each other’s native tongue at all. The majority of their words spoken were “c*cksuckers” and “Swearengen,” yet they somehow always worked it out and came up with some of the most cunning, strategic, and successful plans.
One of his most trusted confidants, and for good reason, was the decapitated head of a Native American Chief who had been killed at Al’s command for the slaughter of a family on the road. Al keeps the head in a box and talks to him regularly. Whether it’s because he feels guilt for his death (as he discovers later that the hijack of the family was a set up by whites and not the Native tribe), as a way to pay his respects, or if he really did consider the head to be a trophy, it’s hard to tell for sure. Perhaps all three. What is certain is that Al did respect the Chief and thought of him as an intellectual equal. They both fought for the bit of land they considered home, and Al knowing that Deadwood was on Native soil, almost wanted to make sure he did the tribe a favour by ensuring it was run well and respected. He spoke to the head more profoundly and personally than he did any living person because he was supremely more intelligent than the majority of the people in town.
Transversely, the other person he talked to a lot—who gave no response or opinion—was one of his prostitutes. This girl was the polar opposite of Trixie: dark-haired, curvaceous, obedient, and quiet. While she gave him oral sex, he would rant away, getting more and more irate and becoming annoyed with her for not doing it properly. Yet, it was always her he took into his quarters, and she was, for all intents and purposes, just like the head in the box. Yes, it was awful to see the way she was treated so poorly, but in Al’s strange way, he looked after her too.
Only George Hearst was any real threat to Al and his livelihood. Hearst was unpredictable, sadistic, and had considerable wealth. He was a puzzle that Al just couldn’t work out. Their game of cat and mouse was teetering on the edge of a showdown throughout Season 3. Al lost a finger to Hearst, but way more than that. Swearengen’s power in Deadwood truly hung in the balance, and he was frightened, though he wouldn’t show it. It took everyone from the Sheriff, the Bankers, the Journalists, the Traders, Wu’s Chinese army, and favours from outside of Deadwood to get Hearst to leave finally.
They did it for Deadwood, but they also did it for Al, because he was always their unofficial leader, wise and brutally honest at times. You could count on him if he could count on you.
What Al Swearengen brought to TV was one of the first antiheroes that you really rooted for. His wit, comic timing, constant profanities, incredulous expressions, and killer one-liners made him so enjoyable to watch; you wouldn’t ever want to miss a scene with him in it. So apologies, Ian McShane, for writing you off all these years. I salute you for bringing a truly tremendous and unforgettable character to life.
In life, you have to do a lot of things you don’t f*cking want to do. Many times, that’s what the f*ck life is…one vile f*cking task after another.