Deadwood's linguistic brilliance.

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May 21 2004 7:05 PM

Talk Pretty

The linguistic brilliance of HBO's Deadwood.

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"What in the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"It means there's a horse for you outside you want to get on before somebody murders you who gives a fuck about right and wrong, or I do."

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Deadwood's characters utter long, serpentine sentences, in diction that—depending on the speaker—can ascend to courtly abstraction or sink to the ripest vulgarity. Newspaperman Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), distraught over Hickok's death and disgusted with McCall's acquittal, offers a sarcastic toast: "Should it ever be your misfortune, gentlemen, or mine, to need to kill a man, then let us toast, together, the possibility that our trials be held in this camp."

Given the show's treacherous context, the formality of much of the dialogue offers all kinds of room for strategic insincerity and corrosive irony. When a Deadwood character talks he's almost never saying just one thing. Indeed, one of the pleasures of Deadwood is observing what characters are doing when they speak, where they're heading, whom they're trying to fool and what secret messages they're transmitting. The camp's doctor (Brad Dourif, in perhaps the finest performance of his weird career) examines the corpse of a man who apparently fell to his death, but who was actually pushed off a ridge and then bludgeoned, as he lay groaning on the rocks, by one of Swearengen's men. When the man's widow (Molly Parker) presses the doc on whether he was murdered, the doc—who fears Swearengen like everyone else—responds with a perfect touch of overstatement: "Mrs. Garrett, I do not know how your husband's skull got caved in." Say no more, doc.

While this linguistic artfulness serves the necessary caution of Deadwood's inhabitants, it signals the sheer audacity of David Milch and his writers. They have staked themselves to a dramatic idea that, in its openly literary ambition, could have been laughable. Deadwood is a funny show alright, but that's because, in the unflagging brilliance of its execution, it fulfills its ambition.

Matt Feeney is a writer in Oakland. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.