Deadwood: A Case Study on How to Execute a Masterful Opening Scene

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– By Matthew Sawczyn –

On May 31st, in a mere few hours, HBO’s critically acclaimed Deadwood will revive itself for one final shootout, in its culminating feature film of the same name. One final time, we viewers will set foot on the muddy thoroughfare of that the seedy mining town, seeking our fortune with the unfortunates.

Though universally praised in its day, Deadwood was cut short after its third season (allegedly due to mounting production costs, and failed agreements between creator David Milch and HBO over an episode count). Thankfully, Milch had enough time to cobble together a satisfactory enough ending; though most fans wished for something more in the finale wrap up, its abrupt conclusion strangely fit the show’s overall messy and grounded tone. The show was never meant to be “something pretty”, to paraphrase one of its final lines.

However, rumors always circulated of a possible movie, a hope kept alive for over a decade. And so, when in October of 2018 HBO confirmed that such a movie was entering production, I, as any diehard fan would, began a rewatch of the series in order to fully prepare for this long awaited final act.

From the get-go, I was immediately struck at how unassumingly well executed the first scene of the show is. It quite effortlessly shoulders a wealth of responsibilities: it grabs our attention, sets the overall tone, introduces us to our heroes and world, and sprinkles in one or two themes to explore. All within a few minutes!

Let’s briefly go through this first scene of the show, and see what makes it a truly masterful opening scene.

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I was fortunate enough this past month to attend a panel with some of the Deadwood actors, looking back at their time on the show, in anticipation for the film. Among the many brilliant, hilarious jabs Ian McShane and Timothy Olymphant threw at each other, there stood out a small reflection from John Hawkes, who plays the character of Sol Star in the series. He said Deadwood often comprised of “tiny mercies” between the characters. No better do we see that mercy than in main character Marshall Seth Bullock’s first action of the show: giving a cup of coffee to a condemned man.

You see, Marshall Bullock has caught Clell Watson in a quite unforgivable act in the Old West, that of stealing a horse. Watson awaits his hanging at sun up, and seems repentant for it. Bullock gives the man a cup of warm coffee, a token of kindness in this sometimes too harsh world. And, though Bullock refuses Watson’s proposed bribes to release him, he does it all with a kind of polite respect to the man. The scene is calm, almost tranquil: a wooden Marshall’s office, lit by a warm lantern This is the life Bullock lives now. He has no idea the chaos that awaits him in the mining settlement of Deadwood.

And yet, this is still the West, with its own brand of justice. Wronged horseowner Byron Sampson, dead drunk and furious, has now riled up some of his friends, and intends to kill Watson under their own terms. Bullock instead, at risk to his own life, demands that he hang Watson “under the color of the law”. It’s the principle that matters for Bullock, a sentiment which will cause him no little trouble in the town of Deadwood. But, for now, Bullock is backed by his badge, and the ready shotgun of friend Sol Star. Bullock asks Watson for his final words, then hangs him there on the front porch, in a gut-wrenching, visceral manner.

Bullock then asks a humbled crowd who will deliver these last words to Watson’s sister and boy. One man steps forward, and Bullock hands him both the paper and the Marshall badge. For Bullock, authority is merited, not bought or intimidated. Bullock and Star then ride away to the mining camp of Deadwood, to start their new ventures. And, thus we begin.   

As we said, first scenes should grab our attention, right from the get-go. This one certainly does. We see the kind of man Bullock is: a man of principle. At any point in the messy narrative, Bullock could ride away, could leave the lawless mining camp. However, each time he chooses to stay, chooses to make himself a part of this burgeoning city. This first scene also demonstrates the “law of the land”; the type of world we are entering into, what it holds valuable, what it deems punishable. We also witness the gruesome, impassioned violence present in the show. Bullock, by his profession, must snap a man’s neck, as the criminal hangs awkwardly from a too short jump on a front porch. It’s messy, and banal, and just – it’s the West. Other shows might save such a grisly death for later in their run, but Deadwood almost flippantly throws one right in our face. It demonstrates just how brutal and untamed life in the West was. This is nothing special; this is just a Marshall performing his everyday duties. (Also, we get a drunken hillbilly shouting lines like, “Do not tether that rope!”)

Through its entirety, Deadwood will reflect on these two great forces that collided in our country’s expansion, civilization versus nature, and the people who were stuck in between. The veneer of civilization, and the dirty acts that sometimes go into making it.

It is worth noting that, although never displayed or uttered at any point in the show, atop the very first page of the pilot, a reflection of poet Robert Penn Warren appears. “But let us note, too, how glory may flare, of a sudden, up, from the filth of the world’s floor.” For the actors and crew, for David Milch himself, this epigraph serves as a reminder of what this show is, and nowhere is this seen better than in this first magnificent scene.


About the Author

Matthew Sawczyn is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and alumni of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.

For more articles by Matthew, click here

 

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