A Hell of a place to make your fortune.—HBO's summation of the show's setting.
Some are interested in establishing a new life, others trying to escape their past, but all have been lured by the promise of new wealth. Soon, larger powers descend on the town, including the American government and a mining concern run by George Hearst. Conflict arises between the original settlers and the newcomers over the fate of the gold (and hence, the town), the dynamic tension created by the small-time players trying to resist the encroaching forces of civilization drives much of the plot.
The show was moderately popular and critically acclaimed. Beyond its viewing audience, it also gained notoriety for its unprecedented use of profane language, most of it anachronistic. This was a purposeful choice by the writers, who wanted the show to be suitably Darker and Edgier.
Richardson: I like you. You're purdy.
Alma Garret: ... Thank you, Richardson. And I think that's all either of us need say on that subject.
- The Alcoholic: Most of the characters are extremely hard drinkers. Jane in particular is a self-admitted drunk and rarely seen sober.
Doc: I take it you've been out on a hoot?
Jane: I've been drunk awhile; correct. What the fuck is that to you?
Doc: The question was well meant. Like if you was a farmer, I'd ask ya how the farming was going.
- And That Would Be Wrong: Subverted (in that both men have done far worse) when Swearengen talks to Tolliver about the "hooples".
Swearengen: "Sometimes I wish we could hit them over the head, rob them, and throw their bodies in the creek."
Tolliver: (Dryly sarcastic) "But that would be wrong."
- Anticlimax: The third and last season of the show, after building up the tension between Hearst and the townspeople throughout the season, including Al recruiting a gang of Mooks to battle Hearst's Mooks, ends with no battle and no confrontation, but the total surrender of the town to Hearst, who gets everything he wanted. Bullock's "I've never met a bully who wasn't afraid" farewell speech to Hearst doesn't really disguise this.
- Anyone Can Die: Main characters: Ellsworth. Supporting characters: Hostetler, Leon, Reverend Smith, Brom Garret, Wild Bill, Seth Bullock's son William, Francis Wolcott, Maddie, Captain Joe Turner, and a host of lesser characters. Of course, history books will spoil some of these.
- Ascended Extra: Richardson, Farnum's cook, was originally cast as an extra. By Season Three, he gets a fairly substantial amount of screentime.
- Ax Crazy: Wolcott, most spectacularly in the episode "Something Very Expensive". "But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become. No, Doris... we must not let you be past surprise."
- Badass: Seth Bullock, complete with occasional duster. Al Swearengen to a lesser extent, as he doesn't like to get his own hands dirty if he can avoid it, but crossing him is a bad idea.
- Wild Bill Hickok was a legendary figure of the Old West even while alive, and most people in the camp give him the appropriate reverence.
- Badass Boast: Played straight with a number of characters, but memorably averted with, "Jack McCall runs from no man."
- Badass Moustache: Swearengen,Tolliver and Bullock all qualify for this trope
- Badass Preacher: Andy.
"God is not mocked, Cy."
- The Bartender: Swearengen, unless he's busy killin' hooples. Dan and Johnny when Al is busy with more important things.
- Berserk Button:
- Nice Guy Ellsworth has a seething and justified hatred for George Hearst and his cronies.
- The otherwise mild-mannered Charlie Utter unleashes a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown after hearing of Wolcott's crimes.
- It also takes very little to arouse Dan Dority's anger.
- Mr Wu, a man of questionable scruples who uses pigs to dispose of corpses, is outraged when he discovers the burning of the Chinese prostitutes' corpses by Mr Lee.
- Beta Couple: Sol and Trixie.
- Bilingual Bonus: When attempting to explain to Mr. Wu (who knows about a dozen words of English, including "white cocksucka!") that he and Hearst are not allies, Swearengen refers to them both as "baak gwai lo," a term he's heard Wu use in anger. It helps explain Wu's confusion--and is also ironically appropriate to the characters--if you know that Swearengen just referred to himself and Hearst as "white devils."
- Body Horror: The episode "Requiem for a Gleet" is full of this, not to mention the sad, slow and heartbreaking progress of Reverend Smith's brain tumor.
- Bully Hunter: Seth Bullock. "I took the badge off myself once; without losing my impulse to beat on certain types." He beats Alma's conniving father, who suggests he wants to do so as retaliation against a bully from his youth; in the final episode, he cuts off a vile comment made by Hearst at Alma, and throws a thinly veiled accusation at Hearst: "Every bully I've ever met can't shut his fuckin' mouth... except when he's afraid."
- Butt Monkey: E.B. Farnum is the camp's resident Butt Monkey. Amusingly, E.B. has his own personal Butt Monkey in the form of his moronic chef, Richardson.
- Call Forward: In Season One, Fire Marshal Charlie Utter cites Tom Nuttall for multiple violations of the fire code in his saloon. In Season Three, Harry Manning runs for sheriff not actually wanting the role but rather wanting to gain support for the formation of a fire department, an endeavor which his boss Tom Nuttall assists by helping him buy materials for the construction of a fire wagon. Also, numerous references are made to Al Swearengen's willingness to start a fire if it advanced his own interests. In 1879, two years after the time frame of Season Three, the whole town of Deadwood burned to the ground.
- Cartwright Curse: You gotta feel sorry for Alma Garret. First, her husband gets murdered. Then, she and the sheriff start a really hot and heavy affair, but his wife shows up. So, she gets married again, and her new husband is also murdered! And she does nothing to deserve any of it.
- Chinese Laborer: Chinese residents of Deadwood are frequently called "Celestials" and live in "Celestial Alley", or "Chink's Alley" for the less educated. Wolcott writes to Hearst that they'll start to bring in cheap Chinese labor when it's not so likely to incense the population.
- City Mouse: The Garrets.
- Cluster F-Bomb: Director David Milch originally attempted to use period accurate swearing. Swearing used to be more about religion, and old curse terms simply don't carry the right impact. In test screenings the audiences found it laughable -- the characters sounded like Yosemite Sam. So Milch made the decision to use modern swear words to reflect the crudity of a frontier mining camp. In the words of Geoffrey Nunberg: "If you have your characters use historically accurate swearwords, they're apt to sound no more offensive than your grandmother in a mild snit." That said, Deadwood contains a lot of swearing. It's got an average of 1.56 uses of "fuck" per minute of footage.
- Truth in Television: The word "fuck" has been in use for a long time--including during the 19th century. It was illegal to publish the word, but that didn't stop people from using it.
- Country Matters: When the show wants a change of pace from the Cluster F Bombs.
- At some point, it almost becomes a term of endearment.
Al: (eyeing Trixie with compassion and shaking his head) "Loopy-headed cunt."
- Death Glare: Bullock spends a good portion of the series barely restraining himself from pistol-whipping whomever he's looking at. It shows.
- Determined Widow: Alma.
- Disposable Sex Worker: Most of the girls at Joanie's new whorehouse. Averted with Trixie, but only at the expense of another sex worker. The unfortunate Chinese girls brought in by Lee take this trope to its depressingly logical conclusion.
- Disposing of a Body: Mr. Wu keeps a pen of hungry pigs on standby. In direct contrast to Wu's discretion, his counterpart Lee simply uses hastily constructed and very public pyres. Since he's burning Chinese immigrants, few people seem to care.
- Doesn't Like Guns: Swearengen, who admits to being a "terrible shot", and prefers big ole knives. In the third season, this becomes a liability, and he curses himself for being too stuck in his ways to actually learn to shoot properly.
- Doomed by Canon: Well, read a history book. But nearly everyone knows the story of Wild Bill Hickok and the "Dead Man's Hand".
- Downer Ending: The last episode of the series ends with Hearst riding off, having successfully bought the town.
- The Dragon: Captain Turner acts as George Hearst's primary bodyguard and chief enforcer. He seems to have a history of killing Hearst's enemies in public street-fights. Though Swearengen can handle himself quite well with a blade, he has his own Dragon, Dan Dority. In one episode, the Dragons have themselves a fight.
- Dramatic Irony: "I'm not leaving camp without my money." -- You're right about that, Brom.
- Driven to Suicide: Wolcott and Hostetler. And almost Trixie. And almost Joanie.
- Dr. Jerk: Doc Cochran is an abrasive, alcoholic loner who is clearly haunted by his experience as a medic in the Civil War. His bedside manner is so poor that he must beg Alma to accept his help when her life is in danger.
- Due to the Dead: Bullock insists on giving a Sioux raider who tried to kill him not just a proper burial, but a proper Sioux open-air burial,despite there being a large bounty for their heads. Also, after shooting Ned:
Reverend Smith: Men like Mr. Seth Bullock there raise the camp up.
Johnny: Yeah, the fella to be put in that box might argue with you, Reverend.
Reverend Smith: Ah, Mr. Bullock did not draw first. And I point to his commissioning me to build the departed a coffin and, and see to his Christian burial.
- Dumbass Has a Point: In the episode "Amateur Night", the cunning Al Swearengen puzzles over a pictorial message drawn by Wu until resident slack-jaw Johnny Burns steps in and decodes it. Al thanks Johnny by punching him in the face.
- Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Mr Wu fits the bill particularly in a scene where he uses a broken combination of Chinese insults and English profanity to try and convey how his drugs were stolen.
Wu: Bak gwai lo... COCKSUCKA!!!
Swearengen: Yeah, glad I taught you that fuckin' word.
- Enemy Mine: By the end of the first season, the hero Bullock finally allies himself with Al Swearengen, despite the fact that Bullock would see Swearengen thrown in jail if he could, and Swearengen would knife Bullock in the back if his future prosperity depended on it. They choose this loose alliance in order to keep the residents of Deadwood free from exploitation by outside forces.
- Enforced Cold War: The possibility of the federal government coming in and negating land claims forces Al and Cy to pretend like Deadwood is a nice civilized town and not openly try to destroy each other.
- Eye Scream: In one episode, two of the characters get into a fistfight in the street. While grappling on the ground, one of the fighters slowly and brutally pries the other man's eyeball out of the socket with his thumb. The camera unflinchingly focuses on it.
- Fastest Gun in the West: Wild Bill.
- Fed to Pigs: See the first Disposing of a Body example.
- First-Name Basis: even after she's helped her kick the opium habit and been a nanny to her adopted child, it isn't till Trixie agrees to give her an abortion that this is said:
Alma Garret: My name's Alma, by the way.
Trixie: I know your name!
- Five-Man Band: Al and his inner circle.
- Flowery Insults: Oh, where to start...
- Foregone Conclusion: Bill's going to draw those Aces and Eights.
- Foreshadowing: Countless examples; a subtle one: Seth notes how there's a "big pull to that - going back to what you know" - and eventually goes back to being sheriff.
- Fridge Brilliance: In-universe example: It's not until very late in the series that anyone realizes that the girl Sofia might not have actually seen her parents die, as everyone has hitherto assumed, and might actually believe that her parents just abandoned her in the woods for no reason.
- Frontier Doctor: Doc Cochran, with a bit of Dr. Jerk thrown in.
- Going Cold Turkey: Alma Garret.
- Good Is Not Nice: Doc Cochran is a mean-tempered, irritable sonofabitch at the best of times, but he cares deeply for the health of everyone in the town and for human life in general. It is revealed that his work treating casualties of the civil war strongly shaped his desire to see people free from pain and death.
- Good Shepherd: Reverend Smith. Andy later returns to the camp to take over the role.
- Greedy Jew: Swearengen invokes the trope whenever he's around Star, accusing him of being a money-grubbing heathen.
- The Gunslinger: Wild Bill, Seth Bullock, Morgan and Wyatt Earp.
- Heel Faith Turn: Played straight with Andy Cramed: healed from a deadly illness, and in turn helps heal the sick with Reverend Smith. He leaves Deadwood to become a minister himself. Subverted by his prison-shanking of Tolliver. Tolliver himself makes a show of becoming born again in a thin-veiled scheme to attract Joanie's pity.
- Heterosexual Life Partners: Sol Star and Seth Bullock are partners and have been for some time, in spite of being an Odd Couple. Bullock will throw down with anyone who insults Star's Jewish faith, and the Non-Action Guy Star will charge into the fray armed only with a "purse gun" to defend his friend. Their relationship was Truth in Television, as the real Bullock and Star entered a number of business ventures throughout their lives.
- Historical Beauty Update: Inverted with Charlie Utter. The real Charlie Utter had flowing blond locks and dressed in fine clothes and carried a pair of pistols with pearl handles. He even bathed daily which was extremely unusual at the time.
- Historical Domain Character: Many, although Artistic License was often taken--the real Al Swearengen was American, a young man, and married during the time period the show portrays.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Trixie.
- Hypocritical Humor: Swearengen often accuses Star of being a Greedy Jew. when it's clear that Swearengen himself is actually the unscrupulous, money-grubbing businessman. He also frequently refers to Native Americans as "heathens", when it's clear from his disgust for the preacher's sermons that he's not exactly a devout Christian.
- Important Haircut: Wu cuts off his queue to show Swearengen that he is completely committed to America and their partnership.
- Infant Immortality: Played straight and averted. The only survivor of the Norwegian family was the little girl. When Al tries to have her murdered, his Dragon rebels and she survives. However, Bullock's nephew and adopted son gets killed out of the blue by a wild horse.
- Injun Country: Deadwood is still on Indian land when the series begins, and Indian attacks are a lethal threat to travelers passing in and out of the camp.
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Jewel.
- Irony: Brom Garret suspects he was cheated because he can't find gold in the concession he just bought and threatens Al Swerengen with an investigation. Swerengen suggest him to look in the mountains instead of in the river and orders Brom to be thrown off a cliff in an apparent accident. The place he lands on? An unknown gold vein.
- It's Always Spring: Presumably too much trouble (and no real point) to depict Deadwood neck-deep in snow like it would be in the winter.
- Knife Nut: Swearengen is a skilled knife-fighter who cuts a number of throats throughout the series. He's a self-confessed terrible shot and at one point curses himself for sticking with knives rather than learning to shoot properly. Dan Dority's preferred weapon is also a knife, though he has no aversion to firearms.
- Justified in that Al and Dan are both "pioneer types", having spent a lot of time working the wild places. A gun is only useful if you have bullets for it. Also, murder with a knife is more subtle.
- Knight in Sour Armor:
- Bullock does not want to be a lawman anymore, but his nagging conscience and hot temper won't allow him to turn his back on all the cruelty around him.
- The Union General at the end of the first season counts, as he and his officers are disgusted by the slimy nature of Tolliver and E.B and want nothing to do with them (from the quartermaster dealing with E.B.: "We'd be better off re-provisioning with the fucking Sioux."). At one point, Tolliver offers the general a substantial amount of gold to leave a small detachment behind at the camp to "uphold the law", to which the general advises Tolliver that he would have him hanged if he were Sheriff of the town.
- Lady Drunk: Calamity Jane wears this trope like a badge of honor.
- Large Ham: Stage veteran Jack Langrishe. Swearengen calls him on it, and Langrishe admits it freely.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Approximately thirty featured characters, with the majority making regular appearances.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: Swearengen tries this early in the first season, but after that doesn't seem to care about hiding his hits.
- Although most of them don't overly need to be hidden, but the cited example could have brought down the Pinkertons on him.
- Memetic Badass: Wild Bill, in-universe. The mere presence of someone with such a reputation for badassery affects events in the camp.
- Mercy Kill: Swearengen does this for Reverend Smith, smothering him to save him from the lingering and painful death of a brain tumor.
"You can go now, my brother."
- Miss Kitty: Joanie Stubbs tries to be a Miss Kitty, along with her partner Maddie, but they fail.
- Mr. Vice Guy
- N-Word Privileges: The "Nigger General" is a recurring character.
- Never Bring a Knife to A Fist Fight: Averted. When Bullock and Swearengen decide to have it out with some Good Old Fisticuffs, Bullock puts aside his guns and resident Knife Nut Swearengen says he doesn't need a knife. Once the two have thoroughly beaten the tar out of each other, however, Swearengen pulls his trusty knife and is about to slice Bullock open when the sight of a boy in the arriving stagecoach (Bullock's stepson) causes Swearengen to back off.
Al: "Welcome to fucking Deadwood! It can be combative."
- Nice Guy: Ellsworth is a cheerful nice guy, and well-liked by just about every character in the camp. Star, Merrick and Blaznov are also nice guys and never do anything morally questionable, though they're not as well-liked for various reasons.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Bullock and Al; later on, Charlie Utter and Francis Wolcott.
- No Ending: Two full-length movies were proposed to close the show, but never came to pass. The show is now officially dead.
- Nothing Up My Sleeve: Al, fighting Bullock.
Guess I forgot, I had my knife the whole time
- Odd Couple: Nebbishy Jewish businessman Sol Star and the two-fisted ex-lawman Seth Bullock.
- Out, Damned Spot!: EB rants away to himself about having to scrub the blood of a murdered guest out of the floor over and over again. Probably more than usually justified, given it's a bare wooden floor.
- Parrot Exposition: Lampshaded - in Season One, Al snaps at EB to stop doing it, while in Season Three, George Hearst tells Odell Marchbanks not to repeat back to him in other words what he has just said.
- Pet the Dog: Swearengen is a complete bastard, but is increasingly given opportunities to gruffly pet the dog as the series progresses. He employs a handicapped cleaning woman, Jewel, constantly belittling and berating her, but Trixie insists that he keeps her around as a "twisted fuckin' way of protecting her." He also shows grudging sympathy towards Rev. Smith, reveals he once had an epileptic brother, and mercy-kills the pastor when he is suffering from a terminal brain tumor. He also delivers a few tough-love pep-talks to residents of the camp during the later seasons.
- Phony Veteran: The "Nigger General" Fields, who wears a Civil War uniform. The real Fields was an actual Civil War veteran, but did humorously claim to be a general.
- Pinkerton Detective: Several agents are featured throughout the course of the series. The Pinkerton Agency is Swearengen's arch-nemesis.
- Platonic Life Partners: Trixie and Ellsworth. Trixie goes ballistic after Ellsworth's murder and attempts to avenge him, knowing it will likely lead to her own death as well.
- Poker: Aces and Eights--the Dead Man's hand.
- Politically-Correct History: Averted for once. Even the sympathetic characters toss about what would be considered ethnic slurs today: Bullock calling Mr. Wu a "Chinaman", Calamity Jane addressing General Fields as "a short nigger", Trixie making frequent anti-Semitic remarks in reference to her Jewish lover Sol, and most characters use slurs like "heathen" when referring to American Indians. Swearengen seems to take particular pleasure in firing off ethnic slurs. Ironically, the otherwise Complete Monster Hearst seems to respect Native American culture, and also states that he's more comfortable in the company of black people, though this is simply because they are more deferential. After making an anti-Semitic remark, Hearst gives a protracted apology, though its sincerity is dubious.
- Power Trio: Dan, Silas, and Johnny is the most obvious example.
- Prospector: Ellsworth is the most prominent example.
- Quick Draw: Bullock and Wild Bill quick-draw their pistols to kill a murderous highwayman. Bullock establishes his Badass credentials by drawing about as fast as the legendary gunfighter, though he modestly gives the edge to Bill.
- Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: The dialogue uses modern profanity out of the belief that historically correct swearing would have made the characters sound like Yosemite Sam.
- Serial Killer: Wolcott.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Farnum has a poetic streak that he's very proud of, but occasionally borders on Delusions of Eloquence. Merrick could give Frasier Crane a run for his money, but subverts this when he challenges a public announcement of Jarry's as hiding a complete lack of meaning in big scary words.
- Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Wolcott has hints of this.
- Shaped Like Itself:
Merrick: "The vaccine will be distributed gratis."
Al: Free gratis.
Merrick: Free gratis is a redundancy.
EB: Does that mean 'repeats itself'?
Al: Then leave gratis out.
Merrick: What luck for me Al, that you have such a keen editorial sense. "Free. Distributed Free. Period."
- Siblings in Crime: Flora and Miles, a young brother and sister who arrive in Deadwood pretending to be looking for their father but are actually thieves.
- Slashed Throat: Wolcott and Swearengen's crew deliver a number of these.
- Smug Snake: Tolliver. He thinks he's a Magnificent Bastard, but when he has surrounded himself with nothing but lickspittles and incompetent junkies, and seemingly goes out of his way to earn the enmity of his employees, you know he's doing something wrong. Likewise E.B Farnum thinks he's a mover and shaker in the camp, and has a higher opinion of his cunning than is warranted. You can practically see the trail of slime behind E.B as he skulks around town, engaging one poorly thought-out scheme after another.
- Sophisticated As Hell: Deadwood uses this a lot, mixing philosophic descriptions and complex compound sentences with the Cluster F-Bomb.
- Stepford Smiler: Mrs Garret. The laudanum helps, at first.
- Surprisingly Good English: Mr. Lee, the new Chinese arrival from San Francisco and rival to Wu, speaks fluent English. Al is visibly shocked when Lee reveals this.
- Surrogate Soliloquy: Many of the characters are prone to this. Charlie and Jane use Hickock's grave. Ellesworth uses his dog. EB uses Richardson in later seasons. Cochran rails at God. Swearengen addresses prostitutes giving him a blowjob and increasingly speaks to an Indian head in a box.
- Thinking Out Loud: A hallmark of the show is for various character to deliver monologues about their current thoughts and predicaments, often addressed to subjects that can't respond. Dority begins to worry about Swearengen's sanity after overhearing him talking when no one is around, and Swearengen gives a somewhat embarrassed explanation, saying its a habit brought on by age.
- Dan thinks that this is kind of funny, right up until Swearengen explains that what he's talking to is the box containing the severed head of a dead Indian he'd paid a bounty on, which freaks Dan right the hell out. Doubly funny when you consider that Dan is Swearengen's go-to man for killing enemies, who is not at all squeamish about death.
- Those Two Guys: Leon and Con, the employees of the Bella Union, the incompetent counterparts to Dan and Johnny.
- Too Dumb to Live: Flora and Miles Anderson. Blowing into a camp with only one safe road in and out, and then plotting to rob two of the wealthiest, most ruthless men in that camp? Darwin Award time!
- Translation Convention: The explanation for the modern-day obscenities. What we hear is just as vulgar as what 19th-century people would have heard.
- Upper Class Twit: Brom Garret. More or less averted with Alma, who's much more canny about people and has the sense to consult experts on things she doesn't know about.
- Victoria's Secret Compartment: Trixie likes to keep her Derringer hidden down her cleavage, in spite of the fact that this doesn't necessarily make it a safe hiding place, considering her profession.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane. Hell, Jane and anyone she takes a liking to. Whereas with everyone else she's just vitriolic.
- The Western
- Western Union Man: Blazanov.
- The Wild West: Deadwood is a frontier town in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is still in Injun Country when the series begins. The legendary western figures "Wild Bill" Hickok and "Calamity" Jane factor into the story. Even Wyatt Earp makes an appearance.
- Wretched Hive
- Wu's On First:
Al: But who stole the dope?
Al: Not Wu, who, you ignorant fuckin' Chink!
- You Look Familiar: Garret Dillahunt played the coward Jack McCall on the first season of Deadwood, then came back the next season to play murderous psychopath Francis Wolcott. McCall was, however, featured in five episodes, and was a very memorable character, which is probably why Dillahunt grew a beard for playing Wolcott, to lessen the visual similarities between the two characters. Dillahunt has since been predominantly typecast as either slack-jawed yokels like McCall or seething psychopaths like Wolcott.