David Milch’s Deadwood could be violent, harsh, exciting, and hilarious all in the same scene. It could also be devastating. Over three seasons, the show provided some of the most honest, painful, and cathartic moments on television. Some of these moments that still make us cry with joy or pain (sometimes both) no matter how many times we’ve seen them. Here are nine of the most emotional moments in Deadwood history.
Charlie and Jane Visit Bill’s Grave (S1, E7 “Bullock Returns to the Camp”)
There was always an inherent sadness to both Jane Canary and Charlie Utter. After their best friend and center of their lives Wild Bill Hickok was killed, the two found themselves lost in a strange place without a clear purpose. Jane’s constant mistreatment of Charlie made it seem unlikely they’d ever be friends themselves. But the unexpected strength of their relationship revealed itself when she accompanied him to Bill’s grave for the first time. This moving, bittersweet reunion presaged the truth about how they really felt about one another. They fought a lot, but the way family does.
Cy Makes a Statement (S1, E8 “Suffer the Little Children”)
Not all emotions Deadwood elicited were warm. Some were downright gut-wrenching. One of the show’s most memorable subplots involved two young con artists coming to town to swindle either the Gem or the Bella Union; Cy Tolliver sniffed out Kristen Bell’s seemingly innocent Flora for what she was right away. The result was more gruesome than even Joanie Stubbs could have predicted. Cy had his men brutally beat the two before making Eddie and Joanie witness their deaths. Cy even made Joanie pull the trigger to end Flora’s life. It was hard to watch, especially from Flora’s hazy point of view as she desperately waved at the gun, not fully aware of what was happening. This might be the single most gruesome scene in show history.
Sol and Seth Comfort Their Scared Friend (S1, E10 “Mr. Wu”)
This list could easily consist only of scenes with Ray McKinnon’s Reverend H.W. Smith, as the kindhearted preacher slowly and sadly succumbed to a brain tumor over the course of season one. As his physical and mental states diminished, he began to lose his grip on reality. This led him to his friends’ hardware store one night. The Reverend told Seth and Sol he was scared, in part because he didn’t know if they were real or demons meant to trick him. The two men, even Seth Bullock who had recently screamed at the ranting Reverend, were understanding and patient. They assured him they were his friends before they escorted him back to his own tent. It was haunting and sad watching a good man die, but it was also beautiful to see his friends take care of him. A compassionate act in a terrible world, and a scene that still pains and warms our hearts to watch.
The Doc’s Prayers Are Answered (S1, E12 “Sold Under Sin”)
Doc Cochran, the former Civil War doctor suffering from PTSD and a lack of patience (despite caring greatly for all of his many patients) couldn’t handle what was happening to Reverend Smith, as he was helpless to do anything about his tumor. After convincing Al to take the Reverend under his care during his last days, a drunk Doc Cohran pleaded with/screamed at god to end his needless suffering, during a powerhouse performance from Brad Dourif. His prayers were answered by Al himself, who quietly suffocated Reverend Smith while explaining to Johnny what it took to take a life. It was a tender act of mercy from an angel of death, and one of the most devastating sequences in show history.
Doc Gives Jewel Her Brace (S1, E12 “Sold Under Sin”)
Of all the people in Deadwood, no one had a better excuse for misery than the Gem’s mistreated cook and custodian Jewel. Instead she was always a light of humor and strength, and in the season one finale Doc Cochran gave her the leg brace she had asked him to make to help her limp. Doc had been reluctant to make it, fearful it would do her more harm than good. But ultimately it was a success, and her pure joy at getting it still makes us cry. As if this episode wasn’t already emotional enough, it ended with Jewel getting the Doc to dance with her, as she assured him he was “nimble as a forest creature.” It was a gorgeous moment to end an incredible season.
Al Passes His Stone (S2, E4 “Requiem for a Gleet”)
Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen is one of the greatest characters in TV history. We couldn’t help but root for him even when he was at his worst. The same was true for the people in his life, who were completely devoted to him. Their love and admiration for him was never more on display than in season two, when he almost died from a kidney stone. He was so close to dying, and things looked so dire, that when he finally passed it, Dan, Johnny, Doc, and Trixie collapsed into his bed with him. It’s not easy watching Al suffer, or seeing those who love him in agony unsure if he’ll live or die. By scene’s end, his passing the stone is as cathartic for viewers as it is for the people in that room.
The Bullocks Say Goodbye After a Bicycle Ride Gone Wrong (S2, E10 “Advances, None Miraculous”)
The accident, death, and funeral of young William Bullock takes place over three episodes, and for three episodes we mourn for him and his parents along with everyone in Deadwood. From the time that runaway horse tramples him, to his mother’s tearful goodbye as Seth pretends to be his real father to comfort him, to Martha allowing the camp to pay their respects to William inside the house, it’s almost too much to handle. The show handles all of it with unflinching honesty and tenderness.
Steve Fields Gets an Unlikely Caretaker (S3, E8 “Leviathan Smiles”)
Steve Fields was a loud-mouth, annoying, broken drunk. He was an avowed racist who mercilessly abused one of Deadwood’s few black residents, Samuel Fields (better known by his offensive “general” moniker). The blowhard’s signs of humanity occasionally peeked through his repulsive veneer, but when he was left an invalid following a horse kicking him in the head it seemed like cosmic justice. Especially after his mistreatment of Samuel’s friend, Arnette Hostetler, led Hostetler to take his own life. If anyone in that camp had a reason to leave Steve to his suffering it was Samuel. Instead he took it upon himself to look after him. Steve Fields did not deserve this man’s kindness. But even if Steve couldn’t see the General’s humanity, the General could see Steve’s.
Al Protects Alma (S3, E10 “A Constant Throb”)
In season one Al had Alma’s husband murdered, he tried to kill Sophia, and he tried to swindle Mrs. Garrett out of a lucrative gold stake. By season three he was leaping off his balcony to protect her from gunfire and keeping her safe in the Gem. And it made perfect sense. The denizens of the camp had built an unlikely community together, thanks to even more unlikely relationships built on mutual respect and understanding. They had all come to Deadwood to escape the world, but there they built their own, and an attack on one by an outsider was an attack on them all.
Deadwood was a hard place for hard people, but they still had their soft spots, and the show always knew how to hit us in our own.
The Deadwood movie premieres Friday, May 31, on HBO.