Like so many of us in the “shows featuring Timothy Olyphant as an angry person with hats and really low-riding jeans” demographic, I love Deadwood. I love its harsh and beautiful language, its complicated female characters, its gut-punching violence, and its Olyphant. Launched in 2004, it features not only T.O. at his sexiest, but the inimitable John Hawkes, Ian McShane, and Robin Weigert. It’s the story of how a 1870s South Dakotan mining camp became a town, but it’s really the story of the dirty and horrible and yet weirdly compelling American West.
When Deadwood first aired, my dad and I decided to watch it together. We devoured every episode—along with the special snacks he bought to entice me to leave my post-college apartment—straight through the season two finale where Calamity Jane gets new boots to wear to a boy’s funeral. But that’s as far as we got.
My dad divorced my mom when I was 13 and had a new wife before my 15th birthday, and to make a very long story short, it drove a decade-long wedge between us. We saw each other often, but we didn’t know how to connect. He tried to make up for this by taking my younger brother and I to Old Navy and letting us stay up late eating junk food. He got MTV so we could watch Loveline after he and his new wife went to bed and bought us our very own phone so friends could call us during the every-other-weekend we spent at his place. To make another very long story short, his attempts to replace our nuclear family with Pop Tarts and Adam Corolla didn’t work.
But what did work, what brought us together like no cheaply-made sweater dress could, was Netflix. Though now we take 24-hour access to every TV show out there for granted, in 2005 it was incredibly exciting, especially for a recent college grad like me who couldn’t afford cable. Instant streaming was but a mere glint in technology’s eye, and even owning a DVD player was a luxury beyond most of my friends’ means. My dad seized this opportunity to get me to hang out with him like Joanie Stubbs seizes a business opportunity; he got a Netflix subscription and a queue a mile long with HBO shows I wanted to watch.
Dad and I went from strained coffee dates to Saturdays spent watching Al Swearengen shout “cocksucker” with reckless abandon. Not only did Deadwood give us a chance to be together without having to talk, it gave us something to talk ABOUT between episodes. An HBO show about gold mining and murder reconnected us when nothing else could.
A quick aside: This is why I hate it when someone says they “don’t watch television,” as if television were a gun loaded with cocaine and rabies. Under the right circumstances, good TV creates bonds between people and lets us share experiences safely, staring forward at a screen to access truths about our lives. Nothing else does this like TV can. And you can eat snacks while it’s happening.
During our “Netflix Saturdays” period, Dad would email me on Friday to ask what groceries I wanted. When I got to his house the next morning he’d make us Morningstar Farms vegetarian sausage patties and scrambled eggs to fuel our TV bingefest. As morning turned into afternoon and Cy Tolliver’s Deadwood empire expanded and collapsed, we’d drink Wild Turkey with Diet Coke and shell peanuts, forging the wild frontier of the adult father-daughter relationship.
Through the magic of television, we were reacquainted. We learned about each other’s lives—our real lives, not our roles as “Father” and “Daughter of Father”—while learning about each other’s favorite Deadwood characters. Like his beloved Cy Tolliver, my dad’s life hadn’t turned out quite the way he wanted. While we watched Tolliver fight gritty turf wars on the South Dakota streets, Dad confessed to me that his second marriage wasn’t working and he regretted divorcing my mom. While my own favorite character, Jane, drank and swore and struggled to overcome her demons, I told my dad how scared I was to be done with college and how I didn’t know what should come next.
It sounds like a stretch to say Netflix saved our relationship, but I’ll say it because that’s what happened.
My dad died suddenly, between the Deadwood series finale and its DVD release in 2007. I woke one morning to my phone ringing to tell me he was gone. He died at home, down the hall from the couch we’d sat on every Saturday, eating egg whites and watching Netflix while we figured out what came next.
Dad and I were also in the middle of Big Love and Dexter when he died, and I continued watching them, alone. I cried my eyes out after the Big Love series finale because my dad would never find out how it ended (not so the Dexter finale, because that show became unwatchable after season five.) But I’ve never seen another episode of Deadwood.
I’ve read that the series ended abruptly. Everyone thought there’d be more episodes—that they’d have one more season—but there just weren’t. Season three faded to black and that was it. No resolution, no chance for fans to say goodbye to the rasping frontier town full of flawed characters they’d grown to love so much. I can relate.
It’s been six years since I’ve seen Deadwood or my dad. I now live with someone who owns the series on DVD and has suggested we watch it together, but I always say no. I look at the box for season three all the time, but I need it to stay unwatched more than I want to find out what happened.
As long as Deadwood never ends for me, Dad and I are still just in between seasons. I know there’ll never be another “Netflix Saturday,” but this way at least I’ll never see an episode of Deadwood without him.
You should watch it though; it really is a great show.
Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.