vulture lists

Every Deadwood Episode, Ranked

Photo: Vulture and HBO

Thirteen years later, HBO is returning to Deadwood. David Milch’s hall-of-fame-worthy Western was unceremoniously canceled in 2006, three seasons into its exploration of greed, power, capitalism, and community. But today, the series will be resurrected in the form of Deadwood: The Movie, a two-hour feature that’ll reunite fans with Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, Molly Parker’s Alma Ellsworth, and many more long-lost favorites.

To commemorate the return of one of HBO’s best series, we decided to relive the show’s 36 hours and determine which were the finest. That said, because of the dense dialogue, intricate plotting, and consistent quality, sorting the strongest episodes from the weakest is difficult. One might even say that, like life, ranking episodes of Deadwood is one vile fucking task after another. But don’t get aggravated; then the enemy has you by the short hair.

36. “Leviathan Smiles” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Without question, the least essential entry in the entire series. Wyatt and Morgan Earp blow into camp, claiming to have defended a stagecoach from (likely nonexistent) road agents, and suck up all of the oxygen in the process, feeling like nothing more than special guest stars. Even worse, there are two (!) subplots involving Deadwood’s much-maligned theater company: one focusing on the death of a bit player to whom we’ve got no connection, and another in which Brian Cox’s John Langrishe tries to help Gerald McRaney’s George Hearst with his back trouble. (Though, we will admit, the scene where the sickly actor drifts off has some poetry to it.) All that said, this episode deserves some credit for silencing Steve the racist — easily the most repellent character in the Black Hills — with a horse kick to the head.

35. “Bullock Returns to the Camp” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Garret Dillahunt’s Jack McCall is dealt with swiftly — Bullock and Charlie Utter track him down in the episode’s opening minutes in order to bring him to Yankton, where he can answer for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok — and that more or less sets the agenda for this mid-season hour, which serves as a soft reset. Some other lingering business is wrapped up, as Brom Garret finally gets his funeral and Andy Cramed receives a clean bill of health after Calamity Jane has nursed him through smallpox. A few fresher developments also prepare us for what’s ahead — namely, the introduction of two traveling siblings (one of whom is played by Kristen Bell!), who, of course, aren’t quite what they claim to be. On the whole, this one’s a lot of resolution and setup, but not much of consequence happens.

34. “True Colors” (Season 3, Episode 3)
The dreaded theater troupe arrives in camp. Adding Brian Cox to your cast should always be thought of as a win, but the relationship between his John Langrishe and Swearengen comes off as counterfeit; the way the grandiloquent theater producer rolls into town and cozies up to his supposed old friend is about as organic as Roy suddenly showing up in the Simpsons’ kitchen. For his part, Swearengen appears nonplussed, almost as if he suspects that he and Langrishe are supposed to be on different shows. Or maybe it’s that he’s preoccupied with Hearst’s plot to swallow all of Deadwood and he’s not interested in any distractions. Either way, viewers can relate.

33. “Requiem for a Gleet” (Season 2, Episode 4)

This placement is bound to be controversial, but allow us to make our case. First, the positives: The sequence where Swearengen passes his kidney stones with the help of Doc Cochran, Dan Dority, Johnny Burns, and Trixie is no doubt cathartic and unforgettable. It’s also true that keeping Swearengen bedridden to demonstrate how large he looms, not just in the Gem Saloon but in the camp as a whole, is a clever trick. Still, this is the second episode in a row in which the show sidelines its MVP, and you notice it. When we’re not at Swearengen’s bedside, we get a lot of scheming and shoptalk between Cy Tolliver and Francis Wolcott (played by a recast Garret Dillahunt); some time with the ladies of the Chez Amis, who aren’t as dull or frustrating as season three’s theater troupe but who aren’t much better; and a couple of hotheaded encounters between Dority and Eamon, a.k.a. Crop Ear, who’s really a tough hang, even in his sole appearance. Oh, and the episode’s remarkably bad title certainly doesn’t help.

32. “Something Very Expensive” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Dillahunt’s manicured performance as Wolcott has its appeals — his considered diction and short temper, the contempt he clearly holds for virtually everyone surrounding him — but they’re undercut by the character’s penchant for violence against women. There’s just something a tad sweaty about the fact that he’s a murderer. We see that side of Wolcott firsthand when he takes his knife to three of the women working at the Chez Amis; while the sequence unsettles, it also confirms that the characters at the Chez Amis exist purely to serve the plot — to give Joanie Stubbs a way to break away from Tolliver and the Bella Union and then to die by Wolcott’s hand, to establish how dangerous and unstable he is. So, not great. Elsewhere, in the interests of comic relief, Steve the racist masturbates onto a horse’s leg to … prove a point? Just imagine how much faster schoolteacher Mary Stokes would’ve fled camp if she’d walked in on either of those scenes instead of Merrick’s ransacked office.

31. “Full Faith and Credit” (Season 3, Episode 4)
General rule about Deadwood: The less time spent on Steve the racist, the better. Too bad for this one, then, that a sizable chunk focuses on Steve taking over the livery from Hostetler and Bullock’s struggle to seal the deal. When the bigot demands that Hostetler sign the necessary paperwork before him — because his fragile white pride won’t let him initiate a contractual agreement with a black man — Bullock is at his most relatable, fed up and seething and just waiting for the ordeal to be over. There are other, more intriguing goings-on, anyway: Alma officially opening the camp’s first bank, Hearst trying to manipulate Tolliver and Swearengen into doing his bidding, and the building tension between Dan Dority and Hearst’s right-hand man, Captain Turner.

30. “A Lie Agreed Upon, Part II” (Season 2, Episode 2)
The companion to one of the absolute finest hours of the series, this episode both benefits and suffers from its proximity to the season-two premiere. It’s the night immediately following Bullock and Swearengen’s bloody bout, and the two principals deal with the fallout in their own ways. Bullock eventually collects his gun and badge from the Gem Saloon while also contemplating running away with Alma and leaving behind his newly arrived family; Swearengen nurses his substantial wounds and games out any potential further bloodshed. There are more than a few great scenes here — among them Sol calling Bullock out on his shit and Swearengen getting a thumb up his ass to ease the pain from his kidney stones — but the overall pacing seems off. Too many times, we hear characters wonder out loud what’s going to happen when Bullock heads to the Gem to retrieve his weapon and his tin, and the repetition saps some of the momentum carried over from the season premiere. Ultimately, this “Part II” feels stretched a little thin, like there isn’t quite enough going on to justify the run time, which is unusual for Deadwood.

29. “Amateur Night” (Season 3, Episode 9)
The Langrishe Troupe’s “Amateur Night”: pretty fun, it turns out! Despite all the (completely warranted) griping fans of this show do about the theater company’s story line, this episode manages to make the stage folk seem part of the community. Perhaps that’s because, it being “Amateur Night” and all, we see John Langrishe turn the spotlight over to the citizens of Deadwood so they can show off their individual talents. (Who expected Richardson to have a knack for juggling? Certainly not E. B. Farnum, who can’t stand to see his underling rewarded with applause.) It’s a welcome relief to watch the camp come together for an evening of entertainment.

28. “Deep Water” (Season 1, Episode 2)
It’s a testament to the greatness of this show that an outing with so many memorable exchanges could finish this close to the bottom. There’s Bullock and Sol meeting and negotiating with Swearengen to buy the lot for their hardware store (“And here’s my counteroffer to your counteroffer,” Swearengen says, winding up. “Go fuck yourself!”); a pre–Parks and Rec Nick Offerman barging into Swearengen’s office, fully nude and cock in hand; and, in one of the series’ more devastating scenes, Calamity Jane trying to protect young Sofia from anyone who means her harm and Swearengen simply walking past Jane like she’s not even there so he can sense if the little girl is able to implicate his associates in the slaughter of her family. Swearengen threatening Jane without saying a word and her freezing up and crumbling into tears tell us more about those two characters than any ornate arrangement of dialogue.

27. “Plague” (Season 1, Episode 6)
As far as opening scenes go, Deadwood never really did better than the one that leads this first-season effort. Bullock, away from camp, is ambushed by a lone Native American, who kills the once and future sheriff’s horse with a single arrow. A brutal fight ensues, which Bullock only survives by first clutching his attacker’s legs and then beating him over the head with a rock. It’s all essentially wordless and lasts for just about three minutes, but it leaves an impression. Back in town, there’s the smallpox outbreak that gives this hour its title. Swearengen organizes the camp’s response, calling a meeting of the local leaders (peaches and pears are gratis), and helps to steer Merrick’s coverage of the crisis in The Deadwood Pioneer. Fun as it is to witness the members of the community working together, we’ll get much more of that shortly.

26. “Suffer the Little Children” (Season 1, Episode 8)

Speaking of a brutal fight … the violence that’s doled out against Kristen Bell’s Flora and Greg Cipes’s Miles — first in the middle of the thoroughfare, then behind closed doors in the Bella Union — is among the most vicious in the series. (It’s enough to rattle Ricky Jay’s Eddie Sawyer and start a rift between him and Cy Tolliver.) Tough though it may be to wipe away the sight of those sibling grifters bloody, beaten, and dazed, this episode isn’t marked only by cruelty; there are some encouraging signs as well. The vaccine for smallpox arrives in camp, Alma Garret’s claim proves to be rich, and, most heartening of all, Sofia says her name. Hearing her speak for the first time leaves us as speechless as it does Alma.

25. “New Money” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Third episode or not, this is where season two really gets started. Arcs that play out in the next few installments (Swearengen’s kidney stones) and over the rest of the series (Trixie asking Sol to teach her accounting) take root here. Particularly consequential is Wolcott’s landing in camp. He immediately drafts Cy Tolliver and E. B. Farnum into his cause, using them to sow uncertainty about the validity of the existing gold claim titles. Condescending to Richardson, Farnum is either doing as he’s been instructed or genuinely venting about being at the whims of much more powerful men — maybe both. “I am confiding that turbulence, upheaval of the most violent sort, churning seas, waves of a scale and force to make the most seasoned seafarer vomit,” he says, “are in prospect for this camp.” Regardless of whether he’s being sincere, Farnum is dead-on about what awaits the people of Deadwood.

24. “Childish Things” (Season 2, Episode 8)
When characters in Deadwood monologue, it’s obviously expository and rarely seems like something any real person would actually do. Luckily, the writing and performances are such a pleasure to take in that it doesn’t matter how believable the soliloquies are. They’re especially marvelous when it’s Ellsworth talking to his stoic dog, weighing whether he should propose to Alma to help her raise a family, or when it’s Swearengen offering the skinny on people in camp to a decapitated head that he’s had boxed and parceled up. We get both of those in this episode, along with some bona fide conversations: Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs meet for the first time, Sarah Paulson’s Miss Isringhausen more or less reveals her true self to Alma, and Tom Nuttall wagers that he can ride his brand-new bicycle successfully. Nuttall wins the bet, in a stirring sequence that cuts between him pedaling down the thoroughfare and Mose Manuel murdering his own brother for sole ownership of their joint gold claim. Consider that juxtaposition foreshadowing for another tragedy — one that more directly involves Nuttall’s bicycle and that occurs in the following episode.

23. “Reconnoitering the Rim” (Season 1, Episode 3)
We’re not saying Brom Garret deserves to die, but … look, the guy’s a total drip, and when Dan Dority sends him flying over that ridge, it feels like the show’s main plot is really about to pick up steam. Also helping move things along? The camp gets livelier with the arrival of Cy Tolliver, Joanie Stubbs, and the rest of the Bella Union crew, and Bullock and Sol manage to close the deal on the lot for their hardware shop. This one also earns bonus points for featuring the funniest fart bit on a show full of ‘em; Swearengen, while leading a meeting in his office, shifts focus without missing a beat: “I wanna know who cut the cheese.” Of course, no one cops to it.

22. “The Trial of Jack McCall” (Season 1, Episode 5)
It’s truly wild how easy it is to (literally!) get away with murder at the start of Deadwood. Take Jack McCall, who’s on the hook for shooting Bill Hickok in the middle of a crowded saloon: He just makes up a brother in Kansas, says Hickok killed the bogus sibling, and claims that he simply acted in revenge. The guy’s declared innocent before this episode even hits the 40-minute mark. (Always terrible with his timing, Merrick breaks the bad news to Bullock while the soon-to-be sheriff is shoveling dirt onto Hickok’s coffin.) McCall being let go isn’t the only evidence of how unjust this world can be, though; near the hour’s close, Ray McKinnon’s poor Reverend Smith suddenly falls down with a seizure, the first sign of a condition that’ll only worsen in time.

21. “Unauthorized Cinnamon” (Season 3, Episode 7)
This title references the most downright Seinfeldian back-and-forth in the Old West. Jewel happily announces that she’s put cinnamon out for a meeting among the camp elders, but Dan Dority isn’t having any of that shit. Fortunately for Jewel, the town pillars assembled don’t have any issue with “unauthorized cinnamon” — well, aside from Harry Manning, who discovers a little too late that he’s got an allergy — because they’re more concerned with what to do about Hearst. The invading captain of industry appears to have arranged the public murder of a Cornishman who was working the claims, and the men of Deadwood are figuring out how to best respond. They decide to publish in Merrick’s newspaper a letter, written by Bullock, to the family of the departed. It’s a simple yet moving scene — just a group of people, huddled together in dim lighting, listening to someone read a letter about a character we have no relationship to. There are few times when the sense of community in camp is more palpable.

20. “Complications” (Season 2, Episode 5)

We could tell you that “Complications” cracked the top 20 for any number of reasons, like its being the episode in which Alma confirms she’s pregnant or the one where Swearengen starts to convalesce after his kidney-stone scare. But if we’re being honest, it’s mostly because it boasts one of the best moments of the entire series. When Steve the racist, leading an angry mob, screams, “Fuck the future!” at Stephen Tobolowsky’s Commissioner Jarry, the Yankton representative, channelling Saturday Night Fever, counters: “You cannot fuck the future, sir. The future fucks you.” It’s not quite a thesis statement for the show, but it’s not far off, either.

19. “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For” (Season 3, Episode 2)
Elections are near, though the real power struggle is between Swearengen and Hearst. The former has already made it known that he resents the latter’s staging a murder in his saloon, so Hearst decides to do Swearengen a courtesy in this episode: He sends over a cryptic note hinting where at the bar the next agents of violence will be positioned. The mind games are entertaining, but by this entry’s end, after Hearst and his muscle eventually deliver a blow to Swearengen’s head and relieve him of one of his fingers, it’s clear that season three features something we’ve yet to encounter: a truly worthy foil for Swearengen.

18. “E.B. Was Left Out” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Who among us hasn’t lost their cool while waiting in a long line? Granted, we might not have gone to the same extremes as Charlie Utter — who drags Wolcott out of Farnum’s hotel and into the mud of the thoroughfare, where he beats on the geologist for all of the town to see — but Charlie Utter’s circumstances are themselves pretty extreme. After hearing from Joanie Stubbs about the murders that took place in the Chez Amis in “Something Very Expensive,” Charlie can’t stand to even, well, stand behind Wolcott in the Grand Central Hotel’s chow line. And not to condone violence, but his pummeling the murderous scoundrel ranks as one of the most satisfying sights in the show’s run. As memorable as that is, it’s not all this episode has to offer. Swearengen and Alma finally meet, Calamity Jane’s alcoholism sinks to troubling new depths, and E.B. standing off to the side, cursing everyone who attends a meeting he wasn’t invited to, is the character’s essence distilled.

17. “A Constant Throb” (Season 3, Episode 10)
If it weren’t for the theater company’s arc becoming damn near incomprehensible, “A Constant Throb” would finish at least a few spots higher. But that’s not even worth getting into — it’s the main plot that sets this one apart, and the pulse-quickening sequence in which Alma’s shot at and Swearengen jumps from the Gem’s balcony to rush her to safety. Seeing those two characters side by side thrills, and it’s almost surreal to then watch them sit in Swearengen’s office and discuss who might be behind the gunfire. It’s Hearst, of course, and the mining magnate actually finds himself bested here. Swearengen murders Hearst’s new lieutenant, and, in a more dignified act of defiance, Alma heads back out into the thoroughfare, by herself, to complete the walk that those bullets interrupted. Too bad the sense of victory won’t last long.

16. “The Whores Can Come” (Season 2, Episode 11)
Like many of the characters living in Deadwood, the second season’s penultimate episode prioritizes the funeral of 11-year-old William Bullock, who’s been trampled by a wild horse. Even with everything that’s going on around camp — Swearengen trying to trick Yankton into sweetening the deal for annexation, the brewing conflict between Wu and his rival Lee — business seems to just sort of stop when it comes time to pay tribute to the departed boy and offer condolences to the Bullock family. At one point, the crowded outdoor service is too much to bear for Anna Gunn’s Mrs. Bullock. In the middle of a Bible reading, she suddenly runs over to her son’s casket and cries over his body; but when she walks back to her husband, she tells Mr. Bullock that they should allow everyone to see the boy and say their goodbyes. It’s perhaps the single most emotionally resonant moment in the whole series.

15. “A Two-Headed Beast” (Season 3, Episode 5)

Charlie Utter beating up Wolcott in season two is indeed satisfying; Dan Dority’s battle with Captain Turner in season three is something else entirely. It’s a gladiatorial fight to the death, perfectly suited to the muddy roadways of Deadwood. Clawing, biting, headbutting — anything goes, which is what makes the scene so realistic and so barbaric. When Dority rips out one of Turner’s eyes, gaining the upper hand, it’s the kind of thing you can’t unsee — unless you’re Captain Turner. Nearly as upsetting is Ellsworth realizing that Alma’s using opium again because she’s unhappy in their marriage and saying that he’ll arrange to move his things out of the house. Alma and Ellsworth aren’t the best romance on the show (that’s Sol and Trixie, easy), but they might be the most fascinating love story, in their way.

14. “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood” (Season 3, Episode 1)
Set six weeks after the end of season two, this premiere naturally catches us up with everything that’s happened in the meantime. Proper elections are now a thing in Deadwood and campaign season is underway, with Bullock and Harry Manning competing for the title of sheriff and Sol Star and E. B. Farnum squaring off for the office of mayor. Joanie Stubbs keeps regular tabs on Cy Tolliver, who’s bedridden and still recovering from the knife Andy Cramed slid into him. Alma, Ellsworth, and Sofia have moved into a new house. And Swearengen is really starting to bristle at Hearst’s presence in town, especially after it looks like the mogul arranged for a murder to take place in the middle of the Gem. As for the show itself, it doesn’t feel quite as knotty as it does throughout season two (brilliant as that season still is). For now, Deadwood breathes a bit easier, even as Hearst is tightening his grip around the entire camp.

13. “Boy the Earth Talks To” (Season 2, Episode 12)
As you can tell from this list, Deadwood always did premieres and finales extremely well — and season two’s sign-off is no slouch. Alma and Ellsworth get married; Swearengen successfully cons the camp’s way into annexation; Wu eliminates Lee with the help of Swearengen’s boys; a reformed Andy Cramed, now preaching the wisdom of the Lord, still holds enough of a grudge to stab Cy Tolliver; Wolcott hangs himself. If there’s any complaint to be had about this episode, it’s that it ties everything up almost a little too neatly. The wedding comes just one episode after a funeral; Cy’s stabbed and then, moments later, Wolcott’s body drops; Charlie Utter, who left camp because he couldn’t stand to be near Wolcott, returns the same day that his enemy decides to wrap a noose around his neck. But even if this hour is a tad overstuffed, there’s just so much to marvel at, including the debut of Mr. George Hearst, who’s envisioned as capitalism incarnate. Him purchasing Farnum’s hotel and then smashing through the wall with a sledgehammer is a note-perfect warning for what’s to come in season three.

12. “A Rich Find” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Season three is generally regarded as lesser than seasons one and two, but the best episodes of Deadwood’s final year stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best episodes from the first two years. “A Rich Find” is one such example, and exactly what its title promises. We open on Hearst sitting in a cell, humiliated and furious after Bullock dragged him by the ear to jail at the end of the previous installment; and we end on Joanie Stubbs showing kindness to an alcohol-ravaged Calamity Jane, offering her a place to stay. In between, there’s Cy Tolliver toying with (and abandoning) the idea of killing Alma with an opium overdose, Alma firing Trixie from her post at the bank, and the arrival of Omar Gooding’s Odell Marchbanks, who turns out to be a surprisingly rare treasure in Deadwood: a very minor character whose arc we’re instantly invested in, thanks to his fraught relationship with his mother, Cleo King’s Aunt Lou. And the second Odell starts talking gold with Hearst, we know, just like his mother, that he’s doomed.

11. “Here Was a Man” (Season 1, Episode 4)
Here we have a showcase for Keith Carradine’s Wild Bill Hickok. When the famous gunslinger drifts into camp in the pilot, with Charlie Utter and Calamity Jane in tow, there’s already a sense that Hickok’s near the end of his days; this early standout just makes it official. Though he’d prefer to play cards from sunrise to sunset, Hickok makes the most of his last appearance, shuttling from one encounter to the next. Before he’s shot dead by Jack McCall, he has a heart-to-heart with Bullock, questions Swearengen about the Garret gold claim and Brom’s “accident” on the ridge, and issues Alma a warning that’s pure poetry: “Listen to the thunder.” Words to live by.

10. “Amalgamation and Capital” (Season 2, Episode 9)

Let’s not be coy about it — this episode made it into the top 10 solely on the strength of its closing ten minutes. In a concluding sequence so tense you’re tempted to watch it through your fingers, we cut between a few different characters, including: Tom Nuttall and William Bullock playing with the former’s bicycle as Steve the racist butts in; Alma dropping by Bullock and Sol’s hardware store to oversee the temporary installation of the new bank’s safe; Mose Manuel getting gunned down in the Bella Union; and the livery duo losing control of a horse that refuses to be tamed. You know something’s coming, but you’re not sure what. And when it does — when the horse runs down Steve and William, leaving the boy unconscious on the ground — it’s about as shocking an ending as you’ll ever see on television, period. The last shot, of the young Bullock bleeding from the nose and sprawled out, stays with you even after the screen fades to black.

9. “Tell Him Something Pretty” (Season 3, Episode 12)
The season finale that, because of some business that’s still somewhat unclear, became a series finale. In what turned out to be the show’s final hour, Hearst gets pretty much everything he wants. Alma sells him her claim, he appears to thwart Bullock’s campaign for sheriff by rigging the election, and he gets restitution for Trixie’s attempt on his life from the previous episode. That last request isn’t completely satisfied — Hearst demands the death of the woman who shot him, but Swearengen won’t turn over Trixie, so another blonde takes her place instead, with Hearst none the wiser. But, if anything, the murder of an innocent young woman just means the show ends on an even sadder note. (That also isn’t the last act of violence; Cy Tolliver makes sure to dispose of Leon just before the credits roll.) For years, up until HBO’s feature-length epilogue was completed, it seemed as if the last we’d see of Deadwood was going to be Swearengen on his hands and knees in his office, scrubbing away a fresh bloodstain and muttering under his breath about Johnny Burns. To be honest, there are worse ways to go out.

8. “The Catbird Seat” (Season 3, Episode 11)
RIP, Ellsworth. After being fired upon fails to frighten Alma into selling her claim, Hearst directs the bullets in another direction, this time with intent to kill: He orders a hit on Ellsworth, probably the most thoroughly decent man in all of Deadwood. (It’s a tough call between him and Sol.) When the body makes its way through camp via wagon, the camera’s positioned so we’re seeing it from what would be Ellsworth’s perspective; it’s an effective touch, letting us catch the horror on Alma and Charlie Utter’s faces as the wagon passes them and they see what’s been done. Trixie has the most memorable response — she grabs a small firearm from her sock, undoes her blouse to distract her target, marches up to Hearst’s hotel room, knocks on the door, and shoots the villain right in the shoulder. He survives the assassination attempt and will pretty quickly seek revenge, but the attack, and everything surrounding it, is nevertheless thrilling.

7. “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking” (Season 1, Episode 11)

How best to describe an episode filled with so many noteworthy scenes and details? Well, it’s the one where Alma’s crooked father shows up in camp, clearly looking to benefit from her gold claim. It’s the one where Con Stapleton’s named sheriff, mostly because no one else has stepped up to take the job. It’s the one where Swearengen realizes that, actually, Bullock would make a good sheriff. It’s the one where Reverend Smith’s mind deteriorates so much that he starts preaching to livestock. It’s the one where Sol and Trixie have sex for the first time. It’s the one where Swearengen finds out about Sol and Trixie having sex. It’s the one where Swearengen then gets problem-drunk and demands Sol pay for the sex with Trixie. It’s also the one where Swearengen gives a drunken monologue about his childhood while getting a blowjob. And, like the title suggests, it’s the one where Jewel asks Doc Cochran to make her a brace to help with her walking. It’s a really good one.

6. “No Other Sons or Daughters” (Season 1, Episode 9)
In which the camp starts to truly feel like a community. To keep Yankton from disrupting the status quo should annexation go through, Swearengen oversees the impromptu formation of a local government. With the town’s various heavies gathered around a table at the Gem, posts are handed out. Nearly all of the assignments are settled offscreen — Bullock ends up health commissioner, Charlie Utter becomes fire marshall — but we do get the pleasure of witnessing Farnum perk up and say he’d like to be mayor. (The silence that hangs in the air when Swearengen asks if anyone objects is priceless.) Of course, it’s not just the ad hoc government that makes the town come alive; it’s the way these characters interact with each other. Charlie Utter and Joanie Stubbs meet in this episode and have a conversation that helps establish one of the show’s most sincere and wonderful friendships. Doc Cochran pleads with Calamity Jane to stop destroying herself and quit drinking. Sol and Trixie start flirting in a scene that’s electric and sweet. Overall, there’s a sense that Deadwood’s on the cusp of great change whether or not Yankton gets involved, and that’s exciting. Like Swearengen says early in the episode, “Everything changes. Don’t be afraid.”

5. “Advances, None Miraculous” (Season 2, Episode 10)

We pick up right where “Amalgamation and Capital” leaves off: William Bullock’s just been trampled by that wild horse and is limp in the sheriff’s arms. Everyone in camp seems affected in some way by what’s just happened, whether it’s Sol throwing attitude in every direction, or Miss Isringhausen worried that the whole thing is part of some setup by Swearengen, or Tom Nuttall, who’s devastated by his role in the accident and sobbing by himself in an alley. Episodes like this are when it hits you that this place feels real, like an actual town populated by people who care about each other and hurt each other and mourn for each other. Even Wolcott asks about William’s condition. Nothing brings the people of Deadwood together like a tragedy.

4. “Deadwood” (Season 1, Episode 1)
It’s fitting that when ranking episodes of a show set on the frontier, we’d be partial to the very first one. Obviously, the characters and world of Deadwood develop more as time goes on — seeing the camp become more civilized is one of the show’s great rewards. But it’s simply staggering how much David Milch fit into the pilot. The opening scene alone gives us an idea of what’s in store: the unique speech patterns we’ll grow accustomed to, the free-flowing profanity, the preoccupations with justice and fate, the savage violence. And that’s all just in the prologue, before we even get a glimpse of the town. The rest of the hour looks at a day in Deadwood, right as Bullock and Sol arrive, hoping for a new beginning, and Wild Bill Hickok shows up to eventually meet his end. Swearengen’s scamming from inside the Gem Saloon, Farnum’s as oily as ever, Doc Cochran’s treating a cluster of patients, and Alma’s in an opium-fueled haze. And, to cap it all off, the episode ends with a genuine Western staple: a shootout. By the time the viewer makes it into camp, the series has already staked out its territory.

3. “Mister Wu” (Season 1, Episode 10)

Don’t let the name fool you: “Mister Wu” is actually about Swearengen. For the bulk of this episode, we follow the operator of the Gem as he goes about his business — stuffing envelopes with bribes, swaying the loyalties of others, and, yes, meeting with the titular Mr. Wu. Swearengen’s most pressing concern is finding out who made off with a bunch of dope that Wu was supposed to sell him, and what to do with the thieves when he tracks them down. We’ve described a fair amount of episodes and scenes on this list as exciting or thrilling, but the truth is, there are few things in Deadwood that bring more joy than just seeing Swearengen out in the world, moving from one storefront to the next, dealing with his neighbors, trying to influence events so his plans are never put in jeopardy. This is him at the peak of his powers, when he had his hands in pretty much everything going on around camp, before the annexation, before Wolcott and Hearst, when he could just drown his biggest problems in a tub of water.

2. “A Lie Agreed Upon, Part I” (Season 2, Episode 1)
An episode of television as inviting as that lovely new house Bullock built for his family. It’s 1877, several months after the events of the first season, and there have been some new developments in the camp. Sofia’s got a tutor named Miss Isringhausen. Bullock and Alma are fully having an affair now. Telegraph poles are being installed around town. Swearengen’s eyes have started to go a little bit, requiring him to read with the help of a magnifying glass. And Bullock’s wife and stepson are on their way to Deadwood. When they arrive in their stagecoach, they receive quite a greeting: “Welcome to fucking Deadwood! Can be combative.”

That’s Swearengen, blurting out what is almost certainly the most iconic line of the show’s whole run. He’s battered and holding a knife, ready to carve up the sheriff, who’s bloody himself and trying to crawl away in the dirt. Yes, the two main characters finally come to blows and no, it does not disappoint. It’s the end of this season premiere that’s most worth savoring, though. In a nice juxtaposition with the opening, in which Martha and William Bullock are en route, we close with Seth Bullock at dusk, walking through camp alone, away from the woman and child who traveled all this way to be with him. Here is a man who’s not afraid to confront the local crime boss he’s lived among all these months but who can’t face the family he barely knows.

1. “Sold Under Sin” (Season 1, Episode 12)

There’s a point about a third of the way through Deadwood’s first-season finale when Merrick looks overwhelmed by everything that’s happening in the camp — like he can’t possibly keep up with it all. Should he finish jotting notes about the beating Bullock just gave Alma’s father in the middle of the Bella Union? Or should he shift his attention to the cavalry parade that’s marching through the thoroughfare? If he walked down a nearby alley, maybe he’d decide to focus on the murder of one of Mr. Wu’s associates. And those are just the things going on at that very instant, nevermind the entire episode.

“Sold Under Sin” is rich with several of the show’s very best moments. Doc Cochran’s unforgettable prayer for the Reverend Smith’s suffering to end. Swearengen answering that prayer by suffocating the Reverend and describing his method as being similar to “packin’ a snowball.” Bullock finally pinning the sheriff’s star on his chest. Swearengen looking over the banister at the Gem Saloon, watching Doc Cochran and Jewel dance together.

This episode fulfills the promise of not just the first season but really of the show as a whole. That’s not to imply that seasons two and three are redundant in any way; it’s just to say that this is the series at its apex, its most bittersweet and heart-swelling. This is when Deadwood the camp and Deadwood the show most feel like they’re bursting with life.

Every Deadwood Episode, Ranked