When Jack McCall walks into the saloon and kills Wild Bill at the end of episode 4 of Deadwood, his action cues a sequence unlike anything we have seen in the show thus far. Akin to an opera act finale all the characters gather in one place as Jack is corralled to the middle of the camp; accompanying this sequence is foregrounded music that aligns with the characters’ and audience’s disbelief. In order to understand why the music in this scene is out of the ordinary for Deadwood, we must first address the construction of the show’s soundscape.
Screen music is meant to act as a guide of sorts for the audience, cueing them to various aspects of the onscreen action: setting, time, mood, and (often) the characters’ inner feelings. In this respect, the opening sequence for Deadwood behaves as it should; the title sequence opens with a “twinkling” banjo that is overtaken by a rowdy fiddle blaring away on double stops (two notes played at once) and note bends, the banjo serves as accompaniment along with unnamed percussion instruments (reminiscent of pots and pans). The theme recalls Appalachian folk music—a tradition with connections to bluegrass and skiffle (sometimes called jug bands, this music is created by using homemade instruments)—and immediately cues to the audience that this show, its characters, and events are going to be gritty, messy, and, to some extent, improvised; in other words: this is a western.
Apart from this opening sequence, however, the music in Deadwood defies our expectations, primarily through its absence. As Geuens states, “[Film sound] can help us question the visible, make us discover something we would have missed in the world, even suggest an extra dimension to ordinary life” (200). In music’s absence, however, we are left in an uncomfortable swarm of characters with unknown motivations and allegiances. Do any of these characters actually trust each other? Should we trust any of these characters? We’re not sure and the small amount of underscoring in each episode does little to reassure us. Musical cues in the first three episodes primarily consist either of the fiddle playing a quiet drone or a plucked string instrument alternating notes; in these cases the music is static and, while it keeps us attentive in the moment, these cues only add to the mystery rather than clarifying what is happening or how we should feel. Furthermore, when music is present it is relegated to the background of the soundscape, its volume below that of the speaking characters and other “realistic” noises—horses, background conversations, the clanging of glasses, etc., aka the sounds of the camp. These other sounds are vital to the show and without them “the characters on the screen are not quite real . . . As for the world they move in, it does not appear solid. It feel undeveloped, inadequate; it is found wanting” (Geuens, 204). The hierarchy in Deadwood, then, is dialogue, realistic sounds, and, lastly, music. However, in the aforementioned scene at the end of episode 4, this hierarchy is inverted.
In the death of Wild Bill scene, the music begins quietly at 55:13 with a banjo that recalls the opening theme; as Jack runs through camp the music is foregrounded and sounds that once would have been higher on the hierarchy—the sounds of boots in the mud, yelling bystanders, and the chasing mob—are dampened, allowing the music overtake the soundscape. The banjo’s melody becomes more complex with each main character that joins the action; beginning with an alternation between two notes, the melody gradually adds notes following the alternating ones to become a full-fledged theme. When Jane leaves her room in the hotel to join the other camp members in the street, her addition is paralleled in the music as a quiet string drone that accompanies the banjo. The hierarchy is righted again as Bill’s fall from the chair serves as the cadence for the music.
After almost four full episodes of the show we have grown accustomed to how the music behaves—it is barely even there and does not give us substantial information to help us make sense of the plot. By breaking with these established expectations, the extensive use of music feels cinematic and is a break with the “realism” of the show that enforces a sense of disbelief at Bill’s death for the both the characters and the audience.