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This article is about Al Swearengen, the character on Deadwood. You may be looking for the historical Al Swearengen.
"You can help your delicate sensibilities by turning the fuck away."
This article contains spoilers for all three seasons of Deadwood and Deadwood: The Movie.
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"Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man... and give some back."
―Al Swearengen[src]

Albert "Al" Swearengen is one of the two protagonists of HBO's Deadwood as well as Deadwood: The Movie, along with Seth Bullock. He can also be considered as an antagonist, bordering on anti-hero for the series' first season.

Swearengen is the deadly proprietor of the Gem Saloon and a pivotal figure in the town of Deadwood from its beginnings as a camp. Swearengen was known throughout the town both as a cunning, back-stabbing criminal, and as a wise, calculating figure who lost souls would turn to. While he was a selfish man who would kill innocents to save himself, Al also had a heart and would look out for those close to him with vicious loyalty; but he expected equally ruthless loyalty in return, and would enact gruesome revenge on those who betrayed his moral code.

He is portrayed by Ian McShane.


Early life[]

"Now I'll tell you something you don't know. Before she ran the girls' orphanage, fat Mrs. Fucking Anderson ran the boys' orphanage on fucking Euclid Avenue. As I would see her fat ass waddling out the boys' dormitory at five o'clock in the fucking morning, every fucking morning, after she blew her stupid fucking cowbell and woke us all the fuck up. And my fucking mother dropped me the fuck off there with seven dollars and sixty-some odd fucking cents on her way to sucking cock in Georgia. And I didn't get to count the fucking cents before the fucking door opened, and there: Mrs Fat-Ass Fucking Anderson who sold you to me. I had to give her seven dollars and sixty-odd fucking cents that my mother shoved in my fucking hand before she hammered one, two, three, four times on the fucking door and scurried off down fucking Euclid Avenue, probably thirty fucking years before you were fucking born."
―Al Swearengen to Dolly[src]

Al Swearengen came from an English family, and it was rumored that he descended from British nobility; either way, he and his mother would find themselves in Chicago. There, he was dumped outside an orphanage on Euclid Avenue with nothing but $7.60 by his mother who was "on her way to sucking cock in Georgia". The orphanage was run by matron Mrs. Anderson, a figure he would look back on with hatred in his later life, where he was beaten and abused; he would never forget waking up at five in the morning to hearing "fat Mrs. Anderson" ringing her bell. Brutal life in the orphanage helped shape Al into the cruel, hard-hearted man he would become, leaving in his mind a miserable, almost cynical view of the world around him: an unforgiving world that didn't care about him, and in which he would have to kill and back-stab whoever necessary to protect himself - because who else would? Mrs. Anderson also ran the adjoining brothel next door to the orphanage, allowing Al both to be acquainted early on with that lifestyle and to become comfortable with the idea of prostitution.[3]

At some point he was taken in by a surrogate family, but life became no easier for Al. His adoptive brother suffered from seizures, which deeply affected his "father" who took out his sorrow on Al in the form of rough beatings he would never forget - as an adult, he would reflect that he'd have been better off at the orphanage had Mrs. Anderson not been a pimp. One of the harshest beatings he suffered was after his brother's funeral following his death likely due to his disease, during which Al was horribly smacked around and claimed to have had a headache for three weeks as a result.[3]

When leaving Chicago, Al returned to Mrs. Anderson's place, now a girl's orphanage and still attached to the brothel, and bought the whore Dolly with whom he boarded a wagon for Laramie without looking back.[3]

Time in Deadwood[]


"Welcome to fucking Deadwood!"
―Al Swearengen[src]

Before moving away, Al stabbed a man to death in what he claimed was self-defense, becoming notable to the authorities as a result and eventually feeling the need to get as far away from the law as possible. This would lead him to Deadwood, a developing mining camp situated amidst a large gold claim which was known for its lawlessness. After an initial period in Deadwood, the US Cavalry rousted all settlers from the Dakota area, as the land was still technically the property of the Sioux. Swearengen, however, soon returned and by 1876 had built the Gem Saloon, a pub and brothel offering drinks, whores and games of chance, from which he also ran a number of criminal operations and for a time became perhaps the most powerful man in Deadwood, certainly the most respected and feared.[4]


Al conducting business from the Gem's bar

Certainly the two allies most vital to Al's success in Deadwood were Trixie and Dan Dority. Trixie was Al's favorite whore at the Gem who slept with him most nights in his room on the top floor, and was useful to him not only sexually but also as the only person he could vent his thoughts and feelings to after each day passed - occasionally, Trixie would even offer advice invaluable both to Al and his underlings; she was, without a doubt, the only woman he had such a connection with, as when she was unavailable to him and he tried using other whores instead, Al found himself getting nowhere. Trixie's own feelings toward Al, on the other hand, were complex and uncertain - being of a high intelligence quite possibly rivaling that of Swearengen himself, Trixie was always aware of the futility of staying with someone like him who abused her beyond recognition and on the surface seemed to care very little for her, yet she would continually come willingly back to him every night even after several desperate attempts to force herself to move away.[4]

Dan, to the contrary, was an extremely powerful (though equally emotional) former bushwhacker who had been a friend to Al for years before Deadwood, working as a barman and right-hand-man at the Gem as well as a criminal enforcer and bodyguard to Al's darker side. Dan and Al had a bond mirroring his with Trixie but in a more professional and rational manner, Dan being chief advisor to Al for business in the town and initially his only protector when things got dangerous. When necessary, Dan was even comfortable with killing for Al, often suggesting it before anything else. As well as Dan, Al's other employees were Johnny Burns, Jimmy Irons and Davey. Burns' loyalty to Al would become near-equal to Dan's in their later years at the camp, but to begin with he was nothing more than a clumsy, simple-minded extra hand; Jimmy was a doped-up scumbag of no real use to Al, serving only as a connection to the Chinese-run area of crime in the camp; and Davey was the young bartender who stayed out of his boss' criminal affairs.[4]

Early on in his business in Deadwood, Al made alliances, some steadier than others, with many other figures invaluable to the camp. These included E.B. Farnum, cowardly owner of the Grand Central Hotel who recognised protection and fame in working for Al, a dubious degenerate whose facade Al saw right through but decided to keep on anyway on the off-chance he could be of some use; Mr. Wu, the man in charge of the "celestials" in the camp who spoke no English and would have to sketch pictures in order to communicate with Swearengen; "Doc" Cochran, the only doctor in camp and one of the few men in Deadwood with somewhat of a moral centre; and Whitney Ellsworth, a professional gold prospector who would sometimes sell gold to Al in exchange for fair money and drink.[4]

New allies; new problems[]

As hordes of new arrivals began pouring into Deadwood, problems began stacking up for Al. Among the new residents were the group led by Wild Bill Hickok, a famed gunslinger and former law-man, and companions including the outlaw Calamity Jane and prospector Charlie Utter. The trio came to the town for a stake in its gold - and all three would soon find themselves entangled in Al's affairs. Also new in the camp were Seth Bullock and Sol Star, who had come to make their fortune by opening Star & Bullock Hardware and were loaned a piece of Al's land by Dan to set up a temporary shop; Bullock was a former marshal with no hopes of continuing in that field, but nevertheless his days as a law officer were far from amusing to Al.[4]


Al makes the acquaintance of Seth Bullock

On the day of Hickok's arrival, Al and Dan heard a gunshot and commotion upstairs at the Gem. Upon investigating they discovered Trixie had shot a customer in the head, claiming he had been beating on her. The Doc was called, but only in time to watch the man die and extract the bullet from his head while Al brought Trixie alone to his office and started to beat her relentlessly; although nobody had been in the bar when the man was killed other than its employees and Ellsworth, who only heard the shot, Al still felt the need to punish Trixie for risking the Gem's reputation, and demanded she turn in the gun she had used.[4]

Hickok and Bullock became problematic to Swearengen when it was reported by Ned Mason, one of Al's road agents, that the Sioux had massacred a family near the camp, and the two former lawmen volunteered to lead a search party out to investigate. Immediately they were suspicious of Ned - indeed, along with his brother Tom Mason and Persimmon Phil, Ned had butchered the travelers in a robbery staged like a Sioux killing. To further complicate things, a survivor, Sofia Metz, was found hiding near the site, and was quickly returned to Doc Cochran. Seeing right through Ned's ruse and now enraged seeing the orphaned child, Hickok and Bullock confronted Mason, but when the man attempted to draw on them he was gunned down with ease. Al watched Ned die from his window at the Gem, before getting into bed with Trixie who, despite the earlier beating, left her gun on Al's desk and got into bed with him.[4]

Behind the scenes[]

Al Swearengen was played by Ian McShane in all three seasons of Deadwood, appearing in every episode. McShane won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Drama and a TCA Award for Individual Achievement in Drama for his role on the show, and furthermore was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, a Satellite Award, a TCA and two Screen Actors Guild Awards.[5]

McShane reprised his role in Deadwood: The Movie, which he also executive produced alongside Timothy Olyphant who played Seth Bullock.


Episodes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Season 1
Season 2
Season 3
The Movie
Appears Appears as a corpse Appears in a flashback


  1. 1.0 1.1 Deadwood: The Movie
  2. Ian McShane on IMDb
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Season 1 Episode 12 "Sold Under Sin"
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named S01E01
  5. Ian McShane on Wikipedia