Saturday, June 10, 2006

Dear David Milch: A Deadwood Wish List

Hopefully this doesn't shatter anyone's illusions, but a lot of the early pieces on this blog were reworked versions of essays I had written months, and sometimes even years, before it came into existence. Not having a forum for them, I put them aside, satisfied that I had at least gotten what I wanted to say out of my system. After AtWQ came into being, I found myself going back to my archives and digging out some of these old essays in order to repost them here. This piece is the very last one of them--based, albeit quite loosely, on a wish list I wrote nearly a year ago, at the end of Deadwood's second season. Happily, just as the show's third (and apparently not-quite-final) season is about to get started, some of my online friends have begun watching and writing about the first two--check out Dan Hartland's essays about the first and second seasons, and the discussion that arose when Niall Harrison expressed his dissatisfaction with the show--which helped reshape this essay. To be perfectly honest, in spite of the fact that it was clearly inferior to the first, a lot of my complaints about the second season leave me uneasy--I can't help but wonder whether, rather than criticizing the show as it is, I am criticizing it for not being the show I'd like it to be.

In its first season, Deadwood focused on exploding the conventions of two myths--the genre of the Western, with its laconic, uncomplicated characters, starkly divided between shining white good and deep black evil, in which problems were swiftly and decisively resolved by the quickest draw, and the myth of American expansion into the Wild West, which forms a substantial part of the American self-definition, with its focus on individuality, self-actualization, the value of tenacity and hard work, and the notion of civilization and the rule of law creeping, ever so slowly, across the American continent. It is that second myth in particular that is countered by the juxtaposition of Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen, two nearly-allegorical characters. Bullock, a man of law, finds himself frequently overcome by an impulse towards violence that is no less terrifying for being grounded in a desire for justice. Decent and kind, he is also quick-tempered, unfriendly, and socially inept. Swearengen, a man capable of brutal violence even towards those he cares about, is also an enthusiastic student of human nature, and capable of an effortless geniality. He has a nearly-joyous understanding of, and appreciation for, humanity's frailty and tenacity, and a deep belief in a man's right to stake out his own claim and fight for it against interests greater and more powerful than he is. Al sees the world as a place of struggle, with no room for the false niceties of law and civilization, but perversely enough this viewpoint is the least cruel and most hopeful aspect of his personality--even within his games of power and control, he holds out the hope that the weak might, through some miracle of determination or intelligence or luck, triumph over the strong. The first season saw these two characters struggle with each other even as they came to the understanding that both were necessary for Deadwood's survival--Bullock's staunch moralism and Al's pragmatic cruelty--and, if we return for a moment to realm of allegory, to the creation of a viable, civilized society.

The second season added a new level of complication by ending Deadwood's isolation from the world, and introducing outside interests both financial and political. In contrast to Al's benevolent, all-but-idealistic form of capitalism, there came the Hearst corporation, representing a grasping, mindless, perpetually unsatisfied thirst for wealth, as exploitative of its workers as any Victorian factory (in a neat contrast to the first season's emphasis on individual endeavor, which also forms an integral part of the American myth). As storylines proliferated and became more complicated, and as Deadwood began taking on a life of its own, the notion of writing the show as a deliberate perversion of the Western genre became untenable, and the writers were forced to abandon it. Even in its exploded form, however, that genre had imbued Deadwood with a certain structure, and having lost that aspect of itself, the show's second season veered towards shapelessness. To be perfectly honest, I preferred the show as a relatively simple yet fundamentally confused tale of good and evil working both with and against each other, and found the second season's tangled storylines unsatisfying. As Dan Hartland argues in his essay on the second season, however, this change was in many ways a necessary and organic one--Deadwood is growing, and can't be kept in its pristine, isolated condition--and I believe I might have come to accept it, had the writers done a better job with the second season's plot and character development.

Representing the Hearst corporation for most of the second season was Francis Wolcott, a clever, self-important, deeply demented man, who, several episodes into the season works out his sexual dysfunction by slitting the throats of three whores. Stripped of Garret Dillahunt's chilling performance and the writers' intelligent, affecting dialogue, Wolcott the character, and the storyline he was given, wouldn't have been out of place in a John Grisham novel--the corporate officer so twisted that the only form of self-expression available to him (on those rare occasions when he allows himself to be anything other than the representative of powerful financial interests) is monstrous. At the end of the season (and, according to the previews*, continuing into the third season) Wolcott was relieved by his employer, George Hearst, to whom the news of Wolcott's depravity came as a disturbing distraction from his one consuming interest--'finding the color'. A man who has sublimated his humanity, and another who may never have possessed it--these are the representatives of capitalism in Deadwood's second season, and although to a certain extent this is an understandable choice on the writers' part, there's no denying that by focusing on these flat characters and on a sensational, overwrought plotline, the writers cheapen their show.

But of course, neither Wolcott nor Hearst hold a candle to Cy Tolliver when it comes to flat characterization. At the very top of my wish list last year was the fervent desire that the knife wound inflicted on Cy at the end of last season prove fatal. Even at the time, I knew this was probably too much to ask for, and Powers Boothe's return to the show was indeed swiftly confirmed. Cy's introduction in the first season was obviously meant to free Al up from the demands of being the camp's chief bad guy. Al was allowed to have nuance, but Cy seemed to have walked off the set of Stagecoach, or any other of the Westerns that Deadwood was supposed to be a response to. In the second season, Cy took center stage as the town's premier mover and shaker, but as a character he was even further flattened, until he became nothing more than a boogeyman, whose appearance heralds overwrought speeches and almost certain violence. Cy is an entirely predictable character--his emotional palette is limited to 'subtly sinister' and 'overtly threatening', and by the end of the second season, we can more or less write his scenes for him, so obvious and simplistic is his thought process. It baffles me when television writers and viewers refer to characters of Cy's ilk--characters made up of nothing but exaggerated mannerisms and inhuman emotional reactions--as 'fun'. In small doses, maybe, but when Cy sucks up the air, and the airtime, from actual people, I cease to enjoy myself.

One can't escape the impression that, in its second season, Deadwood came dangerously close to becoming another Rome--a show so entranced by the neatness of its premise that it neglects to do anything interesting with it, giving itself over to the sensational and the unsubtle. Plotlines in the second season were for the most part dull (Al's attempts to get Deadwood annexed by South Dakota), bizarrely pointless (Miss Isringhausen), or maudlin (William's death, the murder of the whores). Interesting, established first season characters were either ignored or made part of less interesting second season storylines--Jane and Charlie are folded into Joanie's problems with Wolcott (and I do remember a rumor a few months back about a possible lesbian relationship between Jane and Joanie in the third season); Doc Cochran is trotted out briefly to recoil at Cy's treatment of the Chinese sex slaves.

Even the main characters spend the second season concerned almost exclusively with domestic, soap-opera storylines. Instead of a character torn between the demands of justice and those of the law, Seth Bullock became a character torn between his wife and his pregnant ex-mistress. There was a certain pathos in the show's treatment of this dilemma early in the second season, when it mirrored what must be the central question of Bullock's existence--whether to do as he likes or as he knows to be right--but as a protracted storyline, it left the character with nothing to do except look pained. The death of Bullock's adopted son only further entangles the character in the domestic and leaves him oblivious to political machinations that should be his business. Politically, Bullock goes from Al's equal and opposite to his flunky, who acts in accordance to Al's wishes but does so almost in a haze, too preoccupied with his personal problems to care about his role as a representative of law.**

Which brings us, of course, to Al, and in his case I think the rot was already setting in halfway through the first season, when Cy, and not Al, killed the two young grifters in a storyline that obviously should have gone to Swearengen. It's been a long time since Al hurt anyone we actually cared about, or didn't think deserved to be hurt, and as a result the character has steadily progressed from villain to anti-hero to lovable rogue to genial elder statesman. The man who stepped on Trixie's throat for daring to shoot a customer who beat her is now pushing her towards a better life. The man who mocked Bullock for his affair with Mrs. Garret (out of a peevish exasperation with what he perceived--perhaps quite accurately--as Bullock's hypocrisy) later urges him silently to leave Mrs. Garret alone and go home to his wife. The man who ran opium and employed robbers (the men who murdered Sophia's family) now spends most of his time playing politics and talking to a head in a box. For all that Deadwood's writers try to make us believe it, Al Swearengen hasn't been dangerous in a long time, and the show suffers for this simplification of his character.

So, if I have a wish list for Deadwood's third season, it is that its main characters return to form--that Bullock become again a player in the town's politics, that Al demonstrate the capacity and the willingness to hurt even those who might not deserve it, that Cy be marginalized, and that Hearst prove a more interesting, more believable character than Wolcott. Which, to a certain extent, is asking that the show turn back the clock, go back to the forms of the first season instead of moving forward, and therefore a little unfair. But it is also asking for good, thought-provoking television instead of a 19th century soap opera. Deadwood's first season proved that the writers had this show in them--let the third season take us forward into the story, but back to that show.

* If you haven't done so already, be sure to check out the third season previews on HBO's official site. Apart from the fact that they are fantastically well-made--I swear to God, the HBO promo department is gunning for the creation of a new Emmy category--they offer an interesting commentary on the show's central theme. It is, of course, exceedingly amusing to juxtapose scenes from the third season with a voiceover of the characters reading passages from scripture, but what are we to make of the choice of passages? Are the promo people being particularly ironic when they have Al Swearengen tell us that 'you cannot drink the chalice of the lord and the chalice of devils', or 'blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God', or are they suggesting that, even in Deadwood, there exists a distinction between good and evil?

** The only upside to this emasculation of Bullock's character is that it gave Alma Garret a chance to shine, and to quickly become the most interesting character in the cast. The first and second season were essentially a sped-up process of maturation for Mrs. Garret, as she went from a drugged, dependent child to a powerful woman whose intelligence and determination shine through the carefully applied mannerisms of a Victorian lady. She's by no means a good person--she is often imperious, self-willed, and brusque, especially when her desires go ungratified--but she recognizes that propensity towards selfishness in herself, and in the second season in particular we saw her act to combat it, even accepting Ellsworth's marriage proposal as a way of sparing the grieving Bullocks the humiliating sight of her pregnancy.


Anonymous said...

I whole-heartedly agree that Swearengen was largely emasculated as a dangerous force in season 2, which frustrated me. In focusing on his genial politicking to the excusion of all else, the character lost a great deal of what made him such a compelling contradiction.

Likewise I found a lot of the season unnecessarily meandering and diffuse, with several plotlines which steadfastly refused to move forward, or come into focus. I was aware of holding my breath, waiting for all the plotlines to fall neatly into place, only to realise that events were never coing to coalesce and fuse as they did in Season 1. Perhaps this is, as you say, a problem of expectations - but it makes for less satisfying and interesting viewing. It doesn't help that a lot of the political manouevring is impenetrable and technical, lacking human interest or narrative drive.

Tulliver didn't annoy me as much as he did you, but I agree with most of your observations about him. As with many of the characters in Season 2 he became one-note, repeating the same trait over and over without progressing.

Despite all of that I did enjoy season 2, particularly towards the end, but it's a much lesser show than it was in its first year. I don't think there's a single part of your wish-list that I could argue with.

Anonymous said...

May I point out that season one of Deadwood more or less followed historically documented fact with all the characters true (in the main) to what we know about them -- effort was even made to find actors who closely resembled the individuals they played (all except Bullock, of course . . . being the leading man he had to be good looking). The only important fictional character added was Alma.

One of the problems with season two is that it wandered too far into fiction. The historical Mrs. Bullock, for example, is much more interesting than HBO's version.

Anonymous said...

Interesting; I didn't know that.

It sounds silly but I've avoided looking into the historical reality in case it coloured my perceptions of the show. I had a general feel that S1 stayed broadly close to reality, so I assumed that S2 was the same way - particularly given the tedious political backdrop.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I haven't made a study of Deadwood's history (my mother usually does that sort of thing for me) but I do remember reading that following the events depicted in the first season the town was visited by Wyatt Earp, who had some altercations with Seth Bullock. In other words, if the writers had wanted to, they could have continued to tell a story in the Western vein, but chose to shift the action several months forward and to the arrival of Hearst's agents in town (although I don't know whether Hearst really stayed in the town himself - he didn't have an agent named Wolcott, according to this website).

Anonymous said...


Digital Deadwood is a good place to start

Some of the 'minor' characters in the show are the most interesting historically, like Preacher Smith

Anonymous said...

If Abigail mentions Hearst, I should add the Homestake Gold Mine

which was actually in Lead, South Dakota, not Deadwood

Anonymous said...

As we've said elsewhere, it's not that you're wrong about season two, it's just that I think it's very clearly trying something different. I therefore find criticising it on the basis of season one a tad unfair, though I certainly agree with you and Iain that the season's main plot lacked dynamism.

On the subject of Al - there's a scene in the first episode of season two in which Adams is informing Al about Yankton's machinations. Dan suggests he go to Yankton and slit the politcians' throats. Al considers it a moment, then throws it out as a workable solution. As you say, he's a pragmatist - he operates in the manner best suited to his environment. It makes sense to me that he would moderate his behaviour to deal with the new threat to his money pit.

Unlike you, I don't want to see a return to the 'Wild' Western of S1 - I've seen that, and am happy to move on. Where I will join forces with you, though, is in hoping that season three treats its subjects and settings with more focus and polyphony than season two did. (Though obviously I think you vastly underestimate the complexity of season two. ;P)

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with what Dan said about Al being a pragmatist. I just finished watching season 2 and feel that when you take into consideration Al's illness and its after affects, as well as the changing political nature of Deadwood, Al's old system of violence just doesn't work, and Al is cunning enough to realize this. On the flip side of that remember, we see in the finale of season 2 that Al will resort to violence when he feels its a fitting solution, such as when he sends his men out to help Wu get rid of the San Francisco Tong agent.

While watching Season 2 I was struck with the idea that Al had become a lot like the Operative in Serenity. He's helping to maintain/create a world where the Elsworth's, E.B. Farnum's, Tom Nuttal's and other current residence of Deadwood can still belong once government enters the town, yet at the same time he's creating a world that he has no place in. Throughout season 2 small groups of people are becoming families; the Bullocks, Sol Star and Trixie, as well the grouping of Utter, Joanie, and Jane and even Elsworth, Alma and Sophia. As a whole Deadwood is becoming a community, we see this in the way they all come to grieve at William's Funeral, and come to celebrate at Alma's wedding. Yet in both these community gatherings Al is left standing on his balcony, incapable of joining in. While Al is puppetmaster pulling the strings on Deadwood's political future, encouraging Trixie to learn accounting, and introducing Adams into his mix of lackies showing Dan and Johnny new ways of handling problems, he's unconsciously ensuring the survivial of his small family in the future Deadwood. So while I enjoyed the evil Al of Season 1, I'm pleased to see that he's an evolving character, which I find makes him far more interesting to watch. I look forward to seeing if he'll find a place for himself in the new community he's building or if the world will move on without him, much like it did for the real Al Swearengen.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Reading your comments, Dan and Amber, I find myself experiencing roughly the same reaction that I do when I discuss Babylon 5 character arcs. On paper, these characters sound fascinating, and I wonder why I've been complaining about them. Then I remember that the execution was so very poor and unconvincing. Or, in Deadwood's case, simply not very interesting and out of the blue.

I like the idea that Al is tailoring himself to suit his environment, but I do wish the writers had worked harder to show a process of transition, and possibly a struggle with change - how believable is it, after all, that a thug like Al should also have the tools to cope with delicate political machinations? Also, I'll point out that quite a bit of Al's transformation has nothing to do with the demands of pragmatism - why is he suddenly so willing to see Trixie leave him, for example?

Amber, your thoughts on Al being left out of the community he had helped create are very intriguing, but again I think they're quite a bit more subtle than what's showing up on screen.

Anonymous said...

When one lets the storyline, the music and the rich authentic dialogue take you where it will, yit journeys you back in time which puts you there with the real folks as Milch brings his characters to life.
When I read reviews by people who have watched the series and remain unmoved by the series greatness, I am compelled to issue the following statement and I do so with assuredness:


Alan R Graham.
Lizard King Lounge Entertainment

At the end of the series it is fitting to quote Shakespeare.

The Tempest*

OUR revels are now ended. These our actors
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like the insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rock behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made of, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare

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