Wednesday, August 30, 2006

We've Had Ours Served Cold: Scattered Thoughts at the End of Deadwood's Third Season

Hate me if you want to, but at this point, I'm actually relieved that Deadwood has been cancelled.

Those of you who read my pre-season wish list might feel that I'm being a tad ungrateful, perhaps even hypocritical. After all, I did wrap up that essay by concluding that
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, by and large, is what the third season has delivered. Cy was indeed marginalized--not only in terms of the character's screen time but within the story itself. Much as I would have preferred to see Cy unceremoniously dumped from the show, there was a certain gratification to be found in watching him realize how incidental to the running of the camp he had become. Bullock once again took up his role as a leader in the camp (albeit with Al none-too-subtly directing his moves) and with the murder of Jen in the season finale, Al Swearengen finally broke his two-and-a-half season dry spell and killed someone who genuinely didn't deserve to die (although it does appear that the writers were eager to soft-pedal the murder's effect, given that Jen's death prevented Trixie's, and that we hardly knew the character, and that neither Bullock nor Sol breathed a word of recrimination against Al).

Best of all, in George Hearst, Deadwood's writers finally created a worthy, terrifying, and utterly despicable villain. Gerald McRaney gives a chilling performance (I'd be talking Emmys right now if it weren't for the fact that this is the same institution that has deprived Ian McShane of his dues not once but twice) as a man who is both furiously intelligent and completely selfish. It's actually quite rare for a television show to feature a villain who is both powerful and disgusting--bad guys being famously fun to write for, most shows fall into the trap of making their villains charismatic and seductive (Deadwood tried to go down that path twice, with Tolliver and Francis Wolcott, albeit without great success, and was headed that way with Al before he became a good guy)--but every time we came close to feeling sympathy or pity or admiration for George Hearst, he proved himself yet again to be a bully and a sociopath, and ultimately, too much for our heroes to handle.

But I'm still glad that Deadwood is cancelled, because in spite of these welcome developments on the character front, and in spite of the fact that the third season's highlights included some of the most stunning and exciting bits of television I've seen in a long time (including what is, bar none, the most affecting and harrowing death of a regular character I've ever experienced), the season as a whole dragged. Out of twelve episodes, maybe three--"Unauthorized Cinnamon," "A Constant Throb," and "The Catbird Seat"--were genuinely excellent, and the rest combined the sublime with the tedious and the downright bizarre. It's painfully clear that the writers had no idea what to do with the entirety of their allotted twelve hours--the story they wanted to tell taking up maybe four--and so they resorted to proliferating secondary and tertiary storylines and drawing them out remorselessly.

When Hostetler returns to the camp with the horse that killed William Bullock and squares off against Steve for ownership of the livery, there's some genuine tension in the air--not least because the storyline provides Bullock with a welcome opportunity to act outside of Al's influence as he desperately strives to prevent his son's death from spawning another senseless tragedy (this is, by the way, the only acknowledgment of William's very recent death over the course of the entire season). But the storyline keeps going in the next episode, and the one after that. Even after Hostetler's death, the characters keep cropping up and insulting one another again and again and again. If I didn't know better, I'd say the horse that lobotomized Steve was meant to stand in for the exasperated viewers.

The same might be said of Aunt Lou and her ill-fated son (although that storyline does serve to cast a light on Hearst's sadistic personality), and then there are the actors. Now, don't get me wrong: I think Brian Cox made an excellent addition to an already superior cast, and I very much enjoyed his character's interactions with Al and Hearst and even his shorter shared scenes with Joanie, Alma, and Bullock. But why in the name of all that is good and pure were we subjected to all the soapy melodrama surrounding the acting troupe? Who the hell are these people and why should we care about their petty squabbles when characters we've actually come to care about are dying and suffering off-screen? The mind boggles at the mindset that would willingly take us away from the Gem in the wake of Ellsworth's murder in order to watch the actors awkwardly welcome a new member into the troupe.

All this, I might point out, while established characters were left to languish in one-note roles. Trixie and Sol bicker and make up. Jane drinks and longs for Joanie. Doc coughs. Martha teaches and looks saintly and long-suffering. Alma, who was making such tremendous strides last season, goes back to the dope, which is really the entire story right there. The truth is that addiction is boring, and beyond the fact of it, there's really nothing much of interest to say about a person who descends into it. So Alma takes up laudanum again, screws up her life but good, and then disappears for several episodes (including the one in which the writers sanctimoniously have the whores point out that the men haven't invited Alma to the meeting of the camp elders--a sentiment that might have resonated a bit more if we didn't know that the character was a busy going through the DTs at the time) only to emerge from them clean with no indication of why she chose to quit again or how she managed to do it on her own.

If, like myself, you're a former Carnivalé fan, then I'm sure you find this situation very familiar. Like Deadwood, this other member of the rather small and exclusive club of cancelled HBO dramas had a very promising first season and a second season that dragged, too committed to the writers' established timeline to notice that the audience was turning away in droves. In its first season, Carnivalé established backstories for several of the freak show acts, and the season's minor storylines usually involved these characters in some way. In its second season, the writers decided to focus on one of these storylines--the one involving the Dreyfus family, a mom and pop stripper act whose youngest member was brutally murdered in one of the first season's strongest episodes. Before long, the show seemed to have been split in two--half the air time was taken up by the battle between good and evil, and the other half by the Dreyfuses' dull domestic squabbles (the 'marriage imperiled in the wake of a child's death' storyline being only slightly less tedious than the one about the addict who goes back on the junk). Carnivalé got axed in the wake of its second season, and deservedly so. Deadwood deserves the same fate--clearly the TV movies that David Milch has been promised to wrap up the show's storyline (such as it is) are more suited to the kind of story he wants to tell. Sometimes restrictions are a good thing.

But are restrictions enough? Much as I enjoyed the battle of wits and personalities between Al and George Hearst, and as persuasive as the third season was as a metaphor for free-enterprise capitalism being swallowed whole by corporate capitalism (with Bullock weakly waving his little flag for the rule of law in the background), I'm not sure it made a very good story. Or at least, I'm not sure that the juxtaposition of Western elements and a more realistic history of Western expansion is working anymore. Throughout the season, the writers keep edging up to the point of painting the struggle between Hearst and Al in the terms of a Western--such as when Al gruffly announces that "[he's] having [his] served cold" after Hearst assaults him--but that threat and that promise are left unfulfilled. Ultimately, there is nothing Al can do to George Hearst, nothing the camp can do but capitulate. At which point, the character suddenly and for no sensible reason decides to leave, returning the camp to something resembling status quo in spite of the fact that before that point, it had been clearly and repeatedly stated that Hearst's victory would turn Deadwood into a company town and that the man was not willing to tolerate the existence of any power in the town save his own. The metaphor having been established, the characters' ideals having been thoroughly trampled through the mud, it seems to signify very little to the writers that the path they've taken to reach that point makes very little sense and is somewhat less than satisfying as a piece of storytelling.

It's possible, I suppose, that the Hearst storyline was meant to wrap up in the show's fourth season, although given Hearst's departure I'd call that unlikely. In the wake of the show's cancellation, however, we're left with a very strange, almost lop-sided artifact--some of the best line-by-line writing ever to appear on a television screen, and some of the worst and sloppiest plotting and pacing it has ever been my misfortune to suffer through. It remains to be seen whether David Milch will indeed get a chance to wrap up Deadwood's story, and if he does I'm very curious to see which David Milch shows up. Will it be the person who gave us Ellsworth's murder and Bullock's letter to the relatives of a murdered union organizer? Or will it be the man who ended this season--and possibly the show--on a shot of Al Swearengen angrily scrubbing the blood of yet another innocent off his floor, observing with disdain that the deceased's friend wants him to "tell him something pretty"? I may be oversensitive, but it strikes me that that comment was aimed at the show's viewers, who may be wondering how they can swallow such an ugly, unsatisfying ending. In which case, I reject Milch's defiance--of his viewers and of storytelling conventions. Ugliness isn't always a virtue.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

So like, are you a native English speaker? If English is your second or third language, I just may have to pummel you with a blunt object.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Heh. My mother's American, and we speak English at home, but I was born and raised in Israel. I think that counts as a native English speaker (that's where I got placed in high school, anyway).

Dan Hartland said...

You're not entirely wrong here, but you go too far in your excoriating, I think. Al's last line isn't a last shot at an audience upset with rough-hewn storytelling; it's the very essence of 'Deadwood', the thing you loved so much about it's first season. The myth of the West is telling us something pretty - 'Deadwood' set out to deprettify things.

I tend to agree that the arc this season was unsatisfying. It's probably the case that it was meant to be - after all, as you rightly point there is nothing Al or the camp can do to stop Hearst, and once he's won of course he's always going to leave immediately - but intention is no real defence.

Still, I'm not sure where you come to the conclusion that the conclusion will have no effect on Deadwood. We get precious little screentime for anything once Hearst has left, so we can only assume that what we've been told time and again is true - Deadwood will be a company town now, and the characters will exist within that framework. This is not to say that Al won't carry on selling booze and pussy; it is to say he will do it on someone else's terms. That's no small change.

So, yes, the subplots did not connect in the way they did during the first season. But, no, the show is not a repository of some of the worst plotting and pacing ever. And, sure, the actors were at best a distraction from other, short-changed characters. But, no, I don't buy that Sol or Alma or Trixie become uninteresting ciphers. It's always tempting to spin out quibbles and disappointments into a wholesale critique, but I think that's missing the nature of the season a little.

Way back, Charlie told us that consolidation of capital was apparently the way forward. From our own knowledge of history, we know Hearst will win. The third season was the story of the battle between Al and George; it was the story of the effects of that which George must do to win. What and who does he crush underfoot to do that which he is inevitably going to do? How do people in that fulcrum react and do they vainly attempt to protect the little systems and frameworks they have built for themselves? Is it noble or worthwhile to make that stand, and how strong do you have to be to make it?

Season 3 wasn't a battle - it was a rout from start to finish. And I think it becomes a better 12 hours from that perspective.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think there are two separate issues here, Dan, that have both been wrapped up into the notion of being told something pretty. Your argument, that Deadwood's mission is to deprettify things, is clearly correct, but it occurs to me that there's a difference between telling a story that is no longer pretty and telling a story - pretty or ugly - in an ugly way. It's the latter that I believe Deadwood's writers have done, and which I find to be a betrayal of their viewers. It's one thing to shatter the conventions of a specific genre. It's quite another to ignore the time-tested rules of good storytelling and offer precious little in compensation for their contravention.

Clearly, I had a stronger reaction to the season's missteps than you did, but you're going to have to point out a character arc for Sol or Alma or Trixie before I become convinced that I've overreacted.

As for what the future holds for Deadwood, we can both speculate as much as we like - with the show cancelled, there's no way to determine which way the writers were headed.

William Lexner said...

This may sound blasphmous, but it's just a television program.

Indeed, it's one of the best television programs to ever grace the screen, but it *is* a TV show.

I think you expect too much from TV. It's produced, even the high end HBO stuff, for the masses. If you're looking for the depth available in literature in a TV show or a movie, you're setting yourself up for dissapointment. Every damn time.

Deadwood was wonderful for what it was; something slightly better than mindless programming. To attack things for what they aren't is sometimes appealing, but to assail a quality TV show for not being perfect is fruitless.

It was what it was.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

William:

Firstly, I'm not aware of having assailed Deadwood for not being perfect. I complained about it being bad. There's a world of difference.

Secondly, 'it's just TV, it doesn't have to be good?' Is that really your argument? In the face of such shows as Veronica Mars, the first season of Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, selected seasons of Whedonverse shows, and, hell, the first season of Deadwood, you're truly comfortable making the argument that the best television can achieve is mindless entertainment for the masses?

If so, well, so be it, but I hold television to a higher standard and, as the list above and various entries on this blog would indicate, I quite frequently find material that lives up to that standard.

And finally,

It was what it was.

Would you mind explaining why, in the face of that sentiment, anyone should offer an opinion about any work of fiction ever again?

William Lexner said...

Veronica Mars?

I do not believe that the highest level that TV can attain is mindless entertainment. I believe it is rare, however, for it to rise above such. Deadwood certainly did that. Deadwood Season 3 most certainly did that.

It was even, dare I say it, good television. Good for television, anyway. I assumed you were working on the assertion that overal, you liked the show. I'm rather shocked that you found it bad. And in comparison to.....Veronica Mars? I suppose there is no acounting for taste.

The medium is incapable of the depth and breadth of literature, so to compare the two is absurd.

A friend, drunk at a science fiction convention earlier this year, stated: "I just don't think you take Dungeons & Dragons seriously enough."

It was incredibly funny, because he meant it. As is your 'holding television to a higher standard,'
because I think you mean it.

If your standards assert that one of the 5 best television programs...of all time....is crap, then what ranks good on your scale?
(Admittedly, BSG, Soprano's, and Firefly are certainly meritorious. Please, oh please, don't tell me how anything else by Whedon is watchable.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Veronica Mars?

Just out of curiosity, have you ever watched the show?

I do not believe that the highest level that TV can attain is mindless entertainment. I believe it is rare, however, for it to rise above such. Deadwood certainly did that. Deadwood Season 3 most certainly did that.

OK, I'm just trying to puzzle out your argument here. I argued that Deadwood's third season was deeply flawed. You responded with 'who cares? It's just television.' I was understandably upset - by rhetorical standards, this is only one peg above 'if you hate it so much, why do you bother to write about it?' and expressed said dissatisfaction by pointing out that I do believe television can achieve genuine quality. At which point you turned around and announced that, well, Deadwood's third season was quality, and that clearly there's something wrong with me for not seeing that.

In other words, not only are you arguing with me, you're arguing with yourself. Which is it - am I wrong to argue that Deadwood's third season is bad or am I wrong to discuss television in serious terms at all?

The medium is incapable of the depth and breadth of literature, so to compare the two is absurd.

Well, first of all, I'm not the one who compared the two. That was you, when you wrote that

If you're looking for the depth available in literature in a TV show or a movie, you're setting yourself up for dissapointment.

I'm not aware of having made any references to literature one way or another.

Secondly, I don't accept your comparison. Of course television isn't capable of the same things that literature is capable of. They're different mediums. If they weren't different, with different strengths and weaknesses, there wouldn't be any point in having two of them, would there? To say that television isn't capable of the same depths as literature is as tautological as arguing that music isn't capable of achieving the safe effects as architecture, and just as meaningless.

Finally, I'd like to know which of the television shows I listed you would consider to be qualitatively worse than, say, The Da Vinci Code, or your average Star Wars novel, or even something frothy and insignificant like the novels of Jasper Fforde or Kage Baker (be aware: if you respond by saying that you weren't talking about popular fiction but rather serious lit-er-a-toor, I'm going to ask you to quantify the difference). You might argue that one is more likely to find quality novels than quality television, but it occurs to me that there are hundreds of thousands of novels published each year compared to a hundred - maybe two hundred - television shows. I suspect the ratio of dross to gold is pretty much the same in both mediums.

William Lexner said...

I think you missed the tag 'for television.' Deadwood is quality, for television. But at it's best, it's barely better than mindless.

And I do believe that Deadwood was one of the best TV shows ever made. Perhaps I should have been clearer, however, in stating that this is not very high praise.

I also do believe there is more depth to Jasper Fforde and Kage Baker than there has ever been to any television show, anywhere, anywhen. (Though admittedly I've only read The Eyre Affair and Primary Inversion.) I'd even assert that Timothy Zahn's Star Wars books, which I read as a young teenager, were better than anything available on television, sans live sporting events. I won't go so far as to compliment the DaVinci Code.

Regardless, your argument fails, because you are purportedly speaking of the best of TV, and comparing it to the mediocre of literature.

I read your comment about fiction as literature. My bad.

I watched the pilot of Veronica Mars, against my better judgement, due to high praise from a friend whose taste runs to 'less than stellar.' It was -- like the vast majority of television -- unwatchable.

We obviously have differing views on TV. I deem every second spent in front of it a waste of valuable time. (I occasionaly waste that time, anyway.) You're looking for quality entertainment when you already know where superior entertainment is located.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I also do believe there is more depth to Jasper Fforde and Kage Baker than there has ever been to any television show, anywhere, anywhen

I am sorely tempted to ask you to put your money where your mouth is. Compare, say, The Eyre Affair - basically a single joke extended over 300 pages of not-very-good prose - to the first season of The Sopranos, taking into account plot development, character arcs, themes. I'd really like to see how you manage to bring The Sopranos in second.

Regardless, your argument fails, because you are purportedly speaking of the best of TV, and comparing it to the mediocre of literature

I'm sorry, no, that was you. You're the one who wrote about television being incapable of the depth and breadth of literature, without any qualifiers. You're the one who, in my quote above, talks about any television show anywhere, anywhen. Implicit (hell, explicit) in these statements is the claim that the worst that literature has to offer is better than the best that television can produce. I'm just asking you to stand by your own words.

May I ask, William, whether your disdain for television extends also to cinema? Do you believe that film is as inherently limited a medium as its small-screen counterpart?

William Lexner said...

Cinema is not as limited, but certainly not capable of what literature is.

Movies are talking stories; made and marketed, for the most part, for those who do not, can not, and won't be bothered to read. There are good movies. There are even great movies. But no movie ever made compares to the best of literature.

Your The Eyre Affair vs. Sopranos argument is, yet again, a deeply flawed one. There is more depth to The Eyre Affair than to the pilot episode of The Sopranos. The Eyre Affair is not a 12 or 13 book series, and so it can not be compared to an entire season of a television program with any intellectual honesty.

The absolute worst that literature has to offer is *not* better than the best of cinema and television. I don't know where you found this 'explicit' assertion, but I did not and do not make it.

I do not read the worst that literature has to offer. I wouldn't know anything about it. But a decent novel is indeed better than anything ever produced for the screen. That was my assertion.

And the best that literature has to offer? It ought to make you turn off the television.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Cinema is not as limited, but certainly not capable of what literature is.

OK, then what's the difference between television and cinema? For that matter, where does theatre fall on the spectrum, and why? What about the other performing arts - opera, music, dance?

Your The Eyre Affair vs. Sopranos argument is, yet again, a deeply flawed one. There is more depth to The Eyre Affair than to the pilot episode of The Sopranos. The Eyre Affair is not a 12 or 13 book series, and so it can not be compared to an entire season of a television program with any intellectual honesty.

Well, I disagree with the last part (the novel is, after all, made up of chapters), but alright - please demonstrate how The Eyre Affair has greater depth than the pilot episode of The Sopranos.

John Anderson said...

TV is entertainment. And "Deadwood" entertained me to a degree I've seldom experienced. I loved it. Each episode transported me to a place in time. Never- with the possible exception of the Leone spaghetti westerns- have I "felt" a show about the truly wild west so intensely. I felt every aspect of it was brilliant.

John Anderson said...

TV is entertainment. And "Deadwood" entertained me to a degree I've seldom experienced. I loved it. Each episode transported me to a place in time. Never- with the possible exception of the Leone spaghetti westerns- have I "felt" a show about the truly wild west so intensely. I felt every aspect of it was brilliant.

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