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.