ashthomas//blog: Deadwood Season Three Reviews


Monday, June 12, 2006

Deadwood Season Three Reviews

One of the best blogs for those who take television seriously is Matt Zoller-Seitz's The House Next Door. For the last couple of weeks, in the lead up to the beginning of the third season of Deadwood on HBO, Matt has been hosting Deadweek, a forum for essays by both Matt and guests. There have been a number of great pieces, from examinations of characters (Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane, Silas Adams, Ellsworth, Merrick, a group portrait of the women) to episode recaps.

One of my favourite's so far has been an essay comparing Deadwood with the Godfather. Andrew Dignan's "From Caesar to Corleone; the dramatic evolution of "Deadwood"" is very insightful, especially in its comparisons between Seth Bullock and Michael Corleone. Dignan recognises the complexities that occasionally alienate viewers:

A densely plotted serial belonging to the least popular of genres, the western, “Deadwood” owes as large a debt to high school civics class as it does to the shoot-out at the OK Corral. With its pug-face character actors, horseshit-speckled costumes, convoluted dialogue and the foulest disposition you're likely to find outside of the local drunk tank, the show is what you’d charitably call "an acquired taste."


In expanding the conflict beyond the immediate loss of life and into the loss of a way of life, both “Deadwood” and "The Godfather" risk alienating fans that have come to expect nothing more than lurid thrills, bursts of violence and t-shirt worthy quips. Overly ambitious, unwieldy and lacking some of the more exhilarating flashes of their predecessor, both of these masterpieces faced initial criticism for diluting the strength of what came before.

Yet by delving deeper into the rot of corruption, both ultimately reveal much about the men at the center of their respective stories. While Michael’s grasp for power and inability to trust those around him dooms him to a life of solitude and misery, Al proves to be a forward-thinking pragmatist, sacrificing personal gain in the form of a spurned bribe to help insure the lasting legitimacy of a newly rectified charter. Michael is insistent on moving against those who have wronged him, but men like Bullock and Swearengen put aside their differences, placing the strength of the camp above all else.


Consider some of the conflicts and inciting incidents of “Deadwood” Season Two: Territorial disputes. Installing the electoral process. Becoming annexed by existing territories. Real estate purchases. Validating land ownership claims. Pursuing representation in local government. Government officials issuing misleading press reports. Sexy stuff, right? The thrills of "Godfather Part II" include buying out ownership of casinos, haggling over gambling licenses and bribes to politicians, aquiescing to a decrepit mobster, investing in Third World countries, working with corrupt governments and testifying before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime.

These are the things that, for me, are the draw cards; to see David Milch turn such material into the intense and riveting, rich and rewarding story that he has is an inspiration for those of us who believe that there is a place on television for intelligent and mature drama.

Now that the first episode of season three has aired in the US (we in Australia will have to wait for it to be shown on Foxtel, released on DVD, or otherwise make its way onto our harddrives), the reviews are coming in. Matt Zoller-Seitz, in his day-job as critic for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, describes the opening scenes,

The camera descends from sky to earth, first revealing aspiring kingmaker and gangster boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) standing on the balcony of his saloon, the Gem. He confirms an order to his henchman, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), down on the street, and Dan goes inside the Gem's spacious downstairs barroom, where he witnesses a confrontation between a group of Cornish mine workers and two other men, English-speakers who mock the workers' foreign tongue.

The story then cuts to a rooming house, where mining mogul George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) lies silently beneath his bed, thinking; there is something coldly sinister about this image, a touch of the sorcerer Prospero willing certain events into being. The bar confrontation escalates to gunfire, one Cornish worker is shot dead -- at Hearst's instigation -- and this season's dramatic engine has been revealed: the rivalry between Swearengen and Hearst for control of Deadwood.

Their battle occurs during the week of Deadwood's first elections, a critical period that promises to push this once primitive, still rowdy, often violent community a step closer to civilization.

Matt's observations about the structure of the show is interesting:

There's such depth and complexity to all these characters, and so much possibility for growth or backsliding, that you feel as if you've been given the keys to a human zoo, then told that you're welcome to wander around as long as you like. The result is the kind of democracy of imagination that you are more likely to experience when you listen to a certain piece of music and decide whether you want to pay special attention to the vocals, particular instruments or the song as a whole. You can fixate on particular characters or groups of characters, or you can think about how their individual stories jostle against each other like mitochondrial cells, their collective exertions pushing the whole organism in unexpected directions.

Matt's colleague at the Star-Ledger, Alan Sepinwall, comments on the same issues of plot and theme at his blog, "What's Alan Watching?":

So let me make sure I have this straight: the Cornish workers at Hearst's mining operation have been agitating for better pay and conditions, so Hearst sends a couple of his goons to kill one of the Cornish at The Gem, sending two messages in the process: 1) Organize against me and die, and 2) I can do whatever I want, wherever I want in this camp -- up to and including the place of business of Deadwood's unofficial mayor. And Swearengen, knowing that Hearst needs the elections to go forward as much as he does (elections legitimize the government, which in turn speeds up the process of annexation and helps assure a level of independence from Yankton), plays the one card he has at the moment by postponing the campaign speeches. That sound about right?

As Al put it to Dan, "Don't I yearn for the days a draw across the throat made fuckin' resolution?" Amen, brother.

In all seriousness, while Milch sometimes makes the plot and dialogue so labyrinthine that I feel the need to hire a Talmudic scholar to keep track of it all, I wouldn't want Al to still be the self-interested cutthroat from early in season one. Change is the dominant theme of "Deadwood" -- the change from lawlessness to order being the biggest, but personal change for everyone -- and no one has changed more than Albert (did we know that was the full name?) Swearengen. Anyone who watched the pilot episode -- in which Al looked like the black hat destined to go up against Wild Bill and/or Bullock -- and then jumped ahead to this one would probably be stunned at his transformation into this paragon of community.

Alan, who has seen the next five episodes as well, gives us some hints as to what to expect in the upcoming weeks, such as amazing acting by Gerald McRaney as Hearst, the introduction of Brian Cox as a theatre owner, and the possible appearance of Wyatt Earp.

I can't wait.


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