Monday, July 23, 2012


After an unnaturally long pause, probably prompted by a borderline-unhealthy obsession with Mass Effect 3, I've finally wrapped up the last few episodes of Deadwood. It was really good, and I'm glad that I finally took the time to watch this series that everyone has recommended to me for so long. The end of the third season isn't as transcendent as the Season One finale, or as rapturous as Season Two's, but it's a great story that continues to live comfortably (though never predictably) among the characters it has created.

I'd been worried for a while that I'd be left hanging in the wind when I was done; I've heard frequent grumbling about how HBO ended the show too soon. Perhaps because I was prepared for the worst, I was pleasantly surprised at how gracefully the series ended. Yes, it leaves several plot threads unresolved, but it doesn't end on a cliffhanger or anything truly intolerable like the last episode of Twin Peaks.

MINI SPOILERS (for season 3, mega for seasons 1-2)

On the whole, the third season felt looser and more discursive than the first two. That isn't necessarily bad, just another evolution in tone. The first season contained mostly recognizable Western elements (the quick-draw gun-fight, road agents, an Indian warrior, gambling, drinking, etc.), but squeezed together in so dense and intricate a form that it felt elevated to another genre. The second season transformed the underlying language of the show, giving it a surreal feel, as these dirty and despicable men began declaiming to one another in Elizabethan oratory. The third season feels like a third step in the evolution of a grimy TV show to an elaborate theatrical production. It introduces some honest-to-goodness actors! What in the world is a theatrical troupe doing in a dirty, dangerous, desperate mining camp? We never receive a satisfactory answer, and must merely watch, jaws wide open in astonishment, as Brian Cox wheels his way across the stage.

One of Deadwood's most impressive achievements is its depiction of evil. The first season is famously morally ambiguous, with Al Swearengen early on seeming like a clear devil with his whore-beating, throat-slitting, con-running, body-hiding, thoroughly corrupt ways. And yet, over time we (or at least I) can't help but come to admire him. The turning point for me comes in the second season, when he decides that, must as it pains him, he'll decline the bribe of $50,000 that the newly formed legislature in Yankton will offer him to support annexing Deadwood to the new Dakota territory (and not his contrived alliance with Montana). Why does he do this? It isn't out of a sense of honor or moral righteousness; Al has long since given up any thought of being admired as a virtuous person. He spins this as a kind of practicality: if Deadwood becomes part of the States, and all the attached claims are recognized as valid, then so much money will flow through Deadwood that his take of the action will be much larger than the proffered $50k. I think that, while Al certainly wouldn't use these terms, he actually does have a very deep sense of civic obligation. In a very real sense, Al CREATED this community, as one of the original settlers who labored to cut down trees and erect the first buildings. We see time and again throughout the series that Al will take action to protect the interests of the camp: he summons all the leaders to develop a plan for dealing with the plague, when Cy was content to try and bury the problem. Al recognizes that his interests and the camps' are inextricably linked, and I think it's this attachment to something bigger than himself that allows us to see his sins in another context and find something to like in him.

The first season's counterpart to Al is Cy. Initially, Cy comes across as the better man: he runs a classier joint, goes out of his way to ingratiate himself with the community (such as by offering Doc an unexpected raise), and at first glance seems to be nicer to his prostitutes. We soon see, though, that Cy is every bit as ruthless as Al when his interests are threatened; and, by the end of the season, we understand that he really only cares about himself. He doesn't have the roots in the community that Al does, and is content to capture as much wealth as he can from the people.

The second season gave us the series' scariest villain, Francis Wolcott. Wolcott is a geologist. A geologist! Can you think of anything less scary? Wolcott is terrifying because he seems to belong to a world that should be totally unconnected with fear: his job is to analyze the land, predict what kind of mineral wealth it contains, and assist George Hearst in purchasing said land. But a wicked, sadistic spirit fills him, and so we see a man with incredibly power and connections freed to indulge the most horrific whims. (This is a recurring theme in both Deadwood and Game of Thrones: the powerful have freedom to do horrible things that ordinary people could never do.)

At the end of the second season, we finally meet George Hearst himself, and he becomes the primary villain of the third season. I think that Hearst is the final step along the evolutionary ladder: Al is a pimp who openly does violence; Cy is a pimp who secretly does violence; Francis is a respectable man who secretly does violence; and George is a respectable man who never directly commits any acts of violence. And yet, Hearst is responsible for endless misery. He sits atop the machine of capitalism, and grinds down any who stand in his way. He rules through subordinates, who are only too happy to intimidate, beat, and murder anyone.

I'm tempted to say that Hearst is creepy because he's detached from the raw emotions of Al and Cy, and driven entirely by a bloodless lust for profit. The show doesn't support that theory, though. In his meeting with Mrs. Garret, he makes it abundantly clear that he's driven by reputation and pride. Accepting her offer would have given him what he claims to have wanted, and at no real cost to himself. He sees it as emasculating, though, and instead chooses to engage in a long-run, expensive campaign against her that ultimately leads to the death of some of his most capable lieutenants and an unknown loss of money. While Hearst seems much more civilized than Al, in some ways he's more primitive. Al will swallow an insult to his dignity if he believes that doing so will lead to a better outcome. Hearst, though, belongs to the class of man who is so wealthy and powerful that he never needs to choose between what he wants and what he needs. He is rich and ruthless enough that he can afford to spend endless money and lives to stoke his ego and get his way.


As for the ending itself... the big unknown is obviously how the elections turned out, but it sure looks like, at the end of this season, Hearst has left for good. There are a few other elements that seemed to be heading somewhere and didn't receive a conclusion by the end of the series: the theater people never did anything really important, and I'd have liked to see whether the black General lit out for San Francisco, or stayed to take over the livery. Oh, and I kept expecting the Earp brothers to come back to town. Come to think of it, there seemed to be more unresolved arcs at the end of the third season than either of the first two. None of them pain me too much, though, and I'm content to say, "Whelp, Hearst is gone, so I guess things are fine!"

If I could make a wish, I'd have them make a two-hour movie as a finale. I think that would let them wrap up the last few things and bring these characters' compelling lives to a dramatic conclusion.


Now that I've run out of material in the TV series, I'm looking forward to finally looking through Wikipedia and seeing where everything ended up. It's funny to need to worry about spoilers from something that actually happened over a hundred years ago. Anyways! Great show, phenomenally memorable characters, definitely worth checking out if you can stand the gore, language, and nudity.

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