In the interest of critical discipline and providing actual content, I’ve decided to take a page from Keith Gow’s now-defunct The New Review: A Day blog and post a review of something each and every day. Be it a review of a new or recent movie, TV series or episode, soundtrack, book, or comic, or an opinion piece on a major development in those industries, there will be new critical material on this blog each day.
This is probably a stupid and futile undertaking – which I hope will encourage understanding if this crashes and burns – but it’ll be a good way to get my arse into gear. There won’t be an essay in each post ala today’s, but there will be new critical material in some form. I hope you enjoy it (and my inevitable implosion).
First up, reflections on the third season of Deadwood.
A few weeks after its conclusion, I’ve finished the third season of Deadwood, and original superlatives are once again in short supply, as are words to convey the sadness that Deadwood the series has now ended. The movies perhaps aren’t as sure a proposition as they initially sounded, so we must face the possibility that this is the end. But that actually wouldn’t be as bad as I thought. Despite a season of odd priorities, the concluding episode could serve as a conclusion if need be. Along with the penultimate instalment, Milch presented us with a stunning tableau of unleashed tension and satisfying denouement, even though comeuppance was missing… which is to be expected in a show like Deadwood, after all.
Milch shook up the format a little this season by allowing the incursion of gold tycoon George Hearst to dominate the storytelling. While the ravaging force of capitalism began to make its mark last season in the form of the murderous Heart emissary Francis Wolcott, Hearst himself increased its magnitude immensely. He utterly reshapes the camp through sheer force of will, following up on his acquisition last season of every gold claim except Alma’s—whose refusal to sell gives us our first real glimpse of Hearst’s monstrous personality—with the start of a towering, almost demonic reign over the camp and its leaders. This naturally brings him into conflict with Ian McShane’s Swearengen, beautifully symbolised by McShane monitoring the camp from his balcony now being mirrored by Hearst, who knocks a jagged hole in the wall of his hotel room to do so.
Given the devastatingly intense impression that McShane and Powers Boothe (as Cy Tolliver) have made as unofficial camp overlords, it would take a remarkable actor to believably instil fear in them. Gerald McRaney’s single appearance last season gave no indication either way of his chances, but his performance in every episode of this one is staggering proof of his talent and that Swearengen can indeed feel fear, and we see it in his eyes. Hearst is a virtually invincible figure who is simultaneously aware that his passion for ‘the colour’ has cost him his ability to care for his fellow man—if the ability was there to begin with—and McRaney’s portrayal is the stuff of legend—his new show Jericho suddenly becomes must-see TV at the prospect of weekly McRaney. Hearst’s influence over Deadwood is a tragic glimpse into how easily but thoroughly power can utterly reshape a people. Deadwood is no longer the same once Hearst has finished with it, although in a bizarre way it has progressed as well, since Hearst’s dominance encourages the unlikely alliance of Bullock and Swearengen and the beginnings of town solidarity—a remarkable transition given the petty cutthroat politics that fuelled the town in the first season.
While the Hearst storyline is riveting and appropriate for this part of the Deadwood story, it’s a shame that its prominence comes at the price of some of the established characters. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is shamefully underused this season, especially since his contraction of tuberculosis early this season barely gets mentioned afterwards. The relationship between Seth and Martha is seldom explored in spite of last season’s tragedy, and Sol Starr is barely seen at all, although he thankfully gets some great scenes at season’s end when Trixie does something rash, which furthers their quite fascinating relationship. Plus, I feel that Milch has never quite known what to do with Tolliver, but that’s a problem that dates to season two, since the character seemed lost without Ricky Jay’s Eddie Sawyer to bounce off of (although Boothe is so damn good that you don’t often notice). Given these compromises, the prominence of new characters this season seems fairly inexplicable, as does minor characters continuing to merit screen time. The bigoted Steve’s interactions with Hostetler and the Nigger General resume for fairly unfathomable reasons, and a subplot with Hearst’s cook and her ambitious son is sizable. A lot of the established characters are still well serviced, but when Richardson and Steve have more screen time than Doc Cochran, there’s a problem.
But the most curious addition is Brian Cox and his travelling theatre troupe. While it’s a joy to see a prominent character actor like Cox do a decent TV stint, and he’s marvellous in the role of the very theatrical ‘dandy’ Jack Langrishe, the storyline rarely interacts with any other. While the arrival of culture in Deadwood is an interesting counterpoint to that of capitalism in the form of Hearst, a lot of time is given to a dying member of the troupe and then the storyline more or less peters out. While this hopefully means that Cox will reappear in the movies, the story seemed awkwardly shoehorned into proceedings, and becomes more troubling when the aforementioned characters are compromised as a result. But the Langrishe troupe, Steve and the Nigger General, and Aunt Lou were all delicious stories in their own right. They just seemed poorly aligned with the show’s usual narrative efficiency, as did the similarly superb but somewhat jarring Wolcott/Chez Ami subplot last season..
But (tiny) warts and all, Deadwood remains a truly exquisite piece of work, and not just due to ‘that flowery language’. While the dialogue is, in actuality, mesmerisingly elaborate yet never incongruous, Deadwood’s majestic quality comes from its silences as much as its words. By embracing the potential of violence (in notion and deed) and profanity (they’re just words too) to move and enthral rather than repulse, Deadwood has been without question the finest series on television, perhaps ever, whose cancellation makes the constant reanimation of The Sopranos‘s bewildered corpse all the more aggravating. Although its HBO stablemate The Wire takes the cake for relevance and thematic ambition, Deadwood is the complete package: a period piece that resonates with today’s politics and society, a gorgeously designed and produced programme that always stays with its character, and a perfectly judged, achingly emotional drama that stands up with the classics of literature and cinema. As critic Steve Czaban recently put it, we have never seen its like before, and probably never will again. Rest in peace, and we hope and pray that your conclusion will indeed arrive.