Saturday, January 8, 2011

7. Deadwood (How The West Was Undone)

 Deadwood tv show photo

“I see as much misery outta them moving to justify theirselves as them that set out to do harm.”
-Doc Cochran reveals a darkly necessary perspective for survival in the Black Hills territory (and life in the 1870s in general);
“Deep Water” (Season 1, Episode 2)

Run time: March 21, 2004 – August 27, 2006
Created by: David Milch
Broadcast via: HBO

David Milch has been in the television and writing business for quite some time. He’s created/co-created 10 shows so far, which includes NYPD Blue and the surreal and short-lived John From Cincinnati and the upcoming Michael Mann-directed pilot for Luck. (The first two actors cast? Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte!) But this is not to say that what makes him a good writer is limited to his bountiful experiences with TV. To avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, the summa cum laude graduate decided to enroll in law school – but he was expelled after he took out a police car siren with a shotgun. He's also a self-admitted former junkie. Not just an eccentric, he was also able to study under Robert Penn Warren, and wrote several college textbooks about literature. In essence, the man can write some good stuff. But for all the good stuff he’s written, one of the things he created has become not just a substantial work of art in its own right, but also one of the pioneering televised cinematic works of the early twenty-first century.

Deadwood is a requiem for the notion of the Wild West, showing us how mankind is naturally inclined towards civilization; how even though many of us crave individualism, we must all come to serve a master or system. Saying that Deadwood is a Western is like saying Let The Right One in is a vampire film. Which is to say, it is and it isn’t. Sure, this does take place in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s (the Black Hills, specifically), a land at the time “sanctioned” by US government treaties to stay free of white men so that the native Sioux could live in peace (of course, the white men came anyway). But it encapsulates it in such a modern way, eviscerating expectations by giving the dialogue and activity both a densely vulgar and poetic eloquence. The effects can be dizzying for the uninitiated. The pilot alone drops you square into a ruthless and vicious place where some strange sort of order has started to emerge. Milch’s thesis is that mankind moves away from chaos towards the order of society by organizing itself around symbols. His original intent was to focus on early Roman civilization (with its symbol of the cross), but HBO had already sent the series Rome into production. Lucky Milch, they still wanted to make a show with him, and being the crafty storyteller that he is, he was still able to find a way to get his point across. He simply changed the setting (the Black Hills) and the symbol (gold), creating many historical divergences (by narrative necessity), as well as one of the finest ensemble dramas to grace a modern day Elizabethan English lover’s television set.

Like The Sopranos and The Wire, Deadwood strived to be the next Great American Novel, even if it happened to be a serialized television program. Like those other shows, it demands the audience pay attention enough to remember past episodes and understand the subtext, not to mention keep up with the language – but the rewards were well worth it. A very large cast occupied a relatively small space, but what a space it was. The writing and acting and all wondrous, but even more impressive is the set design, the costumes, the casting, the art direction, the look and feel of the evolving town as we watch the players scuttle across it day by day. Taking an Aristotlean approach to story telling, each episode focuses on what is a roughly twenty-four hour period of time in the lives and livelihood of Deadwood. Through these individual days the progression of order can be seen in measured steps, as we see people bring law, business, politics, architecture, art and many sources of power to the town that started out as nothing more than a mining camp. "I wrote Deadwood to illuminate the present by setting it in the past, since the events of the present are too immediate and pressing in our minds right now to make for good drama," Milch wrote in the Deadwood compendium Stories From The Black Hills, referring to why he didn't make a 9/11 or financial crisis related drama. "Nothing you see in Deadwood is irrelevant to our contemporary reality, beginning with the symbolic logic of gold. Taking the gold from the Indians is our original sin. That's what comes before. Deadwood is the story of what comes after."

If you grew up in America, you probably are familiar with the phrase, “Go west young man… There’s gold in them thar hills.” They were talking about the Black Hills. It was the last major gold rush of America (except for the Alaskan rush that followed, but setting a show there had already been done to good effect with Northern Exposure), and it brought with it promise of both mankind’s more primal tendencies and urges along with humanity’s inevitable proclivity towards civility. What starts as a mining camp full of treaty-violating outlaw types becomes a prosperous gold claim and a reclaimed land as part of the greater United States of America, as bloody a beginning as any other conquered under Manifest Destiny. Not just wrought with tension in action, these people certainly did have a certain hostile way about the way they talked, too. Yes, part of that was for protection, for mere survival was perilous enough without other people thinking they can take advantage of you. But also, their unruly vocabulary helped to remind themselves and others that they are not a part of any normal civilized society. The language is harsh, as coarse now as the real lingo must have seemed back then.

Now, when I say the language is harsh, it is so in our modern parlance, which does make the dialogue anachronistic as all get out. But the feeling elicited from the language is generated in the same manner as it was back then, by taking what we hold to be profane now and mustering it to maximum hyperbolic effect. This means that instead of being blasphemous in nature, the profanity tends to rely on scatological connotations. Yes, we all know that people back in 1877 weren’t prone to saying “cocksucker,” but the pioneering outlaw types of a place like Deadwood in a time like then were often deliberate in their use of (what was at the time) course language. As Milch has said of the sacrilegious vernacular, it kind of made everyone sound like Yosemite Sam, an idea that would sure strip the prose of its power. In order to place his audience in the thick of the frontiers from a modern perspective, to assault the viewer’s senses the way a civil person of yestercentury would have felt being dropped in the middle of one scary nowhere in South Dakota. And not only is the language strong, but it’s constant. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) curses, and uses the vulgarity to evocative effect.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention my editorial stance on “strong language” (as the MPAA would dub it, since this essay would certainly be rated R). When communicating, every word is a choice. Language is an artform, each word in the vocabulary further widening the palette of linguistics. Some people like to think they are above certain sets of words, but this is snobbish, puritanical and narrow-minded thinking to me. Yes, I understand that some words are impolite and unnecessary, and I don’t think it couth or cool to spit sloppily a series of swears just for the sake of swearing. There is a science to it, a certain way that swears should be arranged to give them clarity and essence, the way any word can and should. I guess I’m saying that so-called “bad” words and just as legit as “good” ones. And yes, sometimes it is necessary to speak in such a way. The way Milch and his team wrote with such specificity, the harshness blends into the beauty so well that they embolden these characters and their sense of place in the world. In fact, in Deadwood, language was a weapon, nearly as deadly as a knife. It was used to convey poisonous ideas, murderous rage and shattering insights that could cut us deep. And often, they did precede (or proceed) moments of savage violence, the kind that matched the dialogue.

Of course, Deadwood is not just known for its altered language and graphic violence. The creators also morphed the mythology (and biographies) of many real life figures. Seth Bullock, Sol Star, Al Swearengen, George Hearst, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, E.B. Farnum, Charlie Utter, A.W. Merrick, Jack McCall, Matha Bullock, Samuel Fields, Henry Weston Smith, Jack Langrishe, even Wyatt Earp – all these people were very real, residing in or passing through Deadwood at some point in the nineteenth century. And these real people interact with fictional character of the writing staff’s creation, playing more to the physicality of the present actor than a devotion to the past specter. Together, they created a tapestry of humanity like the best of the best theater and cinema, blending the two crafts into one world.

Cinema requires compromises between fact and fiction, but Deadwood isn’t intended as a history lesson. It is drama, pure and true, the kind that elicits a thousand ideas from a well-written and acted scene alone, historically accurate or not. Deadwood’s scripts are always theatrical and engrossing, but this could have been a hindrance if it weren’t for the solid casting. Deadwood features incredible acting all around, from the big players to the bit players, and in a such that’s so dialogue intensive, it’s a necessity. I know I’ve gushed a lot about these ensemble casts in the shows mentioned before (and I’ll probably do it again), but a crew is useless without a cast. Obviously, bad characters and actors make for bad drama, so it should be a given that these supposed best shows have such great casts. But often, one shines above the rest. Though I have selected one for my Best Character submission, it could have been just about anyone on this show. Never has such an ensemble come together for such a strange series like this (though Twin Peaks had a cast willing to go pretty far out there to great success as well). Deadwood’s cast speaks in an almost-foreign language, yet everyone rose to the challenge. And more so than The Wire, these are career-making performances. Watch Deadwood, then Lost or any Law & Order or CSI, then tell me how many people got their part(s) because of this show.

Deadwood is as successful a portrait of the American experiment as any other show on this list. It succinctly captures the nature of man’s rising from the muck to mold himself into something greater, based on whatever symbol captures his imagination. David Milch choose the color (gold) after being denied the cross. And thank the maker this occurred, because Rome was good for its own reasons, while Deadwood was the type of happy accident that became monumental. I have yet to see a movie or series capture the spirit of the past in such a contemporary fashion as well. It was short lived, lasting only three seasons (HBO first offered to give them a half-order forth season, then dual two-hour films, but neither ended up happening). But they are three perfect seasons of a fascinating blend of history, sociology, psychology and linguistics, and a glimpse into the creation of all civilization. It all starts from nothing, but chaos can’t last before being conquered by the symbol of something bigger than the self.

Each episode begins with a horse running wild through the forest, until it finds a town that has risen from the muck. The music (again, something more modern than it suggests) draws you into this world, getting the audience in the mood by setting up the time and place. It’s nothing monumental or radical, but it is appropriate and fitting. It also features one of the best side-boob shots in TV history.
Sure, I said that it could have been anyone. But there is good reason that Ian McShane won a Golden Globe for his performance (despite the fact that the relatively anonymous Deadwood received nowhere near the amount of awards or nominations as other HBO shows of the time). He stands out like a shining star, giving a focal point to a bright constellation. He is the most contradictory character on the show, seeming like a maniacal tyrant, but revealing himself to be a good man who is doing everything he can to not only protect his way of life, but the place that has allowed him to prosper. Based on a real saloon owner, Swearengen is another of the historical figures altered for the purposes of David Milch’s creativity. When originally envisioned, Swearengen was to be a large man, so as to reflect his dominating nature. Of course, when Ian McShane auditioned, Mr. Milch realized that he didn’t need a big guy, because the right person could put that huge attitude in the performance, no matter the size. McShane is not a big man, but his physical embodiment of Milch’s creative intepretation of the very real Swearengen makes him seem larger than life. He owns the Gem, a whorehouse where he keeps people coming in to empty their pockets while trying to manipulate the machinations of the big players to his advantage. Handy with a blade as well as his brain, Swearengen is the epitome of survival of the fittest, and McShane’s powerhouse performance keeps us glued to his every word, whether he’s plotting despicable acts (often while engaging in them) or processing important information (usually  while making life-altering decisions of his own). Cool lines abound in this show, but Swearengen may have the most of them, ending scenes about the unruly nature of the camp and world at large with sentences like, “Of course, truth is, as a base of operations, you cannot beat a fucking saloon.”
BEST SEASON: 3 (of 3)
While what originally attracted me to the show was the savage nature of the settlers forming the base camps that would become a society within a year, it was only inevitable that outside influences would find a way to bleed in. But just because things were moving toward civil doesn’t mean it happened in a civil manner, as the third season well demonstrates. Miners trying to unionize are murdered, people who oppose the Hearst monopoly are intimidated (a nice of way phrasing what happens), and there are still knock-down-drag-out fights in the streets. Watching season three, which does end with an open lack of closure, one wonders how anyone survived in a place like Deadwood. Some fair-weather fans didn’t like where Deadwood was headed by the third season, but I appreciated the ever-expanding cast and infrastructures being brought into the Black Hills. It’s infuriating to wonder where they could have gone from there (and depressing, if you watch the behind-the-scene featurette wherein David Milch walks around the empty Deadwood set talking about how he planned on arcing out future storylines).
BEST EPISODE: “Deadwood (Pilot)” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Usually pilots are too busy establishing plot, characters and tone to be as mesmerizing as the best of the best episodes. But the first episode of Deadwood is simply amazing, and the show never strayed too far from its sensibilities, even as the town moves further from disorder. The best pilots are usually still mere prototypes for the brilliance that will follow, but “Deadwood” displays how highly in control of their vision the cast and crew were from the beginning. The rest of the series is equally awesome, but no show has demonstrated its fierceness quite so powerfully so quickly (and engagingly) as right here.
BEST MOMENT: “Welcome to fucking Deadwood!” (“A Lie Agreed Upon, Part 1,” Season 2, Episode 1)
Swearengen and Seth Bullock were too similar for their own good, and seeming like such opposites, they were destined to clash. Though they had a few verbal bouts, things never got too out of hand between them as the needs of the camp kept coming first. But throughout the second season premiere, the tensions are simmering between the two town figureheads. They end up going at it, in one of the best fistfights ever captured on camera. After throwing themselves over a balcony into a muddy thoroughfare, the only thing that stops Swearengen from slitting Bullock’s throat is the arrival of Seth’s wife and son. Instead, he greets the newcomers and hobbles off to his abode The Gem to wait for whatever strange events will unfold next.

-The A.V. Club recently interviewed W. Earl Brown (who played Swearengen's right hand man Dan Dority throughout the three season run). It's very illuminating about much of the process of working with a man like Milch. (Thanks for the reminder, Jimmy.)


  1. "Mr. Brown has remained one of my favorite 'character actors' of the last couple decades"

    Yeah, he's one of those actors who knocks it out the park in every guest appearance he makes. A routine hostage situation story on Justified last season was enlivened by Brown's guest shot as the hostage taker and the reunion between Brown and Timothy Olyphant, one of many reunions between Deadwood cast members on Justified (as well as on NBC's much-missed Life and the Kings miniseries). Never has an hour of television made me so hungry for fried chicken (Raylan uses it to diffuse the hostage situation).

  2. Justified is another program I should probably get into. I remember Damon Lindelof talking on a Lost podcast a bit ago about his favorite new shows, and Justified was one of them. Being a fairly big Tim Olyphant supporter, I'm surprised I haven't gotten it it voraciously yet. I did peep the pilot and thought it good, it just somehow hasn't lured me back into its clutches (yet). That more Deadwood members pop up is also tantalizing, as I find they can shake up whatever show they sneak into with pretty successful results.

    "NBC's much-missed Life and the Kings miniseries"

    Indeed! I hadn't heard of either show, but both show promise (especially Kings - I'm a fan of mini-series in general, and their talent pool of actors and directors definitely has drawing power for me) - you've now steered me towards four programs! (I'm quite enjoying what I've been seeing of The Rockford Files) "Too much television" has never felt so promising as nowadays when there's all this quality to choose from.