"I see more misery out of them moving to justify themselves as them that set out to do harm."
- Brad Dourif's Doc Cochran
"Don't play that shit where you make me drag your words out. Declare or shut the fuck up."
- Ian McShane's Al Swearengen
And yet, Al also said, "Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh."
I could not expect this to surpass my expectations so thoroughly. I refused to watch Deadwood like I refused to watch much television — for a long time, for no good reason. Yet I do not regret such a delay. Now that all three seasons are readily available on DVD I can devour the series at my leisure. Such is a ripe fucking spoil of our goddamned digital age. DVD clued me in a season late on Arrested Development as well as seven (or eight or something) years late on those first few seasons of The West Wing (the ones where the fantasy felt earnest and complicated, to say the ones where that worked). And, overall, DVD has been a great learning tool for all avenues, exposing me to many riches, like a lot of the back catalogue of The Criterion Collection. But I think DVD has been most kind to television and its fans. Because, really, who the fuck likes commercials?
Also, HBO has changed television’s horizons and upped the ante on the quality quotient. I’ve still never seen The Wire (that’ll be the next series devoured after I finish Deadwood), but if all I've done is look at Deadwood and The Sopranos, then that’s enough to give the network a thumbs up from me. However, I think Deadwood is even better than The Sopranos, which I know sounds like heresy to some of my close friends. In fact, I watched Deadwood’s pilot with one of my friends about a year ago when The House held “Deadweek” and we didn’t like it. It was so wildly different than The Sopranos, plus the viewing format was less than desirable (poor torrent, ahem), that we basically dismissed it. I realize now we simply weren’t paying attention. And, to be honest, it takes about three episodes for Deadwood to get great. But once there, once you’re well entrenched in the show, and the camp — and invested in it — it’s hard to look away.
Really, it’s the fourth episode, “Here Was A Man,” that did me in. Up to this point the series seemed content to be a piss-and-vinegar run-o-da-mill revisionist Western that added up, at first glance, as something like McCabe & Mrs. Miller plus brutal bloody violence plus heady bad language. The word “cocksucker” quickly crept into emails and blog comments but it took Wild Bill Hickok’s final episode to sell me on the show’s many strengths, aside from Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen.
And, aside from the obvious community-building lessons and themes, the main strength of Deadwood, and its best episodes like “Here Was A Man,” is its affect. It loves its characters, even when they’re a cold-blooded knife-man saloon keep who run whores and sell booze and murders — and deals out murder — in every episode, and every day, in Deadwood’s evolution. That’s Al, if you didn’t know. And Al has, along with a lively speech pattern and nimble, devious mind, a heart — a complicated heart. He can kill and cuss, sure, but he can pout, too. He’s English by birth but American in that heart and that is part of why the show is so fucking brilliant.
I’ve been speaking of my almost-obscene nostalgic patriotism for a while now in reference to Terrence Malick’s The New World but Deadwood only enriches my thoughts with new, colorful and complex ideas about what it is I love about my country. And a lot of it is right there in that sentence: there’s blatant contra-cocksucking-dictions at every corner. Morality is mostly fluid here, in America, in Deadwood — perhaps it's simply immoral? — but there will always remain a myth of perfectionism, a strain to better oneself, one’s place, one’s given hand. It’s no mystery why so many Westerns involve card playing: the move west was one such perfectionist gamble in and of itself. That Hickok gets murdered playing cards is all too perfect. Keith Carradine’s performance alone is enough to make Hickok’s death resound, but his fellows, like Dayton Callie’s Charlie Utter, only make the loss harder — for said fellows in the show, and for fellow spectators of the show. His minor speech to Utter that prefigures his end is a minor miracle of a heartbreak:
“Some goddamn point a man's due to stop arguing with hisself and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is 'cause he can't be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and fucking it up. I don't want to fight it anymore, understand me Charlie? — and I don't want you pissing in my ear about it. Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?"
That radical individualism pervades the show’s mythos, logos and ethos, much like America. But, as we can see, such a devotion can come back and bite you in the ass, or shoot you in the head. Unless, of course, you rule the roost.
At first I was only disgusted by what Al Swearengen does in Deadwood. And I still reel at certain moments. But there’s a humanity to the show that almost explains Al and his wrongs. I don’t want to romanticize a violent man as well-meaning and inexcusable, though. Like I said, he’s a murderer. He makes his way known and then he makes his way felt. His way is a violent and dirty way. But, like his bulldog Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), you get a sense of him as a complete person who is never simply bad (not good) or evil (not virtuous) or wrong (not right). Anybody who has seen “Jewel’s Boot Is Made For Walking” or the closing moments of “Suffer The Little Children” knows Al cannot and will not be prescribed by any one trait, negative or positive: he is a human, variant and miraculous. The same should be said for the show's true heart and soul, Brad Dourif's Doc Cochran. Every scene he's in slays me. He is at once tender and bilious — he holds in his heart a brutal compassion, and love. He wants the best from and for the world. If he gets killed somewhere down the line... I don't know, man, I would, in theory, be pretty bummed.
I know I’ve still got 24 episodes that hold equal promise to fulfill or fail my newfound expectations but something tells me, whatever letdown the finale of Season Three is supposed to be (I've steered clear of the reviews and essays), this show will only ever continue to delight and horrify and warm my soul. The first season alone captures so much of what makes America such an attractive land (as a myth, an idea) despite its obvious flaws (of racism and greed and duplicitous glad-handing and ostentatious Manifest Destiny and odd celebration of violence in favor of shunting sex) that I can only imagine what lies in store, ahead, as ever. Things may turn yet more brutal, I suppose, but unlike The Sopranos I find the brutality in Deadwood to be played as honest as possible. Which is not to say The Sopranos is completely dishonest; in fact, its final season did a lot to resolve my issues with its shortcomings in its bludgeoning, weekly reminders that Tony Soprano is a bad dude. Al, on the other hand, is never presented as anything other than what he is: a killer, a business man, a frontiersman, an American, a human. And neither he, nor the show, makes any other way seem a possibility. There are other reasons, to be sure, but that is why I like Deadwood so fucking much.
[Check back later along in July as I continue to watch _Deadwood_. I may even write character-specific odes. I know Doc Cochran and, by extension, Brad Dourif both deserve some more time in the critical spotlight. Plus, I didn't even talk about Timothy Olyphant's Seth Bullock. Well, more later, as ever. You can buy the first season, if you like, and if you have the moo-lah, buy clicking here, patron saints. Please, take your passage, cocksuckers.]