Sunday, July 01, 2007

Variant and miraculous. Notes on Deadwood's first season.

by Ryland Walker Knight


"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.

Coward Jack

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.

watching, waiting, ready to pounce

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.]


  1. Welcome to the Deadwood > Sopranos Club! Hell, I was so bored with The Sopranos, I didn't even bother watching the last season.

    I wish HBO DVDs weren't so ridiculously expensive. If there was ever a TV series I'd want to own, it's Deadwood.

  2. It's too bad you didn't watch the last season of _Sopranos_ since it's probably the best one aside from the first. Especially the second half that just finished. That said, _Deadwood_ is a different beast. And I find it completely worth my time.

  3. I'll probably watch it when the DVD comes out.

  4. Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood... HBO will never do better.

    I think Al S. is a richer creation than Tony Soprano. And Seth Bullock is a great doppleganger.

    If you like T.O. in Deadwood, be sure to catch his bad guy in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. Brilliant.

  5. You wrote my feelings exactly 'bout the Doc. He's the civil-war traumatized grave-robber who's created some of (for me) the most gruffly tender moments of the show. Thank you Brad.

    I'm looking forward to more Deadwood Knights, and curious about where you see the show's "radical individualism." I see the all the characters as joined in intimate and crucial relationships: the Hickok-Utter-Calamity trio (especially Utter's need to take care of Bill - reaching ahead for the coffee pot Bill's hand was too shaky to grip, etc.), which after Hickok's death spins into Jane and the Doc's relationship, and Utter developing something with both Bullock and Joanie. Bullock and Star, obviously, and even Al's little dysfunctional domestic family crew. Notice how Al smacks anyone else around, Dority explains to them "he's got a lot on his mind." To say nothing of Al's reluctance to acknowledge his true desire for Trixie. The show is all about the impulses to moments of trust and connection that these characters are willing to take (even Bullock and Al), out here beyond the bounds of nation and law, but within the bounds of community building. Indeed, the one character who tried to act "alone" - Alma's late husband - ended up, well, late. On the rocks. These characters are differentiated, to be sure, but I don't see their individuality as what makes drives and makes them. It's their ability to deeply desire their relationships, and connect, as the hands of a body communicate and can't deny each other, according to Reverend Smith's eulogy of Hickok. And when Al smothered what remained of the Reverend's painful deterioration - didn't he even call him "brother"? - I was shocked by how subtly and superbly even despicable, pouty Al could answer the call of an ethical moment with a fellow.

  6. For me, the real revelation is Timothy Olyphant whose Seth Bullock is, essentially, a seething psychopath (in TWoP recaps, he is called Clench) who is compelled to take action because of Bill Hickok's death, because of Al, because of the widow Garrett, etc. The big difference between Deadwood and the Sopranos is that there is a progression, the story of the town moves forward, and people change. Former deadly enemies because casual allies in the face of a larger crisis.

  7. I think I see it as radical individualism because each person is trying to define the camp (the West, America) on their own terms. It's almost selfish but I don't see it as such. In that each is an individual, each has different motives. But there is trust. The show is trying to present community as something different than simply banding together (safety in numbers): community is a trust where you have those you can rely on but even those few can be wrong (for you, for the situation) so to prepare against that the community is about building individual relationships one can trust despite the lapses: communal-reliance isn't the main motive, it's the Emersonian self-reliance in relation to the community. At the end of Season One, at least, the relationships are all tainted but there's something kind of beautiful in that different kind of outwardly immoral non-reliance I'm arguing for. People serve certain needs for certain other people. This community privileges what unique individuals bring to it, without eclipsing their use in service of the community. Doc, for instance, serves the community but it's always on his terms. Al serves the community but it's always on his terms, in his joint. Bullock agrees to serve the community in the end but it's only after he's come to his own terms with the position and how he sees fit to enact the role.

    I guess my resistance to mentioning Bullock is that he is a "seething psychopath" -- the angriest man ever with a righteous quick temper. That said, Olyphant is really good, always erect and, yes, clenched. And now, four episodes into Season Two, I can see he only complicates things for himself and for the camp. If it weren't for the flashes of tenderness with Sol, with Reverend Smith, with Hickok, with Charlie, with Alma, it would seem Bullock is inhuman in his severity. He built the store in, like, one night -- by himself! All that said, I still like Al and the Doc more.

  8. It's interesting. It seems almost universal that it wasn't until the fourth episode of Deadwood that people decided they liked it (including me)

  9. Seth a seething psychopath? Naw, not denying his serious flaws, but a psychopath? That's a real misreading to me.

    I hope as you continue to watch, that you'll have a different take on him.

    The difference, as I see it, between The Sopranos and Deadwood as far as word view, is hope. In Deadwood people can rise above their baser natures; in The Sopranos they never quite can.

  10. Maybe not psychopath but easily somebody who deserves a wide berth. And dutiful attention. He's mostly unpredictable in his moods. But Emerson also knows his shit on this, too: "Our moods do not believe in one another." Bullock, like Al, is never one thing, even if he is crazy. He's also a loyal friend, and brother. But he also undercuts that all the time, too. Dude is confused above all else, unsure what part of himself to trust. Didn't Matt's essay about him talk about that?

  11. "Dude is confused above all else, unsure what part of himself to trust. Didn't Matt's essay about him talk about that"?

    Yes, confused above all else I think is true. And, particularly at the point you're at in the series, he does not really know himself; he does not know his own needs. He has, I think, a deep need to do good, which combined with all his anger and fear, too often expresses itself in a kind of duty-motivated "good" that gets him bollixed (Bullocked) up. My point, though, is that at heart he is a good man.

  12. I would agree, at bottom, the show is hopeful for all its characters' souls. Except the plain jerks. There's a certain brand of misconduct the show cannot abide. But more about that in another column, I think, once I'm at least done with Season Two.

    (Wolcott is clearly a devil, thus far. And I'm even getting scared to actually meet Hearst, whether it's at the end of this season or at the opening of the next. But I'm looking forward to the entrance as well...)

  13. Ah, you should be scared, very scared . . .

  14. I've seen seasons one and two, and waiting for the first disc of three on my queue--and I've recently been thinking of Deadwood in terms of these indelible characters. It's so rare that actors get to create something so brand new. Depp did it with Captain Jack Sparrow (of course by the beginning of the second movie it was no longer new)and these folks have done it with Deadwood.
    I love, love Dourif's raging diagnoses and prescriptions, furiously trying to help in his acknowledged limited way. Dilahunt totally freaked me out with Wolcott--how do you supress your own identity enough to play a man with no emotional compass other than his singular need? And Al. Our Al. Ian McShane has taken us on a jolly ride, indeed. He has created someone entirely beyond our experience in TV and film, for that matter. These folks are written about quite eloquently on House Next Door. What I'm interested in is how the performances themselves add to that heady mix of script, direction, and history to move beyond archetype and beyond quirk to give us what we see.