by wjw on October 11, 2007

I’ve been watching the third season of Deadwood on DVD, and I’m about halfway through. (No spoilers in the replies, please.)

I felt a surge of pleasure when I spun the first episode and heard David Milch’s trademark combination of complex syntax, baroque vocabulary, and utter obscenity. It’s the language that makes this show, not the explicit and disturbing violence.

The production values don’t hurt, either.

Still, I note that Milch has managed to hoist himself on the petard of history. The series of full of genuine historical characters like Al Swearengen, Sol Star, Charlie Utter, Martha Jane Cannary, Seth Bullock, and this season’s villain, George Hearst. (This season Hearst is played as a murderous sociopath, which made me wonder why the character had such a problem with his proxy in the last season, a serial killer.)

The first season beautifully set out the characters and the setting. The second season featured the mainstreaming of the first season’s villain, Al Swearengen. Ian McShane’s brilliant, dynamic performance as Swearangen so outshone the series’
ostensible hero, Tim Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, and became so popular, that by the second season Swearangen had become a kind of elder statesman of Deadwood rather than the throat-slitting, mustache-twirling pimp he had been in the first season.

One couldn’t help but notice that in the second season Swearengen didn’t put out a single contract on a six-year-girl, as he had in the first season.

With Swearengen being mainstreamed, new, more villainous villains had to enter the picture, and so in the second season we had an even more evil pimp played by Powers Booth, plus Francis Richardson, Hearst’s legman and killer. And now we’ve got Hearst himself.

We’ve even got a couple of the Earp brothers showing up, for no particular reason that I can see other than to occupy an episode.

The problem is the series’ twelve-episode arc. Hearst is prowling Deadwood and drawing power to himself, as Gandalf said of Sauron. Yet Swearengen, heading the opposition, keeps saying “the time is not right” for a showdown, even though more troops of Pinkertons keep riding in to strengthen Hearst’s hand.

What Big Al means by “the time is not right,” is that it’s not the final episode of the season. We have to drag this story out. (Yet as far as anything but the series schedule goes, now is the perfect time. One shooter could snipe Hearst as he tromps around on his balcony. Problem solved, except for that bit about there being eight hours left on the season’s schedule. )

But that isn’t the only difficulty faced by the show’s writers. The problem is that this villain can’t die. We know from history that Hearst went on to become a US senator, to father William Randolph, and to live happily ever after. History also tells us that Swearengen lives, that Seth and Martha Bullock live, that Martha Jane Cannary lives, that Sol Star and Charlie Utter live. We know that the Earps live. We even know that minor characters like Aunt Lou, John Langrishe, EB Farnum, “General” Fields, Con Stapledon, A.W. Merrick, and Swearengen’s henchmen Dan Dority and Johnny survive.

This rather reduces the fallout from any final confrontation. Of course Alma and her daughter, Cy Tolliver, and Joanie Stubbs, all fictional characters, can meet with misfortune, but that’s about it. (The series in general is pretty hard on its fictional characters, these being the only ones that can be punished freely.)

I am not unfamiliar with this sort of problem, as I used to write historical fiction myself. But at least I could get my cast of fictional characters on their ship and away from history for a while, and that can’t be done on Deadwood.

So I’m in suspense. Not over who lives and dies, because that’s pretty much settled by the historical record, but whether or not the series manages to pull off promising a bloody confrontation for ten or eleven episodes, and then delivering something else instead. Can David Milch call off the apocalypse? Stay tuned.

Tarl Neustaedter October 11, 2007 at 6:23 am

So I’m in suspense. Not over who lives and dies, because that’s pretty much settled by the historical record,…

We are talking Hollywood, right?

I’ve never watched the series, so I’m not providing any spoilers, but I can easily see an episode where a main character dies and someone starts pretending to be that character so well that history thinks it was him.

Mathew October 11, 2007 at 3:59 pm

I was totally fixated upon Deadwood while it was on. I have less that mainstream taste when it comes to cinema, but I was still pretty shocked at the sheer depravitiy of Ian McShane’s character. My favorite moment in the whole series was after Sai Toliver was introduced ,and you realized that Al is supposed to be a “White Hat”. Kinda 😉

Foxessa October 12, 2007 at 12:44 am

I can answer your question.

But I shall not.

Because I am a good character, and a real one, even if not an historical one.

Love, C.

halojones-fan October 14, 2007 at 5:26 am

tarl: Hm, a good point…although a bit of a cop-out. Not quite “A Wizard Did It” or “It Was A Dream All Along”, but close.

Sounds like “Deadwood” has the same red-shirt problem as Star Trek. You always knew who was going to die–because someone had to die, and obviously it couldn’t be one of the main characters…

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