Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Theatre people ruin everything: Deadwood, season 3

Deadwood's third season was its best and worst season simultaneously, a perfect encapsulation of the series' themes and a season full of the occasional aimless meandering. David Milch's creation of a whole community, indeed a whole world, never felt fuller than it did in its third year, but there was also a sense of marking time, of trying to get to a fourth season that will now never come.

The overwhelming sense at the end of Sunday's series finale was a sense of loss. The world of Deadwood seemed more real to its acolytes than just about any televised world before it. Those who loved it seemed to live in the town, to speak in its profane yet rhythmed meter. And now, thanks to a stupid fight over money between two giant corporations, it's all gone, save for two promised TV movies that may or may not happen.

The third season saw Deadwood (the town) face down its most daunting rival yet, George Hearst (the wonderful Gerald McRaney). In doing so, the town banded together, its many citizens joining as one to fight for a common good. While they only succeeded in chasing Hearst out of town and keeping their lives, the moral victory they won by averting a shoot-out that would have killed many seemed almost worth it (even if the morals of the town and its fledgling society were subverted in the process).

All of this stuff -- the town steeling itself to prevent Hearst from taking over -- worked marvelously. The scenes between Ian McShane (as Al Swearengen -- who went from thug to productive member of society during the series' run) and McRaney were fraught with tension, with the fear of what might go wrong in the camp at the slightest provocation. Even when the citizens of Deadwood gained the upper hand, there was a sense that it all could go spiralling down very quickly (and it did).

But it was the stuff that felt like a set-up for season four that made the season feel like the worst of the three. In particular, lots of time was spent with a theatre troupe that never really seemed to pay off. Indeed, story threads were left dangling. The troupe never quite tied in with the community as a whole (which makes sense for a traveling group of actors), and its thematic parallel to the town (drama on the stage of real life) was never quite put across adequately. Similarly, plot threads about the doctor being very sick, Hearst's cook Aunt Lou and her son Odell and the Earp brothers were dropped entirely or resolved matter-of-factly. The series simply tried to juggle too many plotlines, and some had to be dropped.

But that didn't negate the quality of the filmmaking or the acting. The directing actually seemed to take a step up, as Mark Tinker, a veteran TV director, joined the production staff. The acting, too, was nearly perfect. The actors had all settled in to their roles and knew their places within the ensemble. Any combination of characters could lead to a thought-provoking scene, and every character got a chance to expose new sides to their natures.

To be honest, I'm still a bit stung by the loss of this show. It's the sort of show that revealed itself to you gradually, unfurling itself to reveal new layers of depth, new patterns to its actions. Plus, I'm a bit wiped from writing a review for another publication.

There's a lot of eloquent writing about the end of Deadwood. If you click on the links to the right, you'll find a lot of people talking about the end of one of the best series ever to air on television.

But know, Deadwood, that you'll be missed by me at least. And I'll return to you on DVD time and time again.


South Dakotan said...

Even when it was not, in my opinion, as good as seasons 1 and 2, "Deadwood" season 3 was still far better than any other drama on TV and still the best TV drama in history. McShane continued to amaze in his role as Al, finding even more nuances to the character. I disagree with your analysis of Gerald McRaney. He played Hearst as a one note baddy. His prior acting credits predicted such a one-dimensional portrait. While the theatre group was a lost plot line, Cox's Langrishe was not--he fit right in to the community and to the stable of terrific actors (except the aforementioned Major Simon Hearst).

The season also suffered, as you and others have pointed out, from the fact that many of the plots were going to be explained and wrapped up in season 4. Now, we get a possible season 3.5, which is better than nothing but won't do the series justice.

The murder of Ellsworth and the murder of the innocent prostitute also did not work for me. They lacked emotional umph. The characters seemed to react or not react as one would expect to the loss of perhaps the most decent person in the camp and to the premeditated murder by one of their "own" of a innocent woman in some sort of Old Testament blood sacrifice to the God Hearst. The characters were out of character. And where was Doc in the finale?

But this is just nitpicking. "Deadwood" created real characters facing real problems in a real setting in our nation's not so distant past. We should celebrate three years of unbelievable characters, acting, writing, directing, set direction, and moments. How many other TV programs, how many works of art, leave us with so much richness? "Deadwood" was a once in a lifetime TV event that we were fortunate to enjoy. God, I will miss it.

Lee said...

It's a damn shame it had to end this way, but how many shows get the chance to end in any other fashion? Horrible, horrible industry, why do I devote so much of my time and affection to your offerings?

Matt said...

I'm planning on catching up with the show on Labor Day. Doesn't sound too exciting now.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Hey, South Dakotan. Thanks for the thoughts and keep it up for the home state!

I found McRaney to bring a sense of palpable menace to his scenes. His main job was to seem like he could go insane and burn Deadwood to the ground, and that was always emanating off the screen for me (though I do find that knowing the actual history of the town sometimes impedes my enjoyment of the show).

I was remiss in not mentioning Brian Cox, who was excellent in his scenes with Al and with the theatre people.

While I wish we had seen the death of Jen, I thought the death of Ellsworth was handled well (particularly that sequence from his body being driven through the streets on a cart to Trixie's attempt on Hearst's life, which was just amazingly full of adreneline).

We're agreed though that this is one of the finest series in a long, long time. I'm sure I'll revisit the DVDs many a time.

Matt, please do watch the season. It's much, MUCH better than I make it out to be. I was thinking Rescue Me and should have waited a day or so to give Deadwood the time and consideration it deserved.

South Dakotan said...


My concerns stated above were mere quibbles (sounds like something Langrishe would say). We "Deadwoodheads" have been spoiled by the constant exellence of the series. I'll take a "mediocre" episode of "Deadwood" over a good episode of anything else on the tube any day.

As to the history part, I think it is fascinating how Milch used so much actualy SD and Deadwood history as a starting place for the program. While "Deadwood" is not a history lesson, it has a certain, shall we say, Steve Colbertish "historiness" to it that perhaps tell greater truths (as compared to facts) of that time and place in American history than many actual histories. I grew up in Yankton where Jack McCall was hanged and is buried and as a kid, tried to find his burial spot. I've been to Mt. Moriah and the #10 in Deadwood (which today, by the way, has an excellent photographic collection of early Deadwood and is as dark and dank as Tom Nutall's version on the show. But I love going there as it is owned by a couple of wonderful sisters.)

Maybe Milch fast forward 130 years to present day Deadwood and show how it has indeed become completely civilized by the great great grandsons and daughters of Al Swearengen, who no longer carry a knife to run their gambling halls, casinos, and hotel, but bear an even more feared weapon--an M.B.A.

Love the site. How did you settle on "South Dakota Dark" for the blog name?

Todd VanDerWerff said...

The name springs from this. (I hope that works. I really need to learn HTML code.)

I spent massive amounts of time in Deadwood as a kid, so I knew how the Hickock story would pan out, etc. Plus, I knew that Hearst would eventually consolidate the gold claims to open what became the Homestake mine. Were the show to follow Hearst, it would become somewhat ironic, as he used his gold money to beautify and build up many cities in California (San Francisco most notably) in the manner that the Deadwoodians wanted their city to grow.

I agree though. Any complaints are minor in the face of just how good the show was.

South Dakotan said...

Thanks for the explanation of the name. It works "upside down" as well. Fly from Sioux Falls to Rapid City at night and the vast middle of the state below is also a velvety black, with the twinkle of a few farm or ranch yardlights below.