Deadwood Season 2 (USA, 2005, David Milch) And but so, what is left but to talk about season two of Deadwood?
One thing I neglected to mention last review and is even more the case after a even more marathon viewing session for Season Two than I conducted for Season One, the show stands up to being watched this way. Back-to-back, one after another, yes, there is some repetition to ensure comprehension of certain plot lines and character positions in the social fabric. But not too much. It is remarkably lean. And yet, each episode is coherent to itself and I suppose a viewer could take in a show at random and feel that a ''whole'' show had been enjoyed. But as I did already say, unlike the standard soap opera, there is historical dynamism in Deadwood, things change, the story progresses. Perhaps I am especially impressed because I am not well versed with the best of television drama. You tell me. What is beyond a doubt is that I am hooked and sincerely hope that you will have the third season for me sooner rather than later.
Season Two is not a sophmore slump, far from it. But it is not as good as Season One. I think this has to do with two factors. The first is that some of our favorite characters are simply not featured as much or as well. Doc, for example, is not around as much. Or Jane, who is around plenty, is not put to much use. Sure, she is a character who doesn't know what to do with herself, but sometimes it feels as if the writers don't know what to do with her either. Most of all, however, front and center, Swearengen. The guy spends at least a third of the season out of commission, moaning. The rest of the team is certainly making plays and scoring goals, winning the game. But damn if there isn't a hole at center ice. It is interesting to see how he comes out of his near-death. His softer, ethical side is more obvious and the depth of his long-term vision for the camp-come-town is shown in rich complexion. I just missed hearing that cocksucker talk 's all, whiles he lay fixin' to fuckin' die.
The second factor has to do with the very historical dynamism I so admire. A soap opera is comforting precisely because there is no real change, it's a reactionary merry-go-round. Deadwood, on the contrary, is booming so severely it is threatening to the story itself. Interestingly, it is not so much that familiar characters may be killed off at any moment. It is rather that the concrete locale of the story, the setting itself, is bursting asunder. Of course, there is a form devoted to accomodating this, namely, the epic. I'm sure the producers of the program would love nothing more than an on-going epic to pay for their grandkid's tuition. We will see it this pans out, heh heh. In the meantime, however, already in the second season we are feeling that "Deadwood" is going to end. Sustaining the narrative feels forced, a bit anyway.
This from a man who is openly waiting for Season Three.
A paragraph on the deeper meaning: I can't say that the introduction of Hearst and his interests has transformed my take on the historical progress problematic. You will have to provide me with your own interpretation of matters. As for Sweringen, he is a COMPLETE Machiavellian character - and I say that as a student of political theory. The standard treatment of Machiavelli is to reduce him down to The Prince, and just a few chapters of that to boot. While I would not dispute the essential nature of this text to his theory of politics, it is far from being the totality of his theory and it must be read in relation to the much larger, more complex and ideologically repressed Discourses. It is in the latter that we recognize the value-laden context for The Prince's (supposedly, I'll let this go) value-neutral technique of power. For Machivelli was not just the founder of humanist political ''science,'' he was also a radical republican and believer in the historical purpose of a regime in relation to making the polity great. I say "great" rather than "good" because, yes, his is a macho trip about power and not a bleeding heart sermon. Also, Machiavelli had a cyclical and not a liner conception of history so the idea of "progress" is not promoted by him. The point is to emulate the rise and - realistically - the fall of Rome. The guy was a wop after all. And Ian McShane could pass for one. In any case, Al Swearengen is a complete Machiavellian - Prince AND Discourses - character. You said that he IS Deadwood. I think I misunderstood your point. I heard you say that he is "Deadwood," the player at center ice of the story. But I reckon your point was and I know mine now is, Swearengen - THE character of private self-interest - is simultaneously THE character of public-minded welfare. Not Doc with his Hippocratic oath. Not Merrick with his principled Fourth Estate. And sure as fuck not that holier-than-thou constantly confused cocksucker Seth Bullock.
This brings me to Tim Olyphant. I like him. I do. But I don't know how he got the part. He's just not up to the task. What is that task? Not to be the alter-ego of Swearengen. No, because Swearengen's ego has its own alter-ego already, and then some. No, Bullock is Swearengen's shadow. This is an alter-identity that is not interior to Swearengen's character but rather exterior to it, not necessary to show Swearengen's contradictory psychology but still necessary to oppose Swearengen's sociological position in order to creatre dramatic conflict and on-going narrative tension with respect to the central private/public dialectic at work. I won't go so far as to suggest that given the writing, Bullock's character has the potential to be as great as Swearengen's, hence, my term ''shadow.'' But the boots of this shadow are plenty big and Olyphant does not truly fill them. As much as I love to watch Powers Booth do the nastiest Snidely Whiplash to walk the earth, I wonder how he would have been as Bullock, older and more experienced.
My favorite bit: Near the end of the second episode, there is an exchange between Swearengen and Merrick. This prefigues the duping of the press by Cy Toliver and the Dakota agent and later the partisan co-opting of the press by Swearengen. But above and beyond this plot placement, the scene is a debate between scholastic epistemology and political realism resting on the matter of civility and its discontents. You mentioned Shakespeare. I call on Brecht. Excellenct, just fucking excellent.
My least favorite bit: When Swearengen and the Widow Garret finally met, she tells him not once but twice to watch his profane language. Fuck off! It's way too late in the game for her character for this lame display of manners. The writing let me down, especially considering that his character, at least in his physical recovery phase as he was then in, was cussing quite a bit less than usual. Better to have her rise to the power summit meeting by saying "fuck'' for the first time and shocking him off his stool, so there. (On this score, I loved the character of the nanny-teacher who turns out to be a Pinkerton agent. Much better than the first season teenage girl [and sidekick brother] who turns out to be a violent robber rather than an innocent orphan, the cool-teacher-come-clever-cunt is developed over a number of episodes... and she gets away.)
OK, I'll stop. When I (start [doing] this) - that's the sign.
And Dan Responds:
When I have a coupla minutes, I'll engage with this critique with more vigour, but suffice to say that I agree that season two is not quite up to the level of season one, but that it is plenty great nonetheless. My least favourite moment was the death of Bullock's son, not cuz I hate seeing littluns killed, but rather cuz it is just too much melodrama for my taste. I also grew a little bit weary of Molly Parker's character, and that takes something cuz I love Molly Parker. But, yeah, not enough Al. Not nearly enough.
As for season three, well, that'll hafta wait, cuz it hasn't even aired yet. Apparently it's coming sometime in late spring/early summer, piggybacking on the Sopranos' season finale.
As if I am remotely polite enough to give you a chance to speak before talking again.
Gosh, I thought I was being a gushing fan, not a critic. Shows what a constant critic I really am. On that note, I agree with your two cursory comments, with qualification for the first and elaboration for the second.
It's not that there is too much of the widow, it's that her development has been too subtle. I was groping for this last time when I addressed the business about her being offended by Swearengen's profanity. By now she should be a lot tougher than she is with not just women but men as well. Seriously, her soft spot withstanding, i.e., her romantic passion for Bullock, she should be kicking some ass by now. This is a serious survivor with considerable economic power. Her pregnancy would only be an obstacle to developing her character's clout if the show was constrained by stupid sexism, which it is not. One of my favorite lines of movie dialogue is from the film ''Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,'' which has some good anti-Thatcher vibes in general but is particularly good when it comes to sexual politics. One lesbian is dominating another and their male friend interjects his disapproval: "Not all pricks are men." Molly Parker's character needs to be more of a prick if she is to remain interesting - and credible - in Deadwood.
I was so glad that they killed off Bullock's nephew/son because I felt the kid actor simply had no appeal whatsoever, sucked the life out of every scene he was in. Good riddance. I wasn't too troubled by the accident scene itself, although I was a bit worried about the involvement of the tertiary character who had previously jerked off on a horse and tarred the shoulder of the black mail carrier. He sort of hugged the kid in a weird, too-close manner that made me fear that the writers were going in a movie-of-the-week pederast direction. Thankfully, next thing I knew, the tike was dead. As for the funeral scene, which I assume is what bothered you, I felt it was legitimate insofar as the camp is fundamentally childless and of course, children represent the innocence that is entirely absent in Deadwood. I found it believable that the whores and more would congregate as they did. And Trixie was given some dialogue to address the in-the-big-picture irrational double-standard we apply to death when it comes to the young. This was foreshadowed after Swearengen pulled back from sticking a knife in Bullock while the boy looked on. He explicitly says that the kid "unmaned me,'' a macho cover for his adherence to the irrational double-standard Trixie pronounces. Interestingly enough, in Season One, Swearengen commissioned Dan to kill the little blond girl if such-and-such, but such-and-such never came to pass, so Dan was spared and Swearengen did not sink to that level. Speaking of that little girl, the writers better figure out what to do with her character 'cause another season of her being a pretty bump on a log will not cut it. Remember, this is a girl who saw her kin cut to pieces.
Bonus Item: Whether or not Bullock fucks his sister-in-law/wife or goes back to the widow or does both, I am sorry to say means little to me because of my reservations about Olyphant in general. Actually, if he could shake all this personal, domestic bullshit and be written more into the sheriff role, I reckon he just might win me back. Forgive me, but the character needs to do some more killing.
You are clearly a fan, though not a fanatic. Perhaps we need to reclaim this word (fanatic). Perhaps now a fanatic could be a fan with a critical inclination. One who does not gush, but praises intelligently, sensibly.
Some random thoughts.
You asked at some point in your review how Deadwood stacks up to other tv series of its ilk particularly when considering the difficulty of sustaining a narrative over the long haul. First off, it has the distinct advantage of being on HBO, which has a 13 episode season, rather than the 22 or 23 episode season of network tv. So, what we've seen over two seasons would represent the output of about a single season of "regular" tv. I'm not sure how long Deadwood would last in such a pressure cooker situation; the temptation to tread water, as most tv series do, would have to be great. So, thank goodness for that small mercy. That said, while season 2 represents a mild drop off from season one, it is still more dense and complex and engaging than any other tv show currently attempting to keep its story moving forward in a similar fashion. No contest.
I enjoyed your treatise on Machiavelli. I have read some of his stuff--particularly The Prince, of course--and always felt he got something of a raw deal. He's often presented as some sorta shadowy Iago-like figure breathlessly chanting evil incantations into his lord's ear, when I saw much of his advice as being pretty damned practical, given the fractious politics of his time. So too with Al--vicious cocksucker, but sharp as a switchblade. Protecting private interests, but with an eye to the public concern as well.
[btw, and completely tangentially, it was not the funeral that yanked my chain, but rather the whole melodrama of the death scene itself. I just hate watching kids die cuz I know it is supposed to be full of meaning, and make me feel awful for the life not lived, but usually I'm just grateful cuz most kids' acting sucks ass. No exception here. Mebbe that blond girl will be the exception that proves the rule, but she seems awfully precious and endearing, considering--as you've mentioned--the gruesome violence she's witnessed. Will she be allowed to show the ill-effects? Is she capable of it?]
The near-death of Al is crucial to his character's (and the town's--yes, Al is Deadwood, as you suggest, because his values suffuse all matters, both private and public) development. You mentioned how he was easing up on the cussing after this, which is most certainly so. He also develops a greater sense of social responsibility, as he attempts to ease Deadwood's inevitable movement into civilization in a way that will allow him to maximize his profits, sure, but he's also trying to consider what might be best for those around him too. Such matters did not seem to enter into his decision making processes in season one. Al is becoming a part of the kingdom he rules. While he ain't exactly Lear yet, calling on the wealthy to shake off their superflux, he's at least exhibiting signs of inclining towards being a social creature, with responsibilities to those he lords over. Baby steps, and all that.
As for the Hearst representative, I took his lethal attack on the whores as being Milch's attempt to engage questions of class divisions, or as the lads from Monty Python might say, "the violence inherent in the system." He murders with (relative) impunity, his psychopathology is swept conveniently out of sight. Allowing a representative of a protoypical lord of capitalism to walk away from such brutality virtually scot-free has to serve as some sort of comment on the essential injustice of such a world, no?
And ditto on the Bullock front. His domestic situation interests me not at all. It is only when he's operating in the public domain that his character holds interest. I look forward to seeing how his fledgling alliance with Al works itself out.