Deadwood Season 1 (USA, 2004, David Milch)
Where the conversation turns to a discussion of the artistic merits of cussing in David Milch's brilliant televisual feast Deadwood.
Have you seen the second (third? more?) season of Deadwood already? I suppose rather than a sequal to a novel, it makes more sense to think of a television series in terms of the serialized print media installments of the 19th Century. The challenge is to give each episode enough closure in its own right while leaving other plot lines open for continuation.
That the form is fundamentally determined by plot constaints is ostensibly what makes it "escapist,'' a euphemism for inferior. Naturally, this is bunk as long as complex characters explore meaningful themes along the way. In order for that to happen, however, these characters can not be killed off, at least not too soon, if they are to be provided with the chance to be worthwhile. In a setting as violent as Deadwood, where characters are literally killing each other off, the narrative challenge is considerable. There is the added aspect of incorporating a certain degree of historical facticity with imagined material in order to strike the right balance of creating characters we care about - and get to for a while. Deadwood does a remarkable job.
I think the key to the achievement is the brisk evolutionary pace portrayed. The setting itself is dynamic. We are not yet again trapped in a police precinct or hospital ward with the usual gang, going nowhere, week after week, knowing that such-and-such character is here to stay because he has tested well in market research and we just read that the actor has recently renegotiated his contract. The result is lame melodrama, soap opera ultimately based on musical-chairs sexual tensions. Sure, sure, I figured out early on that the upright Bullock and the good widow were destined for each other. And yeah, there was just no way that the town boss -THE central character of the show and absolutely wonderfully realized by the actor - was going to walk off stage anytime soon. But for the most part, the episodes have not generated a predictable pattern and I think this is because Deadwood is blessed with a dynamism given to it by history itself. Still, it is an artistic decision to set the pace of how stories are told and I must confess I was surprised at how early on Hickock met his fate. It remains to be seen if the show can perpetuate itself according to its own standards. Nobody want to kill a goose that lays a golden egg but - if I may mix metaphors - nobody wants to just spin their wheels either. Let's hope they let it run its course with artistic dignity before it jumps the shark.
By now, everything I have said, however complimentary, should have made it clear that we are not dealing with the cinematic priority here. I have referred to theatrical form, novel form, periodical form, lots of literary forms but nothing has been said about cinematic form. As impressive as the makeup, costumes and sets are - (the unpaned glass in the front door of the hardware store is anachronistic I believe) - as well-staged as it all is with respect to the use of varied camera perspectives, the blocking of shots and the editing of scenes, none of this technically proficient visual craftsmanship is devoted to images in their own right. In short, it's a TV show. When it's all said and done, it's all done by saying. Deadwood looks pretty cool but it's all talk.
This brings me to the heart of the matter, of course, the language of Deadwood. Socrates may be the secular Jesus but he is followed by at least a few secular saints and surely Shakespeare is in this crew. Your comparison of David Milch (and his writing staff?) to Shakespeare was hyperbole of the highest order. This is not to take anything away from the excllence of that cocksucker. 'Cause the fucking cocksucking writing of that fucking cocksucker is very fucking good you cocksucker. But let me get my knee-jerk cynicism out of the way. There is a hint of out-doing The Sopranoes about Deadwood. Just a hint. That said, Milch explains in the doc how historically appropriate and circumstantially realistic the profanity is and I find him convincing. (Brilliant unto itself is his analysis of the influence of the Hayes Act on the generation of the taciturn hero in the Western genre.) The artistic problem with the profanity, however, is that Milch consistently embeds it in simply gorgeous syntax and often accompanies it with some sophistocated vocabulary too. This is having your cake and eating it too. Milch waves the realism flag in defense of the cussing but the truth is very few of the people in 1876 Deadwood would have been so interesting to hear speak. Understatement. The fact of the matter is, with only occassional exceptions, folks who cannot express themselves without swearing that much tend not to be so articulate, verbally competent, linguistically engaging, call it what you will, they have not been given the gift of the gab. The constant and unrelenting employment of profanity is, indeed, a textbook sign of the poverty of language, usually a feature of those in economic and educational poverty, although not necessarily. Deadwood is nothing if not an exercise in poetic licence. This is the best part of the show. But there is too much swearing. And you fucking know I am offering this critique intellectually and not cock-fucking-sucking prudishly. The correct balance is struck in certain characters (The Doc) but not in others (Calamity Jane) but my take is on the general level. As for the gorgeous syntax, no it's not Shakespeare, but it is sometimes pretty damn gorgeous. Ane what is more, there are profound nuggest from time to time.
To finish, there are some great performances. Some of the minor minors (sorry) are the cream in the coffee but all the lead roles are played by people who are obviously overjoyed to be given the opportunity to speak great lines. My only reservation is with the two hardware store good guys. The Jewish side-kick is lacking complexity and could use some inner-conflict. As for Bullock, I like the actor and the work he is doing but a certain spark is missing. It's tough to blend moral certitude and violent passion in the right mix when you are not a character with a mission, when you are not devoted to a higher calling but are just a regular Joe trying to get by. Related to this, there is not quite enough sexual heat coming off this cool customer. I can't help thinking how not Clint Eastwood he is. By the way, I mistook Timothy Olyphant's picture on the box for that of Christian Slater. That's why I mentioned to you that I noticed (incorrectly) that ''Little Jack'' is in the program.
I plead guilty to hyperbolizing the verse of Deadwood, but these means had a noble end. I wanted to make sure you watched this limber-dicked cocksucker.
The reason, outside the poetic dialogue (more on that later), that I like this series so much is its absolute unflinching portrayal of atavistic self-interest, which is clearly a very large part of Milch's critique of America in general. This land that exists outside of the law is home to some of the most vicious and ruthless fuckers this side of The Godfather, and Milch is unflinching in his implicit assault on the culture of greed in contemporary society. Thankfully, at the same time, there is this quiety pull towards society, this inclination towards a sense of community and order, even in these apparently heartless hinds, that gives us something identifiably human to cheer for as well. Sweringen isn't merely a selfish black-hearted bastard (though he is most assuredly that), he is also occasionally surprisingly decent (the euthenasia of the preacher, his employment of the gimp-legged housemaid and part-time hooker, whom he saved from the orphanage). But Milch is careful never to oversell this aspect of his characters; this ain't Gunsmoke or Bonanza. At its core, this is a series about some of our basest behaviour, with more than a passing attempt to understand it in a larger political and social context (this becomes even more evident in season two.)
You breezed past the acting accomplishments of Ian McShane, who plays Al Swearengen, and I've just gotta pause a second to give the man his due. This is my favourite piece of badass television acting since Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker. McShane's Sweringen is not merely the most important man in Deadwood, he IS Deadwood. By sheer force of personality, he has imprinted upon this town the moral code (what there is of it) that acts as the townspeople's guide. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part (Alan Rickman, in his younger days, perhaps?) and that is the highest form of compliment I can muster. He's irreplaceable.
As for Olyphant, there are things I quite like about his performance; his sneer is effective, and I get a chuckle out of his mincing stride, with his hands plastered by his side, he looks like John Wayne's runt-ish brother. However, when talk turns to romance, it just don't affect me much. Maybe it's a lack of chemistry with Molly Parker (which boggles the mind. I have loved Molly since she made the great Canadian necrophiliac classic Kissed about ten years ago) , and maybe it is the inclination towards soap opera that irks me about this particular plot line, but their relationship moves me not one whit. Thankfully, it proves a relatively short distraction. But I am betting ahead of myself.
You also mention misgivings about the flatness on the Jewish partner Sol, but you'll be happy to hear that there are some developments in his character that add some interesting shades in season two. Still, he remains the character most clearly commited to carving out of the savage wilderness something resembling a civilized oasis, the figure most likely to be described as decent. And decent fellas rarely make compelling fiction, so the actor here (John Hawkes) has a rather daunting task, but I think he does the best with what he's got.
Other than Swearengen, my favourite characters are EB and the Doc. EB is the hotel owner, played by Larry (William Sanderson of Larry, Darryl and Darryl fame); whose ability to not merely survive but thrive despite being one of the slimiest, least trustworthy cockroaches in a town full of 'em is a testament to his cunning. And I adore the actor who plays him (name escapes me again); the way he scurries about currying favour like a sycophant one minute then stands tall while barking out orders to his minions the next is a chapter all its own. And Brad Dourif's Doc is all that and then some. A tortured humanitarian who has seen some godawful shit during the Civil War and now ekes out a living ministering to the most depraved and abused in a shithole town. He's a whiskey-soaked missionary without any faith, but a small strain of humanitarianism--a character straight out of a Graham Greene novel.
As for the language, well, what can I say? I adore the fact that it is almost certainly deeply affected. While Milch flies the flag of realism when defending the swearing, you'll note that he does the same when defending the more flowery shit as well. I have absolutely NO problem believing that these characters would indeed swear like sailors on leave, and that someone like Calamity Jane (the terrific Robin Weigert) would be as obnoxious in her discourse as possible. After all, she's a woman (however butch) in a very masculine world, where she would have to go to extra lengths to make sure she was not going to be fucked over (literally and metaphorically) by the men around her. Now as for Milch's argument is that this is the way people, raised on Victorian-era literature, spoke back then, I imagine that this is a buncha hooey. When would a buncha illiterate gold prospectors, who represent (mostly) the dregs of society ever get around to reading Victorian literature, never mind immersing themselves in it to such an extent that it affects the way they speak. But the thing is this: I don't care. Just as Shakespeare was allowed to fill his character's mouths with the kinda language only found in poetry, so too should Milch be allowed to fold gold into the mouths of his characters; I do not require these nuggets to be realistic in a historical sense. I merely require them to be consistent and plausible in the world that Milch has created. His characters are living in a sort of altered reality and, fuck realism, I'm loving the language that's dripping off their tongues.
I have indeed seen season two (there've only been two seasons thus far) and I'm happy to report that despite some moments of melodrama, particularly late in the season, the series has not yet allowed Fonzie to traverse its metaphorical shark pit
Yes I breezed past McShane as Swearengen but I meant no disrespect as I did at least say that the character is "absolutely wonderfully realized.'' Your way of giving the man his props is to say that nobody else could be in the role. This is the counter-factual argument and I hear you. My way of going after this position is to say that I just don't see the guy working. We are past "performance," the actor so inhabits the role. And we do have to nod to the writing too because the character is truly complex. You mentioned cases of his benevolent side but I would like to add now that his affection for Trixie is genuine and one of the aspects of the monologue-blow job that contributes to its power is it displays his dependency on Trixie, whom he attempts to replace in the most brutal and impossible manner. When he learns that she screwed the nice hardware Jew for free, he makes them both pay emotionally by making him pay financially, but afterwards we are shown that the man is hurting, hurting bad. McShane shows it all in his still, glass-eyed face. Killed me. And since I've touched on when I was so moved, the scene at Hickcock's grave with Jane and Charlie, killed me. And done without a trace of Hallmark sentimentality.
If I read you right, you agree with me about the sexual vibe coming off Olyphant. I just want to reply that the problem is not with Molly Parker as far as I'm concerned. She is plenty sexy and doing a great job bringing a bogus character to life. Her presence in the camp is the most contrived, that she was dragged there, perhaps, but that she would stay, fugedaboudit. Yet, I believe her. And I respect the writing for having them finally fuck at the end of season one instead of saving this for the next season like they do in Knots Landing or some such shit.
As for your impression that Milch is implicitly offering an assault on the culture of greed in contemporary society, while simultaneously showing us that even scumbags have a stong inclination towards a sense of community - I read Deadwood exactly upside-down from this. I don't see the show attacking what Marx called "primitive accumulation,'' i.e. landed property theft. On the contrary, I think the show accepts it as a historical necessity. Doesn't promote it as an economc policy. Doesn't forgive it when judged morally. But nevertheless treats it as a "form of development" or "stage in the progess of the nation.'' Ironically, the evidence for this is precisely the humane social relations you and I cheer for as we see them advancing. In my review I spoke of Cannery Row and I thought about sharing my feeling that Deadwood is somehow equally fraternal. I checked myself because this seems ludicrous on the face of it. Situated in a hostile economic system, Steinbeck's row itself is socially benign. That's what makes it such a wonderful place to visit, to escape to. How could Deadwood be anything like this, what with all those throats being cut?. But it is. No, it's not fucking Green Acres but come on man, it is not Hell. It's attractive. We want to go. Seriously Dan, let's you and me buy some o' that hardware for us-selves, grab some o' that flake and get us a whore or three. Let's you and me have some fun while we... help build America. It would be unfair to Milch to say that Deadwood is simply nostalgic glorification. I am, rather, attempting to turn your take inside-out with respect to whatever radical historical content it appears to offer. It should be mentioned, however, that there is some solid feminist orientation in the show and also some worthwhile perspectives on race, both Chinese and native, although I hope the second season goes further for the latter. But I cannot say that Deadwood actually condemns economic rapaciousness as such and it seems to me that the Black Hills are presented as a land of opportunity, however sordid.
Interestingly enough, I was more accepting than you of Milch's realism defence of the novel for Victorian sociology. In our saturated multi-media, increasingly illiterate, hot-graphic culture today, it is easy to underestimate the extent to which the popular novel dominated the educated intelligence in the second half of the 19th Century. And beyond the novel, extend the argument to include "letters" generally. I think it makes sense that speech practices were reflected in the media of the day and in turn transformed by these replications in a feedback loop.
What is bullshit, however, is that this cultural process would have been operative in a lumpen-proletarian outback like Deadwood. On this score, Milch is talking out of his ass and Jardine is entirely correct that Deadwood is a work of art, thank you very much. And please remember that I never criticized Milch for his poetic licence, for the wonderful syntax and wit and wisdom. Quite the contrary, I celebrated this as the best thing about Deadwood. What I criticized was the degree of profanity integrated into this poetry. If you're committed to affected purple language, you cannot also uphold gritty ignorant swearing, at least not so much as Deadwood does.
Milch is right that people use words as weapons, but he commits a class conflation, having his outlaws bash at each other not only with coarse language but also with aristocratic repartee. The artistic illegitimacy of this class conflation comes to the fore whenever the show explores class differences within the camp. For example, when the non-swearing, properly-educated newspaper man has to explain to swearing Sweringen that gratis means free - excuse me Milch but you don't get to have this cute exchange between these characters after allowing Sweringen to speak as well as a sophist in a Platonic dialogue. Perhaps the strongest example is the scene when the widow suggests that Trixie and the orphan girl make new lives for themselves in New York with the help of the widow's relatives. In response to this preposterous condescension, Trixie lashes out at the widow calling her a ''rich cunt.'' Yup, that's just what she'd say, stuff like that, and only that, all the time, none of that other fancy poetic stuff, ever. What a bore. Seriously, if I wanted to hear discourse so stupid it has to be profane or silent, I would hang out in the halls of a high school all day. In reality, the talk of the town of Deadwood in 1876 had to be as deadly dull. I'm for the pretend stuff made up by Milch and his team of fucking pen-pushing cocksuckers.
Of course to have attempted to tell this story without a helluva lot of cussing would have been unthinkable, but okay, I will cede to you the point that there is a certain level of illogic and proposterousness in the mix of the poetic and the profane in Deadwood, and that there are points where it (a) lifts you out of the story, instead of (b) lifting you to rapturous heights of reverie, but I'm willing to grant Milch et. al. a few moments of overindulgence if the result is so many more of (b) than (a).
As for whether the show is condemning or merely observing the entrepreneurial activity it witnesses, I think that Milch tips his hand in this regard a bit more in season two with the introduction of a representative of the Hearst family. I stand by my contention that there's some interesting critique happening here. But no doubt, that Al Swearengen fella offers up one helluva compelling business model.