Deadwood Season Three (2006, USA, David Milch et. al.)
Wherein the weight of expectations prove crushing...
Season Two was not as good as Season One and Season Three is not as good as Season Two. In fact, three is more inferior to two than two was to one. I know that many fans of the program are upset that HBO has canceled it but I have to say that it is for the best. The quality of Season Three is still high enough that stepping off the stage now will be an act of dignified departure, avoiding death by mediocrity. If the proposed final two two-hour episodes of the show manage to signal with style the destinations and destinies of the main characters, fans of Deadwood should accept this closing offer for what it is. For what it's worth, the show will have run about as long as the actual historical gold rush it depicts, a higher degree of veracity than much else about the series. Seriously, the Korean War lasted three years but M*A*S*H was on TV for eleven! So Deadwood dead after three is kinda cool.
What has been almost imperceptibly but nonetheless slipping is, of course, the writing. Both in terms of the central plot as well as the sub-plots relating to it and the dialog, the writing has lost much of its inspirational spark. This is reflected in a number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is the introduction of new characters and/or excessive attention to hitherto tertiary characters at the expense of primary and even well-established secondary characters. It is easier to throw additional ingredients in a pot than it is to continue slow-cooking the stuff already in there into simmering excellence. In Season Three, top-notch characters such as The Doc, EB Farnum and Cy Tolliver are pretty much abandoned. This is the case both absolutely, they simply appear a lot less, and relatively, they operate at the peripheries of plot developments. Reduced in this way, they are given much less to say and what they do get to say lacks the wonderful flourish of language that is the aesthetic heart of Deadwood. In short, they are wasted. This might be permissible if the new and previously neglected characters attended to picked up the slack. But in the main, they do not.
So, to give just one example, EB almost never gets to obsequiously interact with Swerengen, instead relegated to abusively interacting with his underling, Richardson, who actually is given more scenes of his own than EB towards the end of the season. I'm sorry but this will not do. The development of Richardson's character we are given is just too sleight compared to watching EB suck up to Al, what was one of the delights of the show.
This is not to say that some of the sub-plots in Season Three fail to engage. Sure, bring on the lesbian relationship between Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane. And even more so, do explore the twisted love-hate relationship between the racist reprobate, Steve Fields, and the world-weary-but-deeply-ethical Nigger General. And so on. But at the same time – and so long. These story lines are drawn out over the season to a fault, revealing a certain wheel-spinning on the part of the writers. A few other strings really do string us along for no great entertainment purpose. The relationship between Bullock and his wife is truly boring as is her whole school-teacher business, which in turn makes the stuff about the transformation of the schoolhouse into a theatre – and all the many characters involved in this – as dull as dishwater. Indeed, the coming of the theatrical troupe, as much as I liked the verbiage coming off the director/impresario, was a dead end in Deadwood.
Meanwhile, the failure to make Alma Garret a serious fucking woman not to be trifled with rather than a wimpy femme always on the brink of drug addiction and emotional collapse is one of the chief miscalculations of Season Three and this is much more than a sub-plot misstep. This is front and centre. The fact of the matter is, with the arrival of Hearst as the all-purpose nemesis, the principal dramatic contradiction is between his big-time industrial capitalist agenda and her small-time finance capitalist aspirations resting, obviously, on her ownership of the Homestake Claim. Don't get me wrong. Go ahead and mediate her power through her personal relations with Bullock and Swerengen. Definitely, these two guys have to be operating extensively and intensively in her orbit. But she must radiate some genuine power. She must do this with her person and of herself precisely because the camp is hardly a unified field in its own right and only becomes one in relation to the physical object that is Hearst. Again, to clarify, I'm not suggesting that she start cutting throats with her own hands. I am saying that she has to increasingly become a moneyed matriarch with de facto political power, however indirectly her interests are imposed on the camp. In other words, for the drama to succeed there must be in us the (ultimately false) notion that a genuine challenge to Hearst exists. That Bullock and Swerengen are steadily shown to be dealing with a competitor that is truly out of their league, minor victories along the way notwithstanding, is admirable and realistic too. But there is a B-flat-ness running through Season Three insofar as the town banker is plainly a bitch without balls, if I may make a sexist mix of a genital metaphor.
The critique I have just tendered is actually generous, which is to say, within the confines Deadwood set for itself. A more serious critique is to recall my earlier concern that the show would be unable to maintain its factually-based dynamism within those confines. To refresh your memory, already in my review of Season One I wondered if Deadwood, so situated as it is in actual history, could only accommodate this context on an epic scale. Such a scale is usually understood to be temporal. But I do not have from-generation-to-generation in mind. Even a spatial grandness of here-there-and-everywhere is only secondarily required, if that, although, certain scenes in other settings may prove necessary for exposition. No, by epic I mean deeper. I mean concentric rings of explanatory context. I mean more real history conditioning the story. What this boils down to for Deadwood is an entirely different portrayal of Hearst.
Contrary to Hollywood marketing demographics, it is not always more interesting to make The Bad Guy a misanthropic sociopath with a homicidal streak. In order to characterize Hearst as representative of power that begets more power, as the personification of capital itself, that cliché actually stands in the way of creating a truly awesome force with which to be reckoned. Of course, this speaks to my initial disagreement with the likes of you and Matt that Deadwood, in any season, penetrates beyond moral distaste for rapacious greed and violent incivility. Hearst is hardly as nasty a cocksucker as half the killers walking the street, never mind Swerengen, whose opened more throats with a knife than anyone, or Bullock, with his near psychotic disposition to shoot first and ask question later. Hearst is the fucking establishment for Christ's sake! He is progress. He is transformative capitalist civilization as such insofar as it is the moment in civilization when it legitimates itself over and above what it has brought into the world thus far. It posits itself as historically NECESSARY. (That this conception of necessity always demands profound ideological justification is a serious management issue for the ruling class, but entirely outside the present problematic.) The point is the Hearst is supposed to be what the Germans used to call “the logic of capital.” This stands over and against the town as a whole, which, for all its secondary contradictions and complex sociology, is little more than a lumpen proletarian outpost of barbaric proportions with desperate dreams of petty bourgeois aggrandizement and political inclusion by the state.
Hearst's character in Deadwood is all wrong because the oppressiveness of capital as such is conceptually beyond the ideological pale of the show's creators. In an attempt to make him an effecting villain, he is shown to be more and more passionate and even irrational but he should have been made more and more clinically efficient, advancing methodically, ruthless not against certain persons personally but against everyone unexceptionally. Sure, sure, we need some action. I'm not saying Hearst cannot engage in violent tactics. But that's all they are, mere tactics, a technocratic option in a campaign of monopoly appropriation. This is warfare according to capitalist acquisition not the Spanish Inquisition. So, at the end of the day, this-and-that execution and calling in the Pinkertons is but the superficial exposure of Hearst's power. Certainly, I am pushing for a presentation of power as something systemic and therefore more abstract and therefore potentially much more difficult to dramatize. Potentially. But not necessarily. Honestly, it is only ideological limitations that prohibit taking this on as an artistic challenge. I have already suggested as a first approximation that Hearst become less and less overtly evil in his behavior and more and more like a bureaucrat just doing the job that he has been handed by the sheer fact of his position. Just a suggestion. Take it or leave it. However, we simply must take to the curb this rubbish about Hearst being a man so maniacal for “the colour,” he would have his cook's kid killed for a little lump of gold that may or may not have come from a real or bogus mine that may or may not have been in deepest, darkest Africa. Again I say, rather than this fictionalized stupidity on behalf of drama, fashion drama by making Hearst the epic figure he actually was, by placing the Deadwood tale in a larger context of historical meaning.
I want to make it plain that I am not demanding a history lesson, a documentary. I am trying to argue that Deadwood deteriorates dramatically precisely because it fails to pursue its own historical premises. That there are ideological obstacles to taking history seriously enough to give it pride of place in your art is not a trivial point but not my main one here. I am saying that the general power struggle with Hearst at the core of Season Three does not reach a satisfying climax in the final episodes because it was misconceived from the outset and just as poorly perpetuated. Furthermore, it is not my radical pinko fault that in order to rectify this it is requisite to break from the myth of American rugged individualism in Deadwood and shed some light on the fact that that gold rush happened when the US was in a serious economic depression brought on by soft money and fantastically high speculative investment in railroads, when the unemployment rate was 15% and those gainfully employed were so only six months out of the year on average at wage rates almost half of what they were in 1873, when in 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes became the president through a deal not just to end Carpetbagger Reconstruction in the South but also to back the federal currency with the gold standard, when around the same time Washington reneged on reserving the Black Hills for the First Nations peoples in order to militarily secure the zone for the extraction of gold by the dominant players in the nation's emergent mining sector. Enter George Hearst. And, I maintain, more dramatically too. Deadwood is a good TV show but please, it ain't got nuthin' 'pared to Gore Vidal's “1876.” Yes, yes, in order to float a line of the plot, at least Deadwood nods more than once to the savage union prevention Hearst exacted. I'm just pointing out he obtained the Homestake Claim in June of 1877 and in July of 1877 there began a four month national railroad strike conducted by as yet unorganized workers. Deadwood features tons of struggle and even a fair amount of class, but where's the class struggle?
Alright, I went and did it again. Went and got “too political.” I hope I made a convincing case about the portrayal of Hearst being wrong and the source of Deadwood's decline as a piece of story-telling.
I'll finish here with a more modest criticism of Deadwood Season Three. Al Swerengen got too nice. I dropped a bottle of ink before on how he is a full Machiavellian prince, both privately self-serving and publicly-minded at the same time, yadda yadda. I suppose this dialectic was preserved throughout the show but fuck it if that cocksucker didn't become just a suck. He started to resemble some sort of middle class member of the Rotary Club. I exaggerate but only to give the full flavor of my disappointment. Guy lost his edge and got less interesting, plain and simple. For the first few episodes I tried to rationalize this devolution of his character as a reflection of his impotence to repel Hearst. Hell, Swerengen literally does experience a bout of erectile dysfunction and everyone in the town undergoes disempowerment by Hearst, Dan's defeat of The Captain (that scene hurt MY eyeball) aside. Eventually, however, this rationalization could not hold. The truth is, Swerengen wimped out because the writing let him down. Milch and company should have facilitated a Lear-like, self-reflective deconstruction of the character. Instead, he gets the occasional strategic rant and the even more occasional philosophic musing while addressing the Indian head in the box, a brilliant Hamlet-and-the-skull ripoff with tremendous untapped potential.
And Dan Respondeth:
will have a (hopefully) measured and well-reasoned response to your critique soon, but for now I will note that we DEFINTELY agree about the place that s3 has in the Deadwood pantheon (not as bad as Godfather III, but much weaker than either s1 or 2) as well as the overall disappointment in the treatment of many of the more interesting supporting characters (as you know, DB and Doc are two of my faves, and they were sorely missed). I do, however, appreciate Hearst's role in the proceedings more than you. More later.
Okay, it's later.
So first, what we mostly seem to agree upon. The focus is fuzzier in season 3. What was knife-edge sharp in season one and two becomes bluntly applied in season 3. There are too many new and pointless characters introduced (hello theatre troop! Yes, I'm talking to you) and while, to be fair, it is apparent that they were going to be developed further in season 4, you have gotta put this sorta talent (poor old Brian Cox. What a waste of a tremendous resource) to use, give them some kinda payoff, however small. And while I loved the racist liveryman's drunken monologue to the horse just before he got cold-cocked, I hafta say that a little of that entire situation (and character) goes a looooong way. And, yes, poor Alma. Why did she hafta become such a maiden in distress throughout the season? Where's the steely-eyed woman who sat knee to knee for tea with Al and asked him not to cuss so much? And whence my beloved DB and Doc, and the much-loathed Cy Tolliver? They drifted through the season like so much forgotten detritus. Alas.
But where we diverge in opinion is on the character of Hearst, without whom the entire season would have been a wash. What I saw in Hearst was an interesting attempt to present the psychology of capitalism, rather than the science of it. Hearst is a man obsessed with the colour. It fills most of his waking thoughts. It consumes him, bends him to its will. So, rather than a scientific the portrait of the inevitability of capital, as the natural and inescapable result of the pursuit of the most efficient accumulation of wealth, what we have in Hearst a is a man filling some deep longing, some gaping emotional or spiritual lust with "the colour." So for Milch capitalism unfettered in the person of Hearst is an expression of a (spiritual, emotional, psychological? Pick your poison) longing that can never be requited, at least not with material possessions. And ultimately with someone like this, too much is never enough. So, while Milch is not digging into the historical forces behind capitalists like Hearst (hey, if you type too quickly, his name comes out as 'Hearts.' Hmmmm…), he is going after the psychological/spiritual ones. And I really liked Gerald McRaney's performance. In order to make his challenge of Al's place atop the pecking order, whoever played Hearst was gonna hafta do menace convincingly. And McRaney was menacing as hell.
I also was interested in the way the camp rallied round Al/Bullock/Starr/Merrick et. al. to attempt to fend off Hearst's forces. It is only when faced with an opponent of leviathan status that Al realizes that his own interests must fold themselves into and become in some ways indistinguishable from the camp's. Rather than simply bending the place to his will, as has been his wont, he's forced now into the position of negotiator and diplomat. In a word, he becomes (moderately) civilized (though that doesn't stop him from cutting several throats).
I also liked the development of a few of the supporting characters, particularly Johnny (Sean Bridges), who emerged from the role of comic foil to that of sad-eyed clown. The way he stood up to Al in the finale felt entirely believable; Johnny had grown that much. Still, I sure felt for the poor bastard. And Trixie has always been a favourite, but I thought Paula Malcomson really bit into the part this season, a distaff version of Al over there in the hardware store, looking out for everyone's interests with her pussified gun. Lastly, I quite enjoyed the evolution of Joanie Stubbs, particularly early on in the season when Kim Dickens reached deep down into the character to get to the heart of her despair. Dickens finally seemed to "get" Joanie, and really came into her own in these moments.
Lastly, I appreciate how, despite all of their best efforts, at the end of season 3, Milch allows that Hearst gets everything he's after. It's not merely historically accurate, but entirely believable. There were small victories along the way—Dan's defeat of the Captain being the most obvious—but in the end capital will not be denied.
In my critique of the Hearst character, I acknowledged that the more historically embedded alternative I was promoting was relatively abstract and as such presents a particular kind of dramatic challenge. I notice that you counter my call to put the character in more social history by validating for drama the personal interiority of the character, "(spiritual, emotional, psychological? Pick your poison)."
Now, as always, in accordance with my methodological religion, my standard for a "complex" character is a dialectic of the the "outside" world through which the character moves and the world "inside" the character's head. Even so, I can't help but feel that your defense of the Hearst characterization falls back on an essentially atomic individualism that rests on a far more extreme - and ultimately bogus - abstraction of the self from the society. Hence, you validate the Deadwood take on Hearst in terms of his longing and lust and such in his quest for "the colour," precisely the passion and irrationality I attempted to discredit in my review. Do you not notice, however, that this is just fancy talk for what is commonly labelled gold fever, itself just a specialized case of greed? Well, I have been at pains from Season One onward to find Deadwood thematically inadequate to the extent that it can't go beyond a critique of greed to a critique of the larger social relations that foster it.
Perhaps my suggestion that Hearst be portrayed as a cool calculator is misguided for drama. Yet, I wonder if you miss my meaning when I say that he should be the personification of the logic of capital. This is not to offer that the he should operate like some sort of entrepreneurial Mr.Spock. Naturally, Heast is not a Vulcan without red blood cells and feelings. What I am saying is that the logic of capital is an accumulation imperative. This intrinsic mandate is what makes the exploitation of labour by capital "necessary" but also competition between capitalist firms "necessary" and the development of monopoly capitalist blocks "necessary." The ideologically repressed flip-side of all this "necessity" is unemployment and bankruptcy and all the downward social mobility attending this. But this down-side - certainly the moral point of departure for any sort of socialism - is exactly not the starting point and self-reproductive mantra of capital as such. That is the imperative of accumulation.
Now, it is crucial - according to Marxism that is - not to confuse the objectivity of the accumulation imperative with the subjective profit motive. Motivation has to do with personal psychology that may or may not be connected with larger social matters but even if it is, it is entirely beside the point. Capital as embodied in a particular individual can betray its objective class interest with the best of egalitarian intentions; pay all the workers as much as the stockholders, sell to consumers at cost, whatever - and get smashed by the market in minutes. So, money-lust or passion for "the colour" (money-lust once removed, money-lust sublimated as adventure seeking, all of this for a Freudian so much sexual conquest, the rape of Mother Nature and all that); in short, greed as motivation - all of this is neither here nor there if we want to personify capital as such in the character of Hearst.
Deadwood attempts to provide some flavour of what is required insofar as Hearst is clearly driven, as I noted before, obsessed. But to chaulk this up entirely to his particular human nature or personal psychology or the like is to retreat from the truly critical task of showing how a capitalist such as Hearst is driven by the nature of capital itself. He is compelled by the necessity of the accumulation imperative, operating in accordance with the logic of capital. Go ahead, in complete disregard for the biographical facts, make him a volatile killer if you just can't make your drama work without it. But please put him in a larger, deeper historical context to do dramatic justice to why he must do as he does and more, why he - and not Swerengen or anyone else - wins the power struggle. Go epic. Just like Copolla did in The Godfather.
Incidentally - turning now from grasping capital as an objective process to a comparison of the two subjective inclinations addressed above - monetary greed is not the same thing and is not nearly as insidious as the profit motive. Greed is just a neurotic disposition to store value for consumption never realized, better understood as hoarding, no doubt based in deep anxiety about the future, itself based in deep present insecurity. The profit motive is your solid power trip, the province of control freaks who aim to dominate production processes, although this too probably cooks off as a reaction formation in response to insecurity.
Speaking of my dissatisfaction with personal psychology to account for character, I mentioned previously that Swerengen disappointed me by becoming too nice. Already in Season Two we were subjected to Al talking about his childhood trama with respect to his mommy while having his cock sucked. Don't get me wrong, delivering a monologue while being given head is one hell of a powerful theatrical device. Knocked me out. But come on, in Season Three this became a full-blown (heh heh) drag, what with all that stuff about being restrained by some orphanage thug while his dear mother was torn from him - yuck! Movie-of-the-week crap.
I understand what you are getting at, but I fear you don't get what I'm trying to get at. It's not gold fever per se that I (or Milch) accuse old Hearst of having. I think Milch is trying to give us something a little different than that; he's trying to understand why a capitalist becomes A CAPITALIST. What satisfaction is gained by accumulating capital to such grotesque extent, at the expense of all humanity? Hearst is an empty man. He has no interests or talents outside of acquiring gold. It is the only thing that gives him meaning, yet despite all he has dug out of the ground, it cannot film him. He remain empty. So Capitalism is the hollow pursuit to fill a bottomless hole.
It's a more simplistic, personal (psychological) attempt to understand the "logic of capital," the why's and wherefore's of this driving urge to accumulate. I know that we both agree that this approach lacks the depth and complexity of a systemic analysis, such as that hinted at in The Godfather. Still, I think it's something.
Honestly, I think we could have your cake and eat mine too. Even without all my Marxist mania, it would be perfectly possible to provide a bit more objective substance conditioning the character and still paint him with the subjective colors you like. And notice how I have never demanded piety with respect to respecting the facts of Hearst's biography. I am entirely comfortable with the fictionalization of the man. I just don't want a complete divorce of the character from the historical forces determining him.
Still, I cannot refrain from a bit more Marxist mania. You are on the wrong track in thinking it possible to establish a critique of capital as such on the basis of psychological generalizations attributable to an average capitalist, an Everyman of the accumulation process, such as Hearst supposedly is in Deadwood. In the first place, t here is an wide world of empirical exceptions to disprove the rule. There is no shortage of capitalists who have interests and talents outside of managing a capitalist enterprise. What is more, they are confident that their enterprise is not conducted at the expense of all humanity. Quite the opposite, they feel sure that it is a boon to the good life for all, or at least many. In short, they are not empty inside. (And hey, even Hearst in Deadwood enjoyed a good meal.) In the second place, even if it is was a fact that for the vast majority of capitalists, the only meaning of life was the process of accumulation, the issue is not what this class finds existentially meaningful - it is what this class must do to exist as a class. Must do. Objectively must do, to reproduce itself as a class. The subjective side of the matter is simply not the correct point of entry into the problem. Certainly, a whole model, a complete picture will have to account for capitalist subjectivity, especially in order to explain market competition. But to start with this leads only to, pardon me, bleeding-heart moralism and managerial reformism at best, ( e.g., the film, The Corporation).
Marx is direct about capitalists being alienated too. But Marx is even more direct that how the exploiters themselves feel about their place in the system is a non-starter with respect to doing away with the system - even if the capitalists are unhappy about their place in the system, even if they are unhappy about the system itself. Their objective location in the system prohibits them from revolutionary self destruction. This task falls to the exploited. Hence, the problem of subjectivity for Marx is first and foremost a matter of working class consciousness. (Oy, what a problem!)
What all this means for dramatic story-telling is beyond me. Call Brecht.
And if you think this was bad, find some god to thank for the three large paragraphs I cut out.
And Finally Dan:
As will surely not surprise you, I agree with you generally on the political pionts, but as you intimate with the ref to Brecht, ihow to dramatise such a character? The Hearst we are given might be limited as an example of Capitalism, but he's a pretty riveting Capitalist.