Ian Maleney
Thu, May 19, 2016

Some Thoughts on Deadwood (2004-2006)

“There is a cliff, whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confinèd deep.
Bring me but to the very brim of it,
And I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear
With something rich about me. From that place
I shall no leading need.”

(King Lear; Act 4, Scene 1)

Perhaps it is simply his increased visibility this year, but I feel I am having something of a Shakespeare epiphany. A slow-burning one for sure, with no particular insight yet gleaned, but there is something different now about the way I hear the lines. Perhaps it has something to do with hearing the lines aloud more often, hearing the so-particular rhythm. The more convoluted and knotted the surer they ring in the ear, the more brain-twisting the better. Understanding emerges slowly from such knots, if at all. But the emotion, the intent, the core point of the whole endeavour slips clear easily enough. It is often impossible to miss.

It is not as if I have been regularly attending theatrical performances. I haven’t seen Shakespeare in the theatre since Othello before my Leaving Cert. Perhaps I’ve learned to recognise a Shakespearian mode, a motion of the mouth into which a speaker might fall.

I watched Angels In America this year, the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s epic play. Prior, a young gay man living with and perhaps dying of AIDS, finds himself in a vision of heaven. There, instead of God, he finds a giant administrative team of angels, all busily typing away, sorting through files, trying to figure out a way to hasten God’s return. The lead angel, played by Emma Thompson, speaks in this glorious upper register, befitting a character who is, Kushner says in the play’s notes, “immensely august, serious and dangerously powerful always.”

“Look up, look up,
It is Not-to-Be Time.
Oh who asks of the Orders Blessing
With Apocalypse Descending?
Who demands: More Life?
When Death like a Protector
Blinds our eyes, shielding from tender nerve
More horror than can be borne.
Let any Being on whom Fortune smiles
Creep away to Death
Before that last dreadful daybreak…”

It goes on like that. There is something of Shakespeare in this I think, particularly the second half; “shielding from tender nerve more horror than can be borne.” The lines are spoken quickly, delivered quicker than I could immediately grasp. But their emotive power emerges almost instantly. The fear and the dread, the terrifying desire of an eternal being that life itself would stop, it is there almost in the delivery itself, the rhythm of it, even if only a fraction of the words are truly heard and acknowledged.

The lines at the top of this post are spoken in Deadwood, midway through the third and final season. It is one of several Shakespeare quotes in the series, and I think perhaps the finest. Much has been made of Deadwood’s dialogue which, particularly in the mouth of Al Swearengen, is as convoluted and clausal as the Bard’s. (There is even a quiz: Shakespeare or David Milch?) This form of speech slows the passage of meaning, increases focus, and generates an almost fantastical rhythm. At its best, we are listening just to listen, for the sheer pleasure of it. Not to hear what will happen next but to go deeper into this very moment, to follow as best we might a character’s thread of thought as it unspools from some place deep inside of them. So much comedy, such simple joy, can be wrought from the contrast of this mannered speech, this deep, investigatory explication, with a bluntness of intent. All it takes is a simple ‘cocksucker’ to drag it into the mud. The struggle of the human animal to explain itself while simultaneously trying to raise itself from the dirt, the simple drama of everyday life in other words, comes alive.

The dialogue is the show’s great strength, and Al is its avatar, one of the truly great characters of modern television. Ian McShane’s acting has to take a large part of the credit for this, as that dialogue might easily fall flat, become pompous and over-blown, with someone else delivering it. His soliloquies, usually given to one of two severed heads, are remarkable. He holds the screen entirely, dominating every scene he’s in. The show’s lowest point — the first half of the second series — is almost entirely a result of Al’s absence from proceedings.

Al is the show’s centre of gravity, emotionally, dramatically and politically. The beautiful thing about the first series is that it takes place almost entirely within two buildings; Al’s Gem Saloon and E.B. Farnham’s Grand Central Hotel. The drama consists largely of people going between different rooms in these two places and talking to each other. Many of the key incidents happen elsewhere, at the edge of camp or in a different saloon, but the drama takes place in this incredibly claustrophobic environment of two simple, ill-lit buildings. It is relatively plotless too, introducing the main characters over the course of five or six episodes without pushing ahead with any needless storyline.

It is an intensely dramatic time in the series because there are basically no limits on the characters’ behaviour. Deadwood is an illegal camp, there is no law but there is some degree of order. How this order is constituted, day after day, is what makes the show so absorbing in these early stages. What we’re watching is the formation of a community, a set of individuals, each with their own histories, learning to live together. Nothing major needs to happen in this kind of situation; people are interesting enough by themselves. We just watch what they do, how they interact, what they hide or hold back, much like we do in reality. Whatever plot there is remains embedded in the everyday goings-on of the camp.

Beyond Al’s incapacity during the second series, the show weakens for another reason: politics. Much like The Wire, Deadwood is at its weakest when it attempts to speak not through politics but about politics. The imposition of this outside order immediately feels unnatural — as well it might, I suppose — and the characters begin to feel more like cogs than real people. They’re on screen to make a point, to drive something home. It’s very rare that such concerns actually work on the level of the character, that someone seems to be a natural embodiment of something bigger than themselves and happily moves within a stream that flows from beyond the show itself. The political angle — the sense that show has something to say about America, capitalism, etc — is hard to square with the psychological reality the show has been building, and this is as much an issue of pacing and depth as anything else. Good characters benefit from a slow boil, but political points are best scored quickly and in the midst of some greater concern.

On a purely dramatic level, the show weakens with politics because those politics are largely invisible. The spectre of Yankton looms large over the second series, as the Deadwood camp attempts to legitimise itself in the eyes of the United States and its Dakota territory. What we never see is Yankton itself. It exists in the show as a pair of government officials, neither particularly interesting or engaging characters. Hugo Jarry, the principal agent of corrupt bureaucracy in the show, never moves beyond being a one dimensional figure, lingering half-heartedly between comedy and malice without ever being particularly funny or particularly malevolent. That Yankton begins to take up so much of the show’s time — particularly so much of Al’s time — saps the motivational self-interest and self-determination of the first series. Instead of having a character like Al driving the show with the force of his desires, we more and more see him in reaction to the machinations of an invisible enemy that we don’t know much about and care nothing for. The moment at which the show’s balance shifts, the camera pulls back to the wider picture, is when the show starts most obviously to fail.

The appearance of George Hearst in the latter half of the second series and his development throughout the third seems like an attempt to make that invisible enemy more present, physically and emotionally. And while Hearst does operate relatively successfully as a political counterweight to Al, becoming an alternate centre of gravity for the camp, he never assumes anywhere near the same emotional weight. This is a facet of his character and of the capitalist interests he represents, that much is obvious, but this doesn’t necessarily make for good television. He draws none of the camp to him in his battle with Al. He leaves the camp essentially a stranger to everyone in it, leaving behind no legacy of connection beyond the purely corporate. Again, this is likely intentional but it is also boring and frustrating to watch. That this kind of thing happens every day doesn’t make it any more interesting, nor does the idea that this is the founding ethos of a state. Without the depth of character, emerging one layer after the other, contradictory or complementary to what has come before, none of it matters. This is still fiction after all.

The shallowness of Hearst’s character could be forgiven were it not for the effect it seems to have on the writing of the others. The set of strong characters which emerge by the end of the first season – Al, Bullock, Doc, Jane – are entirely eclipsed by this didactic shadow. Bullock’s character develops not one jot between the end of the first series and the end of the third. He floats about the camp, putting out small fires, getting angry because that is his tragic flaw. At no point does his psychological reality appear to drive the show in any way. He becomes an actor without agency, breezing along most uncomfortably. Doc, who is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and complex characters in the show, barely appears in the third series at all. His storyline again devolves, losing all sense of propulsion. He just limps around, coughs, scowls a bit. This is a world away from the wonderfully sharp fervour, the sincere, no bullshit worldliness of earlier episodes.

Cy Tolliver, initially imported to provide some sort of competition for Al, the first attempt to shift the centre of gravity, is a total failure. His final scene is grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and, most damningly of all, unbelievable. He has absolutely no purpose in the final series, and his character quickly descends into self-parody. He should have died at the end of the second series, no one knew what to do with him after that. Jack Langrishe, a theatre producer, ambles around the final scenes as if imported wholesale from some other show, his purpose unclear even to himself. The members of his troupe have taken up vast swathes of time since their arrival, with absolutely nothing to show for it. We are no closer to understanding what motivates him or understanding his relationships with other people.

The huge cast of ancillary characters means the writer’s attention — and, to a lesser extent, the viewer’s — is spread far too thin. The detail begins to blur, the sense of depth fades away. Why is there barely anyone in the Gem anymore? A packed bar in the first series is a ghost-town by the third, even though the population of the town has multiplied several times over. The simple answer is that the Gem is no longer a place where miners go to drink and fuck, but solely a place where the plot can take place. It loses its purpose, like so many of the characters.

Though it is deeply unfair to compare any other television show to The Sopranos, it is worthwhile at least considering the similarities, wondering what makes one work better with each passing moment while the other slips from the writer’s grasp. Tony functions as the ultimate centre of gravity, an easy analog for Al’s morally dubious but hugely likeable anti-hero. Can you imagine what would happen if Tony disappeared from The Sopranos for five or six episodes? Even when he’s in a coma, he’s still the centre of attention. The characters that move around him very slowly grow into themselves, absolved of being the main attraction, they can each become interesting for their own sake. When their moment comes, they shine because they have had that time to grow in the viewer’s consciousness, securing a place in this particular cosmology. Their stories are almost invariably tragic, but that is the logic of that world. As unsentimental as Deadwood is considered to be, there is truly nothing to compare with Adrianna’s arc in The Sopranos.

I make this tired comparison because it highlights the difference in focus which I feel relegates Deadwood to an enjoyable but deeply flawed bit of television. The Sopranos works because the characters never play second-fiddle to the politicking of the writer. It remains always a story about people, and as they go about their lives, the nature of their world becomes evident. Deadwood, like The Wire, leaps too quickly into the nature of the world, and seems to forget about the people living in it. Its thread, so expertly woven in the first series, begins to fray. Its characters find themselves at loose ends. People appear and disappear without purpose or purchase. Yes, this is the nature of the world, but why show it to us at this time, in this place, in this way? Deadwood aches to make a point about America, to scrutinise, condemn and sometimes celebrate the filthy work that secured its foundation. By its close, such grand topic are of more concern that their effect on those involved. For those characters hamstrung by this historical picture-painting, their fate is to be unmoored, their fears and desires forgotten. It appears that the writers, unlike me, quite lost interest in them.