Sunday, March 22, 2009

 

Welcome to f**king Deadwood. Can be combative.


By Edward Copeland
Five years ago March 21, HBO premiered a new Western series created by David Milch, but it was unlike any Western I'd ever seen. I wasn't into it at first, but I kept coming back. It took about four episodes until I was in tune to the rhythms of Deadwood. Having just rewatched the entire series in the great DVD box set that came out in December, it's even better than I remember. Illness prevented me from posting this on the actual date, but Sunday always was HBO night anyway. Illness also forced me to write in haste and haze, so if you spot any errors, please let me know by e-mail or in comments so I can fix them. I've already found a bunch.


Having seen the entire series before, I didn't have to adjust to the beats of the dialogue. Much as the killing of Keith Carradine's Wild Bill Hickock changed the show's trajectory, it was from that moment that I was definitely hooked. Looking back, I think that may have been why I was slow to warm to the series. I knew Hickok's days were numbered and since Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt) was portrayed in much the same way he was presented by David Arquette in Walter Hill's 1995 film Wild Bill, which happened to have Carradine as Buffalo Bill. So, since Wild Bill loomed over the beginning of the series, I wasn't able to really enjoy the entire cast because I was waiting for the killing. Now, some characters were impossible to ignore from the beginning. Ian McShane's Al Swearengen demands your attention. Robin Weigert's Calamity Jane originally was like nails on a chalkboard to me, but then she grew on me. Rewatching the entire series, I liked her from the beginning and it is a bit amazing to see and hear Weigert in street clothes and realize that Jane emanates from this woman. It's also sad to see the scene where for all her drunken bluster, she falls apart when confronted with powerful men such as Al or Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe).

A Realization (Perhaps a Heresy) and Some Emmy Bashing

Going back through all the episodes and extras, it's amazing how Deadwood just got better and better. It also caused me to make a realization: I've held The Sopranos in too high esteem. Don't get me wrong, but it is one of the best, but it had a lot of bad episodes and it went on longer than it should have. I'd already rated The Wire higher, but it wasn't until after I rewatched Deadwood, that I had to say HBO's two great dramas were Deadwood and The Wire. I'm proud of myself. I got quite a ways through this piece without writing cocksucker. Beyond the elegance of its language and vulgarity, what really becomes clear on repeat viewings is how there doesn't seem to be a weak link in the cast. In the commentary tracks I learned what is probably old news to others. The extras volunteered for specific merchant roles and most kept them for then entire run of the series. Ralph Richeson, who played Farnum's abused, horn-worshipping slave Richardson got started that way, One day, David Milch decide to give him a line and the part grew from there. You could almost write a separate essay on most of the denizens of Deadwood, but I feel I know them a little better the more time I spend with them. Of course, my memory was one of loving Al, but I'd forgotten how downright villainous he was in the first episodes. It wasn't really OK to like him until Cy arrived. By the end of the series' truncated run, they were both shown what true villainy was by the arrival of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). It seemed an odd casting choice. This was Major Dad and half of Simon & Simon. Milch knew what he was doing because McRaney was amazing How he didn't get nominated for an Emmy and win one is beyond me, but then again the Emmys in general are beyond me. They are almost to the point of becoming even more irrelevant than the Grammys. The even bigger case in point, one of the all-time biggest cases in point, I present to you Exhibit A: Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. Eligible three times, nominated once, never won. Emmy hoople-heads. McShane was great from the beginning, but what's even more impressive is Swearengen's growth, which comes about at a pace so slowly that it still can take you almost by surprise when he commits acts of nobility. Of course, Al is a brutal man, quick with a blade (though he regrets never having learned to handle a gun) and who routinely fakes Indian attacks to loot travelers or tries to scam gold-seekers with dry claims. However, as time went on, some of those unseemly Swearengen aspects seemed to vanish and the others seemed to be less evidence of venality than of pragmatism. Deadwood is Al's community and he wants to make sure he's in on its progress. Contrast that to Tolliver, who's just plain mean or vengeful, or Hearst, whose pragmatism warped into evil in pursuit of the "color." Al also was just pretty damn funny a lot of the time, though he'd always deny it. In the first season, Swearengen said of himself, "I'm stupidest when I try to be funny." I have to believe that Swearengen is lying about that because no one can something like this without intending to get a laugh: "Here's what to understand about the fucking specialists — they pay a premium and they never make fucking trouble. Sometimes I imagine in my declining years running a small joint in Manchester England catering to the specialists exclusive — to let them know they're amongst their own maybe I'll operate from the corner hanging upside down like a fucking bat." His changes came in many ways: from reluctantly forming a government, realizing when the old ways were no longer viable, being physically defeated by Hearst, yet still able to fool him and take away his guardian and overcoming a nasty bout of bladder stones. Let me add that, as someone who recently had surgery to remove bladder stones, I'm damn glad it didn't happen to me in 1877.

Swearengen and His Employees

Al's various relationships with many of the characters on the show also bring out different aspects of him. It's clear that he loves Trixie (the great Paula Malcomson), but he treats her like a whore and calls her a whore, though he allows her to work at Sol and Seth's goods store and learn accounting under the pretense of spying. He even lets her move up to the Deadwood Bank when Alma opens it later. It's clear Al wants her to have a chance to escape her life. He treats each of his employees distinctly. Johnny (Sean Bridgers) is pretty much treated as an idiot, which is probably fair, but some of Al's softly mean-spirited humor toward Johnny does betray some affection: "So many put the Yellowstone atop the natural wonders Johnny — for me there's only you." Adams (Titus Welliver) is the newest member of the Swearengen conclave and though he's bred jealousy in Al's right-hand man Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown, whose performance gets better each time you see it), you always get the sense that Al hasn't completely trusted him yet. Another note, on Welliver alone on the DVD, many on the commentaries mentioned that Welliver was a master mimic and there is an extra where Welliver plays Milch auditioning several well-known actors for the role of Al Swearengen. It's very funny. Now, getting back to Dority. He's not so quick to adapt to change as Al is, but them have stood together through so much, they will always be by one another's side. In an interesting way, watching it this time, I sort of viewed Dan as the bridge between Seth (Timothy Olyphant) and Al. By that I mean, Al is pragmatic and tries to think things through while Seth, like Dan, can be a hothead and say things he shouldn't have before he realizes it was a bad idea. In Deadwood, the sheriff has the itchy trigger finger, though fortunately it's seldom actually on the trigger of a gun. That's not quite the same case with Dan, though he's good with many weapons and with his bare fists. His third season street brawl with Hearst's protector Captain Turner (Allan Graf) that made Tony and Ralph's fatal brawl on The Sopranos look like a game of slaps. The aftermath

for Dan was in many ways worse. Dority had much blood on his hand, but this killing was so intimate and personal, he couldn't help but be affected and Brown got to give some his best moments of the entire series out of this. W. Earl Brown was no one trick pony either. He also wrote one of season three's most eventful episodes "A Constant Throb" when Al leaped off his balcony to whisk Alma to safety in The Gem as Hearst's goons take shots at her. The last of Al's employees of note is Jewel, played by actress-comedienne Geri Jewell who has cerebral palsy. They never say what Jewel's affliction is on the show and I personally don't know when they started diagnosing cerebral palsy. (Hell, I have multiple sclerosis and I don't even know when it was first diagnosed.) Al doesn't seem to cut her any slack for her condition (she can never get a bloodstain out of the floor to Al's satisfaction. Jewel gives as good as she gets too. When she goes to visit Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) with an idea that he can build her a boot that will help her walk better, upon her return to The Gem when Al asks of her whereabouts and she mentions the doc she tells him that she's "knocked up." Why would a tough hombre such as Al Swearengen employ someone like Jewel? Milch speculates in interviews and commentaries that almost everything about Al can be traced back to his time in an orphanage and odds are that he found Jewel in one, likely being mistreated, and rescued her.

So Many Great Characters, So Many Great Actors, So Little Time

As the posting time for this post draws farther away from its initial intention and the post itself grows longer, I'm going to have to start wrapping this up and try to get in as much as I wanted to. As I mentioned earlier, it's truly amazing how this cast didn't have any weak links. In first viewings, it was sometimes difficult to notice standing in the shadow of a powerhouse such as Ian McShane. I also noticed that some of the characters I didn't like as well as others I liked more when they were interacting with certain other characters. Even watching again, I can't really warm up to Alma Garret (Molly Parker) except when she acts opposite two actors: one obvious, one probably not so obvious. Once the noble Ellsworth (the great Jim Beaver) entered her life on a more permanent basis, she came a bit more to life and she gave him his best scene of the entire series. She's resumed her laudunum habit and under the influence tries to seduce Ellsworth. Even though he is her husband, though he knows it wasn't a marriage of love, he recognizes her altered state and sadly resists her advances and tells her he'll get his things and move out. The other actor is the irrepressible William Sanderson as E.B. Farnum. Farnum is always funny, so it's probably purely by osmosis that in the scenes between E.B. and Alma, he manages to make her funny as well. As long as I'm being slightly critical of a show in a post that so far has been a massive lovefest, I feel I should be honest and say that the love affair between Seth and Alma was one of the most passionless romances. You see the passion between Sol (John Hawkes) and Trixie. I've only been mentioning Seth Bullock here and there so far and it was nothing against Olyphant, but I just found Seth dull for a long time until you really got to see how he could fly off the handle and watch the dychotomy develop between him and Swearengen. As I wrote earlier, first-time around, it took a long time for Weigert's Calamity Jane to grow on me, but that was definitely a case of the performance. With Olyphant, it was the character. Second time around, I started watching with those problems already fixed. Back to performances I loved from the start, in no particular order, there was Leon Rippy as Tom Nuttall, owner of the saloon where Hickok met his fate, in love with his new bike until it's involved tangentially in a tragedy; Brad Dourif as the ever-eccentric Doc Cochran keeping the whores clean and fixing the gun and knife wounds in between body snatching for medical study. Dourif is great and he did manage to garner one nomination out of the Emmy hoople-heads, but of course he lost; Garret Dillahunt's brilliance probably wouldn't have been noticed quite as clearly if it hadn't come in two parts. He was great as the loutish kook Jack McCall who offs Hickok and even though I knew going in to season 2 this time that amazingly it was the same actor who was playing Hearst's well-dressed geologist, the first time I was watching season two I literally did not know that until I read it somewhere. Reminded me of my fellow Twin Peaks fan who nailed Piper Laurie under the Japanese garb as Tojamura in the very first appearance, and they even went to the trouble of creating a fake actor's name. Deadwood didn't even try to fake me out; Then there's the marvelous Dayton Callie as Charlie Utter, Hickok's sidekick turned parcel post/deputy sheriff and, according to several commentaries, a damn good sax player in real life; Kim Dickens as Joanie Stubbs one of the several portraits of how there really weren't many easy lives in the Old West. She began when we met her as the handler of the whores at the Bella Luna, with a determination to start out on her own. Tolliver even supports her idea, promising to back her, but Joanie isn't as strong as she seems, especially when Cy forces her to kill one of the two teens trying to rip them off (played by Kristen Bell). Later, Eddie (Ricky Jay) offers to be Joanie's backers, telling her he's planning to rip off Cy. This is the one storyline that was never explained well because Ricky Jay vanished after season 1, though in season 2, Joanie made a reference to him finding the place for the Chez Ami for her and helping her out, yet she also gives Cy a cut of her take. I got off track, which is Kim Dickens who handled what really is a slow degradation in her character caused by an uncertain future and unresolved demon and a tenative lurch at love (with Jane no less). I hope I haven't forgotten anyone, though I know I must of because there are too damn many of you and I know I didn't get all my points or things I've learned in, or talk enough about its technical aspects (God bless James Glennon who filmed most of the episodes and was responsible for its wonderful look) and other behind-the-scenes-craftsmanship but I'll end this with a shout-out to Keone Young.

SWEAREGEN! AMERICA!


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Comments:
Excellent post on a superlative defying series.

It's interesting that you note it took you 4 episodes as I remember the same kind of feeling, it did take me a few to get into it but once you get going there's no turning back.

I suppose the massive surprise for me, and a lot of UK folk, was the revelation of Ian McShane; for so long he played a jack the lad, leather coated rascal in a timid, light-hearted comedy called Lovejoy that you really couldn't see something as marvellous as Swearagen around the corner.

As you correctly point out the episodes just got better and it's that fact which makes it all the more unbearable that there won't be any more; that's the last I heard anyway, hopefully the situation has changed.

Anyway, thanks for an excellent post, in which I relived the pure joy I got from the series and also for the revelation that Walcott and Jack McCall were the same actor! How I didn't know that I'll never know.
 
Thanks for all the thoughts. It took us through the fourth episode to reach where we wanted to go as well. Actually, the fifth, but everything builds and adds colors through the first four, culminating in the death of Hickok, and then the arrival of the rider with the severed Indian head. The trial is ground zero for the new civilization and, after McCall rides off, Bullock's pursuit is the new beginning as it's then up to him (and Al).
 
I feel so bad about not making this piece as polished, organized and encompassing as I hoped, that I think I might keep updating it through comments as I think of things I was going to mention but left out. I wanted to write more on the formation of a community. I forgot to ask about Ellsworth's dog. Al would have his soliloquys with the Indian's severed head, but twice we saw Ellsworth speaking at length with a white dog out at the mining site, including when he was killed. Was it his dog? What happened to it after his death? Also, a favorite moment, Stephen Tobolowsky as the Yankton emissary doing that bizarre baby bird imitation to Hearst. All for now. I'm sure more will come.
 
Stellar fucking post, Ed.

My only addition as far as underrated performances? The once-overexposed Jeffrey Jones as A.W. Merrick, the newsman, and the great, quiet scene he has in season 2 when Al slaps him and basically sums up his worldview in one sentence: "Pain don't end the world. Nor does despair. Nor do fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you've got more pain in store. Stand it like a man, and give back some of your own."

More comments when I have time.
 
Jeffrey Jones is another one I forgot to single out. I also didn't remember to repeat one of my favorite Al quotes, "Change ain't looking for friends. Change calls the tune we all dance to." Thanks for the compliments because in my head I wanted this post to be so much grander and greater than it turned out to be, but my body has its limitations these days.
 
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