(pictured below: Al Swearengen by night.)
So I’ve started watching Deadwood (2004 – 2006) lately. I’ve completed season one (now partway into season two), and of course I understand why it was- and still is- so deeply loved. Deadwood is another testament of how HBO’s programming can be unconventional and ground-breaking. However, I can see how it ended up being cancelled prematurely, much like the network’s other period piece, Carnivàle (2003 – 2005). Creator David Milch’s vision of 1870s America must have cost boatloads of money to recreate. Also, the dialogue is an unmistakable challenge to viewers- often mumbled and hard to digest at its worst, brilliant and borderline Shakespearean at its best.
Why am I watching Deadwood now, five years after it was cancelled? Well, there are three reasons why. The first two are rather superficial. One: when I set up my website, laudanum at 33, I received hits from Deadwood fans. I even got an e-mail about Alma Garret (I had no idea what this person was talking about). Secondly, Stephen Tobolowsky was in several episodes. His account of working with Milch on The Tobolowsky Files furthered my interest.
But most important is reason three. I lost a family member under tragic circumstances this year. After his funeral his sister told me Deadwood had been his favorite show. Mississippi John Hurt’s “Farther Along,” which closed season one, had played at his memorial service. When I discovered this connection I stood there with my mouth wide open. “What?” I asked. “His favorite show? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
To give you some context for my surprise, I will say that my cousin Peter was a returned LDS missionary. He had a razor-sharp intellect and, as far as I know, was very committed to his religious ideals. He was reserved, at times shy, and unfailingly polite. From the little I knew of Deadwood, it was just a bunch of foul-mouthed guys shouting, plotting, whoring and murdering each other while shin-deep in mud. I discovered I was more than half right, though not completely. Nevertheless the show didn’t really fit with what I knew about Peter. What was the appeal for him?
In watching Deadwood I realize it has been like following a ghost, and will continue to be so. I have my own perceptions of the series, but they are inevitably shadowed by how I think Peter may have reacted.
Now, I know there’s no way you can make sense of a death or understand the inner workings of someone’s life through a television show. I want to make that clear. However, watching Deadwood has been illuminating.
Peter’s short life was marred with bad luck as well as physical and emotional pain. In the last years of his life he was constantly sidelined by illness, tragedy and death, but never complained. This kind of attitude is mirrored in Deadwood, which he was watching at the time. Its characters are pawns in a corrupt, violent and often unfair world. In spite of this they still manage to have moments of understanding, tenderness and hope. They stubbornly persist in spite of their sadness, their battered faces and broken bones. Some of the characters die. The ones that survive violence take episodes to heal.
No one in Deadwood spends too much time feeling sorry for themselves. This reminded me of Peter especially. There is an unspoken acceptance of their lots in life and sometimes it’s heartbreaking to watch. Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of “A Prayer” plays over one of the episode’s credits, and its placement is striking. The song is about death as well as understanding its unfairness and inevitability. “Lord, I must be strong now / I don’t belong now,” Peyroux intones. “If you are waiting / I’m not afraid to die.”
For many of the characters this seems especially true. Of course, I won’t really know how true it is until I complete season three.
What’s more interesting is the ambiguity of Deadwood‘s morality. In loving the show Peter must have embraced it. He was extremely smart and I think he understood that complexity more than I ever will. All I know is that Deadwood challenges our notions of right and wrong in complex ways. Al Swearengen’s (Ian McShane) gradual crumbling and taking pity on the suffering Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon) was notable, particularly since Swearengen had spent most of the season plotting and killing whomever he pleased. It is a turning point in the series, and an unexpected one at that.
So far what I’ve enjoyed most is the performances. Of course, all eyes go to McShane as Swearengen. That goes without saying. I find it amusing that the surname of Swearengen sounds like “swear-engine,” especially since the character’s dialogue is an unstoppable train of the words “pussy,” “fuck,” “cunt,” and- of course- “cocksucker.” Everyone is called a “cocksucker” on this show at one point or another, and for some reason McShane brings an emphasis to the word that elevates it to high art.
As of now I understand the casting of Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock. I do. Completely. Or maybe I don’t. All I know is that he is an attractive guy, so it’s easy to take in his mile-long stare and watch him beat people up. The scene where he punches Alma Garret’s father, like, eighty-six times is one of my favorites so far.
However, my favorite character in Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), the town doctor. He is emotional, moral, flawed and at his best completely audacious and honest. I liked him instantly and love every scene with him in it. I was thrilled to see John Hawkes cast as Sol Star, because this was back in the days when Hawkes was only cast as nice guys (as you can tell, I’m looking forward to the forthcoming Martha Marcy May Marlene). The rest of the cast is equally impressive, with Molly Parker, W. Earl Brown, Garret Dillahunt (in two roles) and- of course- Stephen Tobolowsky as stand-outs.
Sadly, I would discuss the plot developments but there’s only one person I’d want to talk about that with, and that’s Peter. I would like to know what he thought.
I would also thank him for piquing my interest.