These are late in coming, but over the holidays I watched the third season of Deadwood. It was a season where the main characters hunker down and try to figure out how the winds are blowing so they can survive the storm. What follows is a compilation of various rough notes and impressions I wrote as I watched.
This season the light is brighter and clearer than the first two. The town seems to exist in a real world of sun and air and not in the delirium and memories of a mad man or in a fever dream.
New Power Struggles
In the second season, characters struggled to control themselves or others in the face of personal weaknesses or improbable alliances. These weaknesses were legion: every major character of the season–Swearengen, Bullock, Mrs. Ellsworth, Joanie, Hearst’s man–were deeply flawed and these weaknesses were varied enough that the season can be seen, overall, as a study of weaknesses overcome (or not).
The third season is different because the battle for Deadwood has been lost. Hearst owns the mines, the hotel. Those who came to the Black Hills only for money get it from him and leave. Those who came to build a life–not just to stake a claim–are all that’s left. The question they struggle with is simple: will their town remain their town and will they have a say? Or will they dance to the tune called by their corporate master, Hearst.
Critique of Corporate Capital
Hearst is corporate power personified, a power the locals are struggling to understand, adjust to and survive. (This is made explicit in dialogue: he cannot even be killed because he will be replaced by the board.) So what is this corporate power like?
Well, Hearst cries over his wounded humanity and vaunt his connection to the earth, but he acts coldly like a violent and dangerous animal. He sleeps on the floor, he spits and kills for the pleasure of demonstrating his power, he squashes unions. He acts how he will, destroying for his own reasons in response to his own whims without every improving what he touches. The walls he tears down in his rooms are an overt symbol of this. The hotel–and Deadwood–are worse for him being there.
It’s telling that after all the threats and dread, the only major character Hearst actually kills is Ellsworth, the most gentle, honorable person on the show, and also the one who knows the most about Hearst’s history.
So if Hearst is corporate power, does Swearengen stands in as a kind of small-business, (mom-n-pop store?) trying to fight off Wal-mart? If so, that’s funny but also seems true to the ethos of the western.
This is a season of narrative possibilities the lead nowhere. Again morphine addiction? (Or maybe not.) The Doc has TB? (Or maybe not.) The theatre troop arrives because…? (Who knows.) And Hearst’s cook…? These and other narrative possibilities never come to anything. They are the stuff of real life, but under Hearst’s reign, they whither.