Going wrong is not the end of fucking things, Johnny.–Dan, Deadwood
Change ain’t looking for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to.
November and December years ago, I was watching Deadwood and trying to find ways to express how incredible the script was to people who were put off by the profanity. I decided to post a series of quotes from the show in the days leading up to Christmas and to pattern them after the carol: “on the first day of Deadwood, Bullock said to me…” The series was a hit.
It was the early days of Facebook though and I posted the quotations there. Later when I’d moved off that platform, I copied the series as a single post on this blog. I never really liked the results, but I wanted to save the series somewhere.
Well this year, I’ve decided to unpack that post and run the series again. So starting tomorrow the quotations—with a couple updates to lines I didn’t love the first time around—will pop up, one per day, until Christmas morning.
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.
All but grading done for the term, I’ve started rewatching Deadwood. With twelve days until the 25th, one line of dialogue per day seems a healthy tonic for tinsel and elven cheer. So that’s the plan. The twelve days of Deadwood.
1. On the first day of Deadwood, Swearengen said to me:
Change ain’t looking for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to.
This show received a lot of attention when it was released simply because it marked Netflix’s entry into production. When the show led the Emmy nominations, there was additional talk about how it signalled a shift toward online distribution away from cable. All of these stories are interesting but they also strike beside the main point: the show is very very good. The plotting is generally tight, the photography is often beautiful, and the acting is simply great.
- the relationship between Claire and Francis. This is a marriage as something more than love and sex. And the “more” makes it better. I came away thinking that we have traded in a strong imagining of the marriage feast for a thin Romantic (and romantic) gruel.
- I love the cigarettes by the window. A perfectly pitched image.
- Claire’s character is mysterious and powerful. Her confrontation with the dying bodyguard captures a large part of what I’m fascinated by. I side with her completely in that moment. He sends his wife out of the room and confesses his desire for Claire as if his desire were something special. She points out that it isn’t special, it’s cliché and an imposition, a claim to power that she’s dealt with over and over her entire life. She then points out how blind he is to the reality of her marriage: she wants and has something more than desire with Francis. And she does this while turning his desire against him. A pinnacle moment in the series.
- the tracking time-lapse photography in the opening sequence is very beautiful and the music grew on me. I appreciated it by the end.
More generally, I realize I like political drama. One of the best things about the second season of Deadwood is that it’s so explicitly about the struggle to see and gain power. Movies like Ides of March and All the President’s Men are also great. House of Cards can stand neck and neck with them.
The density of language, the intensity of tone, and the paucity of action define Deadwood for me. I’m on edge, missing stuff and yet nothing is happening. This season I realized how much this show is about politics: fighting for and allocating power in a field with multiple independent actors. It is smart, exciting, and exhausting.
What interests me is this: the book reads like something written by someone who has watched a lot of television. This is not a vague impression. The middle scenes in the hotel, for example, are close to a riff on the series Deadwood. Now, all generic fiction is going to be a riff on something. Absent other direct references to TV, what concretely makes me see television rather than fiction as its generic context?
Favourite moment: Eli feeling embarrassed by the intimacy of holding Charlie’s hand after it’s been amputated.