Saturday, September 24, 2011

Deadwood: Honoring Cocksuckers and Hoopleheads

As anyone following me on Twitter knows, I purchased all three seasons of Deadwood without having seen an episode. I was drawn by three things: 1) the buzz I’d heard about the series, 2) the fact that it was a Western (they don’t make many of those anymore) and 3) the 50-percent off deal that was too good to pass up. From late spring into early autumn I went through all three seasons, coming to the end last night.

In lieu of a traditional review, of an episode, a season or the series, I’ve decided instead that the best way for me to honor this decidedly character-driven series is to rank its many characters, while mentioning some favorite moments along the way.

I’m sure this goes without saying, but the following is written with the expectation that readers have watched the series. Major spoilers ahead.

We start at the top:


Al Swearengen (Ian McShane)
Is it possible to drift into hyperbole when discussing Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen? I’m not sure it is. Al is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across, on any sized screen, powerfully acted by a man who seems to have been born to play him. McShane was 62 when the series began, with a long list of mostly forgettable TV performances to his credit. Imagine what it must be like to find the job you were born to do near the age when most people retire. I suspect that McShane’s years of hard work in relative anonymity must have informed his portrayal of Al, who bears the wisdom and weariness of a life spent clawing for every opportunity and isn’t about to let go of his brass ring once he’s found it. McShane’s Al is so brilliantly conceived that to write about his intensity of character at any length seems as pointless as rambling about the temperature of the sun. So for now I’ll close with this, as this won’t be the only time Al is mentioned in this piece: Look at the following list of adjectives and tell me which one best describes Al: profane, conniving, clever, ruthless, indomitable, or volatile.

Can you possibly rank those choices? Can you possibly put one above the rest? The difficulty of that assignment is a testament to the character’s staggering range of absolute magnificence. In a violent rage or in quiet contemplation, greasing the gears of the system or cleaning blood off the floor, in the midst of yet another wordy monologue or sitting silently in his bed after a near-death experience, Al is Deadwood’s unfailingly awesome character. He is the sun that brings life to the entire series.


Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine)
From the most dominating presence in each of the series’ 36 episodes, we now move to a character who appears in only four episodes but casts a shadow over the entire series. Other than Calamity Jane, Keith Carradine’s Wild Bill is the only character most of the show’s audience is likely to know by name when the series begins. Wild Bill is a legend, and Deadwood spends its initial episodes feeling out the validity of that legend. Is Wild Bill truly the fastest gun around? Is Wild Bill a man of honor? Is Wild Bill a man to fear? Even after his true-to-history death those questions still aren’t easy to answer. Carradine’s performance suggests a man who is impervious to the world around him and fragile against himself. There’s an aura about him. Carradine speaks each line with crisp, patient deliberateness as if Wild Bill can’t remember the last time someone dared to interrupt him. His “listen to the thunder” warning to Alma Garret is delivered with the heavenly reverberations of Zeus throwing lightning bolts. Wild Bill sets the tenor for the fierce battle of wills that unfolds throughout the titular town for the 32 episodes after his killing. It’s Wild Bill who shows us how a man carries the confidence of his past into his new setting. It’s Wild Bill who shows us that even the strong don’t always survive. It’s Wild Bill who shows us that death in Deadwood is often swift and unceremonious. It’s Wild Bill who serves as the crack of thunder for the storm that rolls in behind him.


Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif)
With the exception of Al and Wild Bill, there is no character I enjoyed more completely or consistently than Brad Dourif’s Doc Cochran. Initial credit must go to series creator David Milch and the show’s numerous writers who realized what a special opportunity they had in Doc. In a town controlled by self-serving hotheads with a taste for violence surpassed only by a thirst for control, the most powerful man in Deadwood isn’t any guy with a knife but the one man who knows how to treat a stab wound. Doc constantly drifts amidst the chaos like an NFL referee: simultaneously ignored and obeyed. It’s a genius conceit that’s amplified by Dourif’s fully committed performance, which begins with that hunched posture and shuffled walk that reminds of a man scampering over hot coals with a steamer trunk on his shoulders. The one man in Deadwood who can shout down an irate Al Swearengen, or lecture a typically irritable Cy Tolliver, or adopt an air of disapproval toward an enraged Hearst? It’s the meek looking doctor who is anything but. What really wins me over about Doc is his overwhelming desire to help people in a town that’s out to spill blood. Doc can’t help but help, despite the inevitable.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my favorite moment of the series – and nothing comes close – is the one late in Season 2: Episode 4 when Al finally passes the gleet that had been giving him such discomfort. To that point, Al has received uncomfortable rectal massages from a prostitute, nearly died on the floor of his office when no one dared to open the door to check on him and endured metal prongs being stuck up his penis in search of the obstruction. But his pain is just beginning. The obstruction is removed with Dan holding Al down, Johnny administering smelling salts and Doc putting those metal prongs back up Al’s penis while Trixie milks Al’s prick like an udder. When the obstruction clears and bloody urine drips onto the floor, no one is more relieved than Doc Cochran, who cradles Al in his arms and says gratefully (because he won’t have to perform a risky surgery) and admiringly (because he knows what hell that Al has been through), “God bless you, Al! Thank you for saving me!” From there the camera, positioned above Al’s bed, reverse zooms to show all the exhausted participants of the ordeal laying across Al in relief – a perfect symbol that Al is the center of their universe. What a pure moment of triumph, relief and joy that is, all wrapped together. I get choked up just thinking about it.


Trixie (Paula Malcomson)
While not in the class of the above characters, Paula Malcomson’s Trixie is deserving of special recognition for being the most consistently complex character on the show. Whereas Al’s various nuances are slowly unraveled over the course of the series, allowing him to go from a seemingly one-dimensional man of violence who beats Trixie in the early episodes to a three-dimensional character who sings alone in his bar on talent night and consoles and rallies Alma near the series’ end, Trixie never really evolves. Sure, she goes from being a prostitute entirely beholden to Al to being a semi-learned woman of semi-respect who seems to have semi-control of her sexual relations with Sol. But for the most part Trixie is just as messed up at the end of the series as she is at the beginning, and that’s what I love about her. No doubt, if Deadwood would have continued for another two or three seasons, the writers would have brought more clarity to Trixie, but even with Trixie’s tearful embrace of Sol in the series finale her specific feelings are mostly a mystery. Does she love Sol and just struggle to admit it, to him or herself? Or, after all those years as a prostitute, is she hardwired to forever be under the thumb of a man – even if it’s the gentle thumb of Sol, who would gladly lift it to spare her the weight. Trixie has a toughness and ferocity that are entirely genuine, but she’s terribly insecure. I loved watching Malcomson play Trixie, in part because of her hard-edged beauty, which is becoming a rarity in TV and movies. But the main reason Trixie is listed here is because I never knew what to expect from her, probably because Trixie never knew what to expect from herself.


Dan (W. Earl Brown)
As has become clear already, Deadwood is a character drama defined by contrasts and contradictions, and no character illustrates that theme more clearly than W. Earl Brown’s Dan. On the one hand, Dan might be the most violent man in Deadwood. He may not kill as often as Al, but only because Al doesn’t give him the opportunity. Dan is fearless in battle, but he trembles when Al raises his voice at him. Essentially, Dan is Al’s beloved dog, ever faithful in following orders and always in need of positive reinforcement from his master. He’s capable of attacking anyone who walks onto Al’s porch, but in return he wants to be patted on the head and told that he matters.

Dan’s kind and yet cranky demeanor would have made him one of my favorite characters even if he hadn’t appeared in one of the series’ most unforgettable scenes, but since he did, it’s worth mentioning: The brawl between Dan and Hearst’s bodyguard, Captain Turner (Allan Graf), is prolonged and brutal, unfolding in an atmosphere that suggests that Dan might indeed die. When Dan plucks Captain Turner’s eyeball out of his head it’s as thrilling as it is gruesome. But the scene’s true power is found in the follow-up, in the nod of approval that Al gives to Dan, like the nod of an approving father, and the ensuing shots of Dan huddled alone in The Gem, coming to terms with ending another man’s life with his bare hands. If another character reacted this way, we might conclude that his oft-mentioned bloodlust was nothing more than empty posturing. But we don’t doubt Dan’s thirst for violence in the name of supporting Al, which is precisely why his intense emotional response after the brawl with Captain Turner is so unsettling.


Francis Wolcott (Garrett Dillahunt)
Garrett Dillahunt does something in Deadwood that must be unprecedented in a TV series: he commits the two most momentous murders in the show’s narrative as two different characters. Dillahunt’s first appearance on the show is in Season 1 as the stuttering, mouth-breathing Frank McCall, who is notable not just for shooting Wild Bill in the back of the head (the shot heard round the camp) but also for being on the receiving end of the most profane and unforgettable verbal assault in the show’s history (and for the very profane, very verbal and very assaultive Deadwood, that’s really saying something). Dillahunt’s more substantial appearance comes in Season 2, when he takes on the role of the buttoned-up, uptight advance scout for Hearst, Francis Wolcott, who in a way is also the front man for his more dangerous alter ego, “Mr. W.” Wolcott is a pleasure to watch because he’s a misfit. His comparatively elegant attire clashes with Deadwood’s muddy thoroughfare and grungy residents, while his air of restraint and propriety belies the uncontrollable killer inside him. Cinema and TV have given us so many varieties of psychopathic killers that it’s difficult to be excited by one anymore, and yet when “Mr. W” attacks the whores at Chez Ami it’s swift and shocking, even though he’s doing the very thing that has been foreshadowed and outright promised for several episodes. Watching Wolcott, I always struggled to tell whether he was more afraid of dangerous men or his own tendencies. Dillahunt’s performance suggests a man who under a disguise of unflappability is barely holding it together.


After the six characters above, it becomes impossible for me to rank the actors in this next tier, so I provide them in alphabetical order by character name. (As any fan of the series knows, some of these characters are known by their first name, some by their last, and some by a mashup of the two. My alphabetizations are based on what I identify as the first character of their unofficial Deadwood handle.)

Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie)
Although Deadwood’s run came to an abrupt conclusion (all signs indicate that Milch closed out Deadwood’s third and final season under the assumption there would be a fourth), Dayton Callie’s Charlie is one of the characters whose unintended farewell dovetails nicely with his introduction. When we meet Charlie, he’s the faithful sidekick to Wild Bill, fretting over him like a mother, standing up for him like a brother and sometimes looking out for him like a spouse. One of my favorite lines in the entire series is early in Season 1, when Charlie approaches Seth and Sol and suggests they join him and Wild Bill for supper. Seth and Sol agree, and then Charlie breaks the awkwardness of the moment by playfully calling attention to it: “I feel like I shoulda brung posies,” he says. After Wild Bill is gunned down, Charlie is adrift. He tries to fret over Jane, but she won’t have it. He tries to stand up for Seth, but Seth doesn’t need it. All of which makes the following moment so rewarding: In the final episode, as Charlie sits holed up in The Gem, a place he loathes to step foot, he shared drinks with Dan, Adams and Johnny. He’s reluctant at first but gives in, eventually allowing a smile to cross his face as he realizes the guys he’s about to do battle with aren’t so bad after all. Charlie doesn’t become Al’s biggest fan in that moment, but finally he’s back in the warmth of camaraderie. Since Bill died, it’s the first time Charlie seems at home.

E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson)
It’s tempting to view William Sanderson’s E.B. Farnum as Deadwood’s comic relief, the bumbling innkeeper with delusions of grandeur whose specialty is getting on everyone’s nerves. Sure enough, the “shoo fly” relationship between Al and E.B. is one of the most consistently hilarious parts of the show. But E.B. (or just Farnum, both names are equal) is also key to the series’ analyses of power. E.B., after all, is the most powerful person in camp by title (he’s the self-appointed mayor), but he’s the weakest in reality (a self-proclaimed follower). More importantly, E.B. is the character who demonstrates the trickledown nature of authority. Although he sometimes willingly and other times begrudgingly accepts his place near the bottom of the Deadwood food chain, as a result he always makes sure to assert his dominance over the brainless Richardson, his hotel cook. Cruelty begets cruelty. Deadwood suggests that anyone with ambition is someone desperate for control.

Ellsworth (Jim Beaver)
Like Charlie Utter, Jim Beaver’s Ellsworth is another character whose exit dovetails with his entrance. Deadwood is filled with characters delivering rambling monologues to empty space or inanimate objects, but Ellsworth’s three such monologues are delivered to his faithful dog: the first one is early in the series and the last one is in the series’ penultimate episode, just before his shooting. The word that comes to mind when encountering Ellsworth is “genuine.” He’s genuinely kind and affectionate. He’s genuinely selfless. And whenever Hearst enters the conversation he’s genuinely enraged. He goes from a grungy loaner to a family man of privilege, and yet his demeanor truly never changes. It’s a testament to Beaver’s soulful portrayal that so much affection can be found in Ellsworth’s playful tradition of sticking out his tongue at Sofia, who seems to grasp that Ellsworth is the only one in camp who can look at her without first thinking of himself. In love or anger, Ellsworth is the real thing.

Hearst (Gerald McRaney)
With any TV series, I frequently find myself wondering what the series’ creators knew and when. For example, when did they know that George Hearst would feature so prominently? And when did they decide that he’d be the series’ ultimate villain? Maybe Hearst was in their plans all along. (True to history, George Hearst did own huge gold claims in the area.) But in so many ways, Hearst seems a direct response to what Cy Tolliver wasn’t (more on him later). Gerald McRaney’s performance is remarkably reserved, considering all the action and consequence applied to his character (and Deadwood’s tendency toward theatrics). His Hearst feels as well-traveled as the narrative suggests. There’s a patience to him, a complete confidence about him. He’s conquered towns like Deadwood before, so it never occurs to him that Deadwood won’t fall under his control. It’s only once things start going against Hearst’s plans that his blood boils and his need for immediate satisfaction overtakes him. Al Swearengen is a character in need of a formidable, fearsome opponent. He finds him in Hearst.

Merrick (Jeffrey Jones)
The thing that likely drew Merrick to Deadwood is the thing that makes him an outcast. While guys like Al, Cy and Hearst crave physical control, Merrick wants a different kind of power. He wants to be the camp’s trusted voice. By settling in a place that’s just beginning to settle itself and becoming its first newspaper man, Merrick achieves the role he desired, but he does so at the cost of surrounding himself by people who are more interested in the wealth they can find in the earth than in what’s happening above ground. Jeffrey Jones’ portrayal is full of all the awkwardness of a man of culture trying to ingratiate himself in a land of diggers and cons. When he and Al have their unforgettable “free gratis” exchange, any reader can’t help but identify with Al (why don’t you just say what you mean?) while any writer can’t help but identify with Merrick (that’s precisely what I’m doing, you fool). Merrick enters Deadwood with the idealism often embodied by young journalists. By the time the series ends, he hasn’t quite devolved into cynicism, but he’s been shaped by Deadwood more than he has shaped the town.

Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon)
Oh, Reverend Smith. Poor Reverend Smith. Strong in his faith, surprisingly perceptive in his preaching and absolutely oblivious to the discomfort he creates in others, he’s both a loner and a clinger. Ray McKinnon’s performance is so convincing that it’s hard to imagine him breaking from character between takes. Reverend Smith’s halting delivery, unfocused eyes, confused head tilt and irrepressible smile make him an oddity even before his health begins to deteriorate. He seems to exist to invite the following question: Did searching for God make him crazy, or did craziness cause him to seek God? Despite the series’ obvious skepticism about religion (the only other man of the cloth in the series is a former con man who might also be a current con), Reverend Smith’s doomed determination to survive is treated with something close to reverence. After his first public seizure in The Gem, Reverend Smith goes with Doc Cochran to tend to those sick with small pox. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” Doc asks. “Oh, yes,” Reverend Smith replies, “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.” In that moment, we can already sense that Reverend Smith won’t be of this world much longer. And in his confident response, there’s an indication that he might know it, too.


This next tier is for those significant characters who were unfailingly consistent, always engaging and never detrimental to a scene, but who didn’t cast quite the spell of those listed above.

Adams (Titus Welliver)
What was it about Adams that I so enjoyed? I think much credit goes directly to Titus Welliver who has a presence and voice that I found welcome in any scene. But I also enjoyed the way Adams was a counterbalance to the rest of Al’s crew. Not so much in awe of Al, like Dan, Johnny or even E.B., Adams is simply respectful of him. He comes under Al’s employ out of strategy not blind allegiance. And while he isn’t above being the target of Al’s disdain, Adams is also the man whose opinion Al actually considers. When Al reluctantly agrees to let Adams send for Hawkeye, it’s a symbol of Al’s desperation, sure, but also of his trust in Adams.

Johnny (Sean Bridgers)
Why is it that some of the people least capable of handling responsibility are so determined to have some? Johnny is forever trying to earn Al’s respect, but he has a hard time doing it, mostly because he’s a fuck-up but also because Dan is self-interested enough to prevent Johnny from ever becoming too reliable in Al’s eyes. Johnny sure loves those canned peaches, and the nakedness of his efforts to impress are often as touching as they are hilarious.

Mrs. Garret/Ellsworth (Molly Parker)
Don’t mistake Alma Garret/Ellsworth’s placement here to be a disparagement of Molly Parker’s performance. Hardly. Parker deftly handles Alma’s shifts in and out of a laudanum haze, her bitchy streak, her longing and her awkwardly expressed affection. Alma presents a tough challenge because she swings from na├»ve overconfidence (underestimating Hearst, for example) to savvy “fake it til you make it” demonstrations of courage (walking amidst the thoroughfare after being shot at by one of Hearst’s thugs). Those would seem to be at odds with one another, but Parker makes them fit convincingly within the same woman. All that said, Alma’s place on this list is simply an acknowledgment that her character never so captivated me that I ever pained when the story left her.

Richardson (Ralph Richeson)
Richardson would love his place in this list, nestled up next to Alma Garret/Ellsworth. What I appreciate about Richardson is that he’s a simple-minded character who is faithfully simple-minded. Richardson is on the giving end of a few comedic moments over the series, but he’s never aware of it; there’s never a moment when Richardson is suddenly blessed with wit. He just carries on being Richardson, the show’s symbol of the average citizen, blissfully and yet tragically ignorant of most of the corruption in his immediate vicinity.

Sol Star (John Hawkes)
I was blown away by John Hawkes’ menacing performance as Tear Drop in last year’s Winter’s Bone without first seeing him here, so I can only imagine how stunned any original fans of Deadwood must have been. Quite the opposite of Tear Drop, Hawkes’ Sol Star is unfailingly good natured, kind and understanding. Anything but menacing. He’s an always welcome sight, but he’s placed here, in this lower tier, in deference to the more charismatic and influential characters listed above.


These are characters I think could have made a bigger impact on the show if only the narrative had given them the opportunity. They are characters who flashed brilliance only to fade away.

Miss Isringhausen (Sarah Paulson)
There are two character shifts in Deadwood that are so significant I have my doubts as to whether the writers planned them ahead of time. The most drastic of the two belongs to Sarah Paulson’s Miss Isringhausen, who enters the story as the prim and proper nanny to Sofia. There’s nothing about her manner that suggests she’s spying on Alma or trying to negatively manipulate her employer, but maybe that’s all part of the rope-a-dope. In ensuing episodes we learn that Isringhausen is adept at sizing up her mark and conning them to serve her interests. And she’s not shy about taking a victory lap either (poor Adams). She meets her match in Al, but who doesn’t? I wish Isringhausen had been given the chance to hang around Deadwood longer. I practically drool at the thought of Isringhausen being matched up against Trixie in a lengthy battle of fiery cunning.

Mrs. Bullock (Anna Gunn)
Just what does Mrs. Bullock think of her husband? It’s a minor mystery, but an unceasingly interesting one. I don’t object to the ambiguousness; I loved trying to read Anna Gunn’s expressions, which sometimes suggest disgust, and other times suggest apathetic acceptance, and other times suggest a frightened awareness. But I can’t be sure. Maybe Mrs. Bullock is simply staring at her husband trying to figure him out. Regardless, there’s a terrific scene in Season 2 when Mrs. Bullock takes offense at her husband’s implications that he’ll stay loyal to her, despite his obvious feelings for Alma. “I reject the offer,” she yells. “I repudiate it. I find it poisonous.” It’s a moment of raw energy, and I wish Gunn had been provided the opportunity for more of the same.

Tom Nuttall (Leon Rippy)
Leon Rippy’s Tom Nuttall, who mostly floats in the background throughout the series’ three seasons, would have been relegated to a tier below this one if not his bicycle. Tom’s excitement for that newfangled contraption, and the joyous spirit of his ride down the boardwalk, and the heartbreak he feels when his bicycle plays a role in the death of Mrs. Bullock’s son are among the series’ most indelible images. “My bi-cycle masters boardwalk and quagmire with aplomb,” Tom boasts proudly at his saloon. “Those who doubt me suck cock by choice.” Tom had too much potential to be forgotten along with his bicycle.


Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens)
There were moments when Kim Dickens’ Joanie Stubbs was among my favorite characters, and moments when I cringed whenever she wandered into a scene. For the final quarter of Season 2 better part of Season 3, Joanie is a lost character. That’s by design, of course. Shaken by the slayings at the Chez Ami, which left her feeling guilty as well as confused for her future, Joanie becomes a shadow of her former self. And that’s fine. But the series steps too far when it makes Joanie afraid of her own shadow. There are moments when she frets over the camp’s children with no clear reason why. Joanie seems to find herself again in the Season 3 finale, but for too much of the season the series lets her spin her wheels, as if more uncertain about Joanie’s worth than she is.


Jewel (Geri Jewell)
You don’t need to be strictly politically correct to cringe when a handicapped person is made the butt of a joke because of those impairments. Indeed, there were multiple times when I cringed at Al’s treatment of Jewel. But over the broad view it’s clear that the series’ writers aren’t taking cheap shots for easy laughs. Rather, they’re using Jewel to further unravel Al, whose lack of sympathy for Jewel suggests, yes, insensitivity but also a kind of respect. Al never treats Jewel like a character who needs coddling, and thus the series doesn’t either. As it becomes clear that Jewel is an equal member of Al’s cadre, those cringes eventually turn to grins.


Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant)
My lone memory of 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard is how excruciating I found Timothy Olyphant’s acting. He wasn’t so much an over-the-top Lex Luthor as he was an over-acting WWE villain – Hulk Hogan in his bad-guy phase. Or so I remember. That said, it’s hard to imagine a better character for Olyphant to overplay than Seth Bullock, a slave to his immediate impulses whose hat and mustache do well to cast some shadows of nuance over Olyphant’s buck-naked histrionics. Make no mistake, Olyphant’s Bullock serves the series well. And his heartbreak over William’s death and clumsy-tender comforting of Mrs. Bullock over that span provide Olyphant with opportunities to show a bit of range. Still, over the long haul, Seth is one of the show’s least compelling characters.

Wu (Keone Young)
Like Olyphant’s Bullock, Keone Young’s Wu is exactly what the show wants him to be – a temperamental volcano of mostly indecipherable demands. It wasn’t so much Wu I enjoyed but Al’s impatience in dealing with him, coupled with his growing respect for him. Wu is, to Al’s ears and most of ours, a character of grunts, but the spirit of his message always comes through. And like Richardson above, the series never gives Wu a sudden burst of eloquence to suit a scene, with the glaring exception of the moment when Wu walks out of The Gem with his chest puffed out and says of himself, “Big man.” To the series’ credit, that’s one of the few times that the writers didn’t trust the actors to convey their message.


This next tier is for those supporting characters who were unfailingly consistent, always engaging and never detrimental to a scene, but who had even less impact than the ever-dependable “majors” listed above. These are the characters who helped create the series’ atmosphere but were rarely (or never) significant players in its narrative or themes. They are listed here without additional comment.

Blazanov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff)

Con (Peter Jason)

Dolly (Ashleigh Kizer)

Eddie (Ricky Jay)

Leon (Larry Cedar)

Mose (Pruitt Taylor Vince)

Sofia (Bree Seanna Wall)


This next tier is for those characters who still seemed to be defining themselves when the series ended (or when they existed the show), despite healthy amounts of screen time in some cases. Any one of them could have been on their way to being a memorable character, but they never quite came to fruition. They are listed here without additional comment.

Aunt Lou (Cleo King)

Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox)

Hugo Jarry (Stephen Tobolowsky)

Samuel “Nigger General” Fields (Farnklyn Ajaye)

Hostetler (Richard Grant)

William Bullock (Josh Eriksson)


Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert)
While I was still early in Season 1, I tweeted that Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane was Deadwood’s Jar Jar Binks, by which I meant she was irritating, overused and mostly unintelligible. There’s no question that she evolves over the course of the series, and it’s clear that she would have continued to do so. The writers were pacing themselves. But as much as I respect a show that treats alcoholism as a difficult and devastating disease, rather than some tick that can be easily overcome, most of the time Jane was on screen I felt that the writers found her much more entertaining than I did, which is always an empty feeling. Credit to Weigert: she never breaks character. But I grew tired of the numerous jokes about Jane breaking wind.


Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe)
The most interesting thing I learned from reading Alan Sepinwall’s recent series of “newbies” re-analyses of Deadwood’s first season is that Powers Boothe was originally cast as Al Swearengen, until some illness prevented him from taking the role. Once Al went to McShane, Milch created the part of Cy Tolliver to give Boothe a part to play. And play him he does. Over the course of the first season, and into the second, we watch Boothe put it into overdrive in the desperate attempt to seem as menacing as Al. But he never gets there, in part because Al is more dangerous half asleep than Cy is when broken out in full sweat. The series somewhat salvages Cy toward the end of Season 2, by putting him under the thumb of Hearst (via Wolcott), beginning to imply that Cy’s bite was never as damaging as his bark, but I’m doubtful that was the initial intent. To the show’s credit, the finale of Season 3 creates a renewed interest in Cy, making us wonder whether how he’ll operate in Season 4 as Hearst’s branch manager in Deadwood. Alas, Season 4 never came, and for most of the series Cy is just a growling loop.


Steve (Michael Harney)
I have absolutely no idea what the series’ writers thought they had in Steve, the insecure white dude whose dialogue is “nigger”-this and “nigger”-that up until the point that he’s kicked in the head by a horse and then can’t speak. Even catatonic, the writers fail to let go of his character. What on earth did they see in him? What irritates me about Steve aren’t the specifics of his language or even the repetitiveness of his character. It’s that Steve is the key character in a subplot involving Samuel “Nigger General” Fields and Hostetler that, to my eye, provide no depth to the show (I'm hoping Sepinwall found some depth here I'm missing). Were Fields and Hostetler token black characters, and thus was Steve the token racist? Other than acknowledging the existence of blacks and racists, I can’t think of a thing this subplot brought to the series. To think Steve was given more time in the spotlight than any of those “sadly underused” characters above is the show’s biggest failure.

All of that said, what a show! As painful as it was to reach the end, the richness of the characters and the complexity of the dialogue make certain that I’ll find a return trip to Deadwood just as thrilling as the initial journey. For now, I'm just going to sit back and soak in all that's happened.


Craig said...

This was fun. When I heard you were starting the series, and when Alan began his "Deadwood Rewind" over the summer, I went back and watched the first two seasons all over again.

To answer a few of your comments or wonderings, David Milch, after plotting out the first four episodes, did things with increasing intuitiveness. That meant coming up with major plot points on the fly, deleting other storylines after they barely got started, and handing reams of dialogue to his actors right before saying "Action!" (McShane and Olyphant crack up about this during their commentary for the S2 fight scene, where Al says "Welcome to fucking Deadwood! It can be combative!" about five seconds after he got the lines.) Not every element always worked, but that the overwhelming majority did is a stunning achievement.

I agree with most of your rankings. I'd probably flip both Alma and Joanie (love Kim Dickens) with Trixie, the latter of whom got on my nerves now and then, but that's about it. Your list truly shows what a remarkable actors' showcase the series was. Garrett Dillahunt really came into his own in the second season, playing a man lucid enough to know he's insane yet unable to stop himself. Dayton Callie had one of my favorite moments of the entire run when Charlie beats the shit out of Wolcott in the thoroughfare. I also thought Tim Olyphant was great, but that the show made a mistake in gradually marginalizing the character while Al took center stage. (You can now catch up with "Justified" and see Olyphant's terrific work there.)

Some final trivia. Milch liked Sarah Paulson, but she got another gig and had to leave the show. And on one of Alan's posts, Jim Beaver hinted that Kristen Bell was to have a larger part when her agent demanded more money; Milch fed her character to the pigs.

Unknown said...

What does it say that this is the show from the past decade I most want to revisit? It's been 5 years since the final episode and yet I remember most of the moments in this piece rather vividly.

I did find Bullock more interesting than you did, particularly the way his loose cannon anger was contrasted with the underhanded but surprisingly pragmatic Swearengen.

And, yeah, as much as I love the show, my revisiting the show would probably require skipping over all the Calamity Jane scenes. I actually found her more trying as the series went on because I kept asking myself what purpose did it serve to keep her around other than to stop an episode dead in its tracks while she does her cursing, drinking and farting routine?

One thing that should be mentioned is how beautiful the images in this show looked, as if every shot used light in a way that resembled a painting.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: To answer a few of your comments or wonderings, David Milch, after plotting out the first four episodes, did things with increasing intuitiveness.

Interesting. Well, I'll give him credit, because the show feels pretty well mapped out, although, yeah, there's a sense that certain characters get lost in the shuffle, or that Milch gets in the middle of subplots and can't remember why he started them in the first place.

Am I to assume by your comment that the commentaries are worth listening to? I'd love to give them a shot, at least with my favorite episodes -- although that can be tough to choose sometimes.

Not surprised about Kristen Bell -- that Milch wanted more or that she wanted a better offer. She could have been on the Sadly Underused list, too. And yet being fed to the pigs so abruptly was a huge part of the thrill of that brief but memorable storyline.

Jason Bellamy said...

I did find Bullock more interesting than you did, particularly the way his loose cannon anger was contrasted with the underhanded but surprisingly pragmatic Swearengen.

I always pride consistent characters. It's not that I don't want them to evolve. It's not that I want them to lack nuance. But I appreciate whenever a writer can make the character at the end of the series resemble the person he/she was at the beginning. Certainly Seth has that consistency, and I agree that his loose canon anger was a wonderfully compelling ingredient for the show itself. I just didn't find the character that interesting, just his effect.

Thanks for the comments, fellas! And for encouraging me to watch the show.

Now I've gotta figure out what's next. The Wire seems like the obvious choice.

Craig said...

Oh, the "Deadwood" commentaries are gold. McShane and Olyphant did two together (as I recall), which are lacking completely in substance yet utterly hilarious. Some of the others are still lively and more substantial. There's a good one with Garret Dillahunt and others on the "E.B. Was Left Out" episode that I'd mentioned. Milch's solo outings are little dry but always interesting.

Troy Olson said...

I like the way you went about this, focusing on the characters of the show and how they did or didn't work. It points to the generally superb job Milch and crew did on making the characters (and the dialogue) stand out so much. I can't really argue with any of your choices for best actors. McShane is definitely at the top, and I might move up Malcolmson, Brown, and Dillahunt to the the next three spots, and throw in McRaney (how the hell did Major Dad become that menacing) for good measure.

The great thing about Malcolmson is that she was so good despite some of the issues Milch had in writing the female characters. Of course, Trixie was the most attuned to the man's world that was Deadwood, so perhaps that helped.

I kind of agree with you on Olyphant, though you might get a bit of flack for that choice. As you point out, he's not very nuanced here and is mostly a series of grunts and clenches. I think his role in Justified, which feels like a more well-rounded outgrowth of what he learned playing Bullock, shows how much better the character could have been if Milch wanted to push him that way.

I also kind of agree on Cy -- he's meant to be the more sociopathic version of Al, but he's more in line with an evil cartoon character, to the point that I could only ever laugh at him when he was supposed to be menacing.

Jbro said...

Great write up. After viewing the series four times in under a year it has quickly become my favorite series. You are spot on with all of your descriptions. Though I didn't think as highly of Trixie as you did. I'd have switched her spot on your list with Ellsworth or Utter. I plan on getting the blu ray soon. I pray to everything holy Milch's new series does well enough they greenlight the final two Deadwood movies. I'd drop dead if the series got picked back up...

Jason Bellamy said...

I pray to everything holy Milch's new series does well enough they greenlight the final two Deadwood movies. I'd drop dead if the series got picked back up...

Now THAT would blow my mind.

Yeah, a great series. I've followed up my Deadwood experiences by going through Breaking Bad (I'm about halfway through season 3.) It's a fine show, but it's no Deadwood. And after loving the epic sprawl of this series, it's hard for anything to survive in its shadow.

Caitlin said...

Ah, man, I thought Jane brought about a lot of the show's humanity. She was one of my favorites: she wanted so much to be strong but simply wasn't. She was forever too caring, however much she'd like to hide it, to truly be tough or even brave. She and Joanie, I thought, were both tragic characters. Dayton Callie as Charlie was also fantastic. Alma, on the other hand, annoyed me to no end.

Anonymous said...

any reader can’t help but identify with Al (why don’t you just say what you mean?) while any writer can’t help but identify with Merrick (that’s precisely what I’m doing, you fool)

Writers are more likely to side with Al, knowing that it's better to simplify. Merrick was always verbose, and Al knew as he said that the purpose of the paper was to inform.

Jason Bellamy said...

Writers are more likely to side with Al, knowing that it's better to simplify.

That's a good point. Then again, Milch himself is a fan of flamboyant verbosity. Not to mention a writer who doesn't see much need in spoon-feeding his 'reader.'

billy pilgrim said...

excellent insight into my favorite series of all time. i've watched it all the way through 6 times and am planning my 7th visit this fall.

each time through i pick up some dialogue that i didn't notice before.

Gold Rush Alaska Rumors said...

Olyphant was a joke, he can't act. He was a caricature of Bullock. Cy was Al without the humanity, you need to give him a higher rating. EB Farnham was the glue that held the series together. Jane was a fantasy, women like her didn't exist in 1876. Not like she was portrayed, anyway.

Utter and Doc and Ellsworth and Sol and Dan were adequate to the task, all were believable. But it was Al Swearegen's world, they were just living in it. Every scene without Al was forgettable. Ian McShane played the hell out of this role, he'll never be better.

James Winter said...

My friends and I have discussed Deadwood so many times over the years. One of the things that have changed since the show aired is how we view Timothy Olyphant and Seth Bullock.

When we first watched the show, we didn't like Bullock or Olyphant's performance. But over the years, we've actually gradually liked him more and more. We've had Deadwood marathons aplenty and it seems like every time we watch it, we have more nice things to say about Olyphant.

It's a shame that Milch himself got caught up in the Swearengen hype. The thing is, Swearengen was at his most fascinating in season one and part of that is because Olyphant and McShane were incredible in their scenes together. Their characters were perfect contrasts. Once they reduced Olyphant's screen time, Swearengen while still good, wasn't the great character he was in season one. They're billed as co-leads and they should have been treated as such after season one as well. They were at their best that way. Marginalizing Bullock was just a detrimental choice.

Such a shame. Still, the show is fantastic and one of the best ever made.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of these choices but with minor changes especially at the top. Al is definitely n.o. 1 without question but as good as garret dillahunt and Keith carradine were on the show in their time, they can't beat out others who were consistently brilliant. Top 5 IMO would be Al, Doc, Trixie, Dan, and E.B.. This show had so many greats but these 5 were always on top. And whilst I agree Timothy olyphant's characters wasn't the greatest, him being far better in justified, I would still put him in the second tier with likes of Sol, Ellsworth, Charlie, etc. I do agree that characters like Jane and jonnie who started out great eventually had no story despite their good nature. Your list is good had fun reading but I don't think wild bill in 4 eps is better than many others

Anonymous said...

Your perspective, plus your great powers of observation and ability to sense the "writers' reasons" by viewing the results, made for a thoughtful piece. However, I was surprised to find Wm. Sanderson's E.B. Farnum so low in your character/actor rankings -- and I think on second viewing you'll realize that he truly is the "glue" that held the show together, because he embodies the sad and darker side of the Everyman in all of us: He is aware of most of the deadly and duplicitous goings-on in Deadwood, and loathes himself for only attempting to grab off a piece of the action for himself, rather than ever behaving altruistically or even decently.
He's a coward (like the vast majority of us) and knows it, and despises himself for it. His soliloquies, usually preceding savage verbal abuse of the only character he can feel superior to (Richardson) or Wu (who doesn't speak English) are stellar examples of revelations of our inner dialogues.
Sanderson deserved an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. Check out "The Best of E.B. Farnum" on Youtube." These show a remarkable actor playing an equally remarkably well-written character study: A desperate and clever little man faced with events beyond his control and trapped by his desperate desire to connect with and appease the Man Too Big, the Man Too Strong, Swearengen.
He's just like most of us, spending our lives in mortal fear of failing to propitiate our bosses, and desperately trying to divine what next will come our way. Nothing can surpass Ian's Swearengen, but Farnum provides the floor he walks on.
For an "unintentionally comic" performer, his only rival is William H. Macy's "Frank Gallagher" on Shameless -- and their characters are quite similar: Not sociopaths, but desperate opportunists who can rationalize the most heinous low forms of manipulation and perfidy.