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Deadwood

HBO

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Season 3

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Credit HBO

Deadwood Season 3
Across the Summer of 2013 I painstakingly found the time to get through Season 3 of Deadwood. It was tricky because of how little time I had and how disappointing I'd found Season 2. Overall Season 3 was easier to like because it had an obvious villain in George Hearst and when our residents were forced to work together to combat him things became pretty interesting.

However those moments were few and far between. In episode 7 it seemed like a plan was hatched to cut off Hearst's reinforcements by interfering with his telegrams. But then his reinforcements showed up anyway and no one seemed immediately surprised or put out. That seemed to be the story of the season. Characters would talk about Hearst. Characters would talk to him. Occasionally he would attack them and occasionally they would attack his men. In between was just endless incomprehensible dialogue and no clear definition of what the stakes were or what actions could be plausibly taken.

The end of the season sees Hearst walk away having got everything he wanted. And I get it. I get that the people of Deadwood want to become part of the USA and that opens the way for a man like Hearst to bring his resources in and trample them all. They could have resorted to killing him but then they might forfeit the benefits of civilisation they are all seeking. However good television drama is not built on twelve episodes of reinforcing one point repeatedly. And yet that's what this was.

And not just with Hearst's meanderings around the camp. I could barely follow the arguments over the stables and Steve's paralysis. Joannie and Jane started up a sexual relationship out of nowhere and no one reacted in any way. Sol and Trixie had the same argument about twenty times. Cy was a black hole all season, seemingly doing nothing but bitching about his own insignificance. Doc Cochrane seemed like he was dying of plague and then recovered and again no one batted an eyelid. The in-fighting of the acting troupe was beyond my understanding. And how do any of these people make money? Joannie hasn't done any work since she left the Bella Union.

I should note that there were good moments. Charlie was a beacon of straight talking decency. He shone in the scene where he mocked Hearst in his jail cell as he feigned ignorance of the man he'd had killed. Then in the final episode he stood up to the Pinkerton soldiers and demanded that everyone be allowed to vote. The site of everyone getting into their Sunday best to participate in democracy was briefly affecting too. The one story which genuinely was emotive was Mr and Mrs Ellsworth's brief attempt at sex. Initially thrilled he quickly realises that she is doped up and thinking of Seth and it breaks his heart.

There was that fight too. In episode five Dan and Hearst's man tore into each other in one of the most vicious action sequences you'll ever see. It felt pointless afterwards but in the moment was brilliantly staged and gruesomely authentic.

Ultimately though I found Deadwood an unsatisfying show. I enjoyed season one quite a bit. It felt then that anything could happen and we were being introduced to the possibilities and limitations of life on the frontier. Over the next two seasons the narrative ground to a halt and I began to feel the weight of history on the show. Wyatt Erp pops up for no particular reason in the midst of the season and it becomes clear that these historical characters can't die or get involved in anything unexpected. Perhaps a fictional villain, rather than the real Hearst, would have made for a more satisfying antagonist. There are parallels to the way Boardwalk Empire's narrative suffers.

Ultimately though the praise of critics like Alan Sepinwall is for the performances of the actors and the flowery David Milch dialogue. I don't have an issue with the actors but I felt they were, more often than not, asked to just stand and speak as if in a play. On TV it is difficult to make them look like real human beings when that is all they do. And as for the dialogue - I think it is the show's greatest weakness. It makes the story hard to follow, the characters hard to get to know and leads to a disengagement from the show. I admit that my personal taste for directness and clarity influences me heavily. I admit that smarter people than I may follow it more easily and therefore appreciate the virtuoso ability to write in faux-Shakespearian English rather than speech which might sound in-authentically modern.

But the value I place on television is to make me think and feel. For the vast majority of this season I was not engaged and so how else can I judge the show but a failure. I don’t believe just because a show is worthy and great effort went into its construction that it gets a free pass when it comes to delivering.

I'm glad I've seen Deadwood but I wouldn't recommend to those who aren’t either TV fanatics, lovers of the Western or interested in this history specifically.