Deadwood Season One
I have no particular knowledge or special interest in the area of American frontier life so I had no preconceptions about the content of Deadwood as I sat down to watch it. I did however have an idea that it would be good because Alan Sepinwall referred to the show as perhaps one of the three best from the last decade alongside The Wire and The Sopranos.
The Good: Largely Deadwood's first season did not disappoint.
I should start in an area I often don't spend much time and that is with the sets and costume design. For me characters and plot are the most important parts of any television show and sometimes I worry that I overlook the mammoth lengths that some shows go to create authentic and visually impressive worlds. I suppose we are spoilt by this point in 2011 by the quality of current shows in this respect. Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones to name a few effortlessly conjure up past eras or fantasy realms and Deadwood sat perfectly comfortably alongside them in my mind. The camp looked makeshift and we saw parts of it being constructed as the season went on. Everywhere there was mud from the endless stomp of boot and hoof.
Similarly the dress, dialogue and behavior of the characters never made me concerned about historical accuracy. I'm sure others will have stronger opinions but I don't remember a particular incident standing out as odd. The general impression the season created was of a world without hospitals or sewers. Everywhere there was evidence of human waste, disease and discomfort. The use of foul language seemed plausible to me, especially as it was tempered in front of certain people (children and those of social standing).
The casting and acting were of a high quality and there were some wonderfully different choices mixed in with the more predictable. Ian McShane does stand out as Al Swearengen for his abundant confidence and at least to my ears excellent American accent. Timothy Olyphant looks born to play a cowboy and his stern eyes and upright posture made him a convincingly angry Seth Bullock. Powers Boothe looks effortlessly corrupt and unflappable as Cy Tolliver, William Sandrerson is endlessly amusing as the scheming E B Farnum and Dayton Callie is an endearingly sweet Charlie Utter.
However it was the smaller roles that really helped me believe I was watching something from a different century. Brad Dourif plays Doc Cochran in an almost overdramatic way for most of the season. However as we see the life of the one physician in camp it becomes increasingly easy to believe that his life is never ending stress and that his frequent outbursts of emotion come from this situation. Similarly unusual choices were made Ray McKinnon as the pious Reverend Smith. He too seemed to be over-emoting as the bumbling Priest went about tending to the dead of Deadwood. However that performance somehow highlighted the strain Smith must have felt at being a force for good in such a rough place. Finally Robin Weigert gave a fearless performance as 'Calamity' Jane. Always foul-mouthed, almost always drunk and at times incoherent she still managed to make Jane lovable as she mourned for her friend and tended the sick.
With the characters in place the plot moved forward and there was a ton to enjoy as the settlers tried to make money, avoid getting shot and prepare the ground for their annexation by the United States. The dynamic between good and evil was at the heart of the show as you might expect. While Al Swearengen is as clear as bad guys come he also played an important function in bringing some justice and leadership to the town. He gave the lead in response to an outbreak of smallpox and the formation of political offices. He also understands the need for some justice, encouraging Bullock to become Sherrif and dealing fairly with Mr Wu. He also recognised that the Reverend Smith was humiliating his office and disturbing people as his tumour got worse. On the other side of the coin Seth Bullock is every inch a hero, treating everyone kindly and fairly and risking his own life to make sure justice was seen and done. Like Al though he has another side. Anger lingers very close to his surface and by seasons end he was an adulterer regardless of the extenuating circumstances.
The show did an excellent job of balancing good and evil throughout the season. On the one hand Al, EB and Cy were all firmly in place to help take peoples money by any means necessary. But on the other the camp had a number of people constantly working for good. The best example of this came in episode six where Jane, the Doc and the Reverend all worked together to tend to those infected with Smallpox. At the same time Seth made sure that he buried the Native American who had almost killed him, showing a rare empathy and understanding for what his motives were.
Season One was also filled with humour, some of which was as good as anything you will see in a sit com. The scene where Mr Wu (who speaks no English) comes to tell Al that his dope courier has been killed (110) was brilliant. If you grew up with those Krusty the Clown-style racist jokes about Oriental people then this scene captures their origin in a way which entirely fit the story. Just as amusing to me was Al's potty mouth during the meeting about Smallpox (106). The Reverend Smith in his entirely sweet and helpful way says that when the news reaches the town "It would also be useful to avoid apocalyptic predictions." Al agrees and responds "Yeah nip that Sodom and Gomorrah shit in the butt!" The contrast in colourful language was often used to good effect.
In general the stories were strong and well driven by the desires of the various residents. The overarching story was about the town being annexed by the United States which acted as a force to keep people together even when they were at each others throats. The care shown by multiple people for the poor orphaned girl was a good story which began to expose the depth of Al's feelings for Trixie even if 99% of the time he treated her like she was beneath him. Seth's season long attempt to avoid becoming Sherrif was predictable but satisfying. The reaction of Charlie, Jane and Seth to Wild Bill's murder was sad and sweet in equal measure. The disintegration of the Reverend as his brain tumour grew was heart breaking. Right at the end of the season one of the best sub-plots was the Doc fitting the "gimp" Jewel with a brace to help her walk straight. I adored the scene where he practically screamed in her face about the need to report to him any symptoms of discomfort. He just couldn't bear the thought that she might become further disabled by his efforts to make her life more pleasant. It looks like she will be ok and the season closed on her and the drunk Doc dancing on the Gem floor as Al contemplates this unspoilt moment of goodness in his blood soaked world.
The Bad: Not all the stories found favour with me though. Although the opening attack on the wagon (headed back to Minnesota) and the murder of Brom Garrett drove plots throughout the season there was a lull around episode eight. The major stories seemed to have been resolved for the time being and the story drifted. The inter-gender relationships which followed seemed to come out of nowhere. Seth seemed instantly infatuated with Alma Garrett which somehow didn't seem to fit his uptight persona. Similarly Sol came onto Trixie without much hint that he even knew she existed before that conversation, again seemingly out of character. The worst offender of this kind though was the meeting between Charlie Utter and Joanie Stubbs (109) outside his new office which felt entirely staged. I had no sense of why they would end up in the conversation they did or why they would then strike up a friendship.
I never felt that the relationship between Cy, Joanie and Eddie was explored with the appropriate depth though perhaps next season it will be. Their interactions seemed to be a mirror to Al, Trixie and Dan and yet their behaviour seemed shrouded in mystery. Cy always came across as having less of a conscience than Al (at one point he ordered a dying man to be taken out to the forest and claimed the fresh air would help him recover) and yet Joanie and Eddie only seemed to realise this after he murders two con artists. The con artist (played by Kristen Bell and Greg Cipes) story was the low point of the season. They seemed to have no real plan and Flora Anderson was scripted like a very modern TV villain and not a serious con artist. She played all sweet and innocent for Cy and Al but then turned on the other whores and her customers and made it clear to them that it was all an act. That just felt like bad writing because her act could have been exposed then and there.
There were also times when I questioned the way Al Swearengen was written. Perhaps it's just how complicated a man he is but at times he would kill for pure profit while at others showing real restraint and morality. His encouragement of Seth to take the role of Sherrif added to this contradictory nature. Yes Seth will protect him from petty thieves or attacks by Cy but isn't he also likely to catch Al killing someone? More than just these moral conundrums I felt Al was often positioned as a hero within the show. He was certainly the most prominent character and played a role which reminded me of Marlo Stanfield on The Wire. As in he was the leader to a lawless community, he was the person who people went to for aid and assistance. He was also funny and his potty mouth rants and digs at the nefarious EB kept you smiling. It was difficult to then summon the appropriate horror when he murdered someone. It's a fine line to walk of course and Marlo was a stone cold villain in a way that Al isn't but the presentation did trouble me from time to time.
There were one or two soliloquies from characters which felt really out of place. In episode five EB Farnum is cleaning a blood stain off the floor of one of his rooms and as if he was on stage began complaining aloud about his role in Al's killings. I just didn't see any way that a real person would have done this and it happened a couple of other times. In that same episode a drunk Jane comes across the delirious Smallpox sufferer that Cy had tossed out into the woods. She too talked aloud about her feelings but by virtue of having an audience (and being drunk) that scene didn't bother me at all. Those are the small differences between plausibility and implausibility.
The Unknown: Of course I have to critique myself when it comes to show's life Deadwood. It's possible that now I am fully indoctrinated in the way this place works that I will find Seasons Two and Three much easier to get wrapped up in. That was my experience with The Wire and Mad Men. I will be interested to see if the same happens with Boardwalk Empire whose first season I thought was devoid of anything worth getting emotionally invested in. I often thought of Boardwalk when watching Deadwood because the shows had important similarities and differences. They are both period pieces about corruption with people making moral compromises to survive. However Deadwood was far better at getting me involved. As I've already said the goodness, sense of humour and clear objectives of the characters sucked me in in a way that was absent from Boardwalk. I hope both shows second seasons get me even more involved.
Best Moment: It's a tough call. Although I enjoyed so much about the season I didn't feel there was a dramatic high point. Seth's fight with a Native American (106) was brutal and dramatic and none of Al's murders hit me in the same way. But I would say the town meeting to respond to the outbreak of Smallpox was probably my favourite. Within that scene we saw how life was organised in a town with no government, we saw the personalities of the main characters on full display and it was funny.
Conclusion: I definitely recommend season one of Deadwood and I suspect I will like the next two seasons even more now that I know the characters. There are flaws and I wouldn't put it in the same league as The Wire but I enjoyed it a lot and look forward to seeing more.