Deadwood Season Two
I watched season one of Deadwood in August 2011 and watched season two over Christmas and January 2012.
The Good: The undeniable strengths of Deadwood remained in place for its second season. The sets looked great and the rough, uncomfortable nature of frontier life was well portrayed. The acting was mostly excellent and the foul mouthed mock-Shakespearian dialogue remained effective at transporting you to another time and place.
Al Swearengen remained a compelling character to watch and the unlikely anti-hero of the piece. I'm also a huge fan of angry Doc Cochrane whose dedication to people's welfare remains sweet and admirable. His offer to treat the Chinese prostitutes for free and his ministrations to the ailing Al were highlights of the season.
The broad strokes of the plot were fine too. The battle over Deadwood's gold reserves was clearly communicated as the predatory George Hearst sent his agents in to buy up as many claims as possible. The shot of men working his mines was particularly effective as we glimpsed the slave-like way the miners were treated. One man has his rectum checked for stowed gold and is killed when he tries to flee. The competing bribes coming from Helena and Yankton also made sense as fledgling states attempted to annex a potentially lucrative Deadwood.
The morality of the past was explored well too. Seth Bullock and Alma Garrett are unable to be together because he is determined to honour his brother's wife and she needs the protection and esteem of having a husband. It was interesting too that the death of a small white boy (William Bullock) brought the town to a standstill despite any number of prostitutes and grown men who were killed during the season. The precarious position of prostitutes and women in general was brutally demonstrated through the actions of Cy Tolliver's various new associates. I was also intrigued by the clearly non-Biblical superstitions (fretting about what a dead bird meant) which the residents of Deadwood clung to after William's death.
The Bad: I found the season pretty dull. Season one had also been lacking in a focussed emotive narrative but compensated with smaller stories that interested me. Season two had only one of these (see Best Moment) and otherwise frustrated me.
The endless back and forth over who Yankton and Helena needed to bribe and what terms the camp might join one or the other was tedious. The story never made it clear what was at stake or why we should care about Cy or Al's meddling. Seth and Sol became involved which should have made it clearer where a force for good was at work but instead their endless shouting or growling matches with Al and his henchmen never made things easier to follow. There were times when I felt I was following the thread of Al working for the good of the camp but a really good TV show shouldn't need me to work so hard to decipher what was going on.
That confusion and disinterest permeated the whole Francis Wolcott storyline. It didn't bother me much that he was played by Garret Dillahunt (who played Jack McCall in season one) but it was a slightly odd choice. Wolcott arrived in camp and we were never given an adequate explanation as to his strange sexual preferences. He had a weird aversion to being touched and looked at by the prostitutes he sought out.
When Cy mocked his strange affection for the prostitutes Wolcott flipped out and killed the one who had been spying on him. He then killed both his favourite girl and the madam who had organised things to suit him. It was an extraordinary display of violence for so little dramatic pay off. We really had no reason to care about either Wolcott or the girls he killed and in the short term it had very little impact on the story.
Sadly this was not an isolated incident as several violent moments happened during the season which had little build up or impact. In the opening episode Sol and Charlie both took bullets at close range defending Seth and yet the moment was almost comedic and felt like needless drama for the little difference it made to the story.
Similarly later in the season (209) Wolcott convinces Mose Manuel to kill his brother and sell his gold claim. It all happened so fast as to again leave Mose as a character I had no investment in. He then begins living it up at the Bella Union and becomes angry and paranoid about losing his money gambling. Wolcott then takes out his anger on Mose and practically taunts him into a frenzy so that he tries to shoot him and is instead gunned down by Cy's guards. As a small moment showing the psychological fallout from greed it had real strength. But in the larger sense it only served to frustrate me at the lack of time taken to make me care about either man.
The Unknown: The general disposition or situation of the smaller characters confused me. Calamity Jane spent the season doing nothing, bar making friends with the Samuel Fields and Joanie. EB Farnum began acting hysterical when Wolcott attempted to buy his hotel which seemed odd. He finally agreed to sell to Hearst only when he was allowed to stay on as manager. So I suppose he was reluctant to leave the place he calls home but I was left confused as to whether he was playing at being sick and crazy or if the stress had really gotten to him.
Trixie walked back and forth all season long between the Gem and the hardware store and left me confused as to whether she actually did any work as a prostitute anymore. She kept meddling in Alma's affairs without making it clear why she cared so much and kept spying on Sol without hiding it and he didn't seem to care. Joanie's situation felt equally unfocussed. Her whorehouse seemed so high end that they only ever had one customer. The Gem itself was hardly ever full this season which felt odd. The side story with the two black men fleeing town for fear of being blamed for William's death also felt only half formed. The lawlessness of the town also felt inconsistent with Seth rushing to stop or punish some murders but other acts being barely commented on. Cy literally admits to vandalising Merrick's press machines and yet there is no hint that anything will be done about it.
I was also confused by Al offering to use his Chinese men for labour around the camp and Hearst agreeing to it as long as there was a demonstration of their competence. Wu and Al's men then killed Mr Lee and his lieutenants. Did Heart really mean that to be the demonstration? Why couldn't Lee have just been kicked out of town?
Best Moment: The one plot that really captured the emotions was Al's battle with kidney stones. The concern of his employees made it clear what an important man he was and how lost they would feel without him. The build up of issues which EB and others kept trying to bring to him made it clear that the camp's future was resting on his physical struggles. Doc Cochrane's various penis-related remedies looked terrifyingly painful and the scene where Al was finally able to pass some of the stones was brilliant (204). Al's garbled cries of pain as his subordinates clasped him tightly and the Doc practically crying with thanks (that he didn't have to perform surgery) was very emotive and well shot from intimate angles.
Conclusion: I am sure that people smarter than me enjoyed this season more than I did. My brain began to hurt at times trying to decipher the dialogue and machinations of various people. The season did wrap up clearly with the characters in new positions and the town facing elections to join Dakota.
In a discussion with Brando he coined the phrase "open window storytelling" to describe Deadwood. The idea being that you are just kind of looking at a world go slowly by rather than a story being pushed forward in a traditional episodic style. The "open window" style often asks you to appreciate the subtleties and textures of a world rather than expect twists or turns in the plot to drive things.
That's fine and Deadwood certainly does some things remarkably well. But great television should be able to communicate its story in a way that touches the emotions of the viewer. If a world becomes impenetrable then it is failing to do its job as a TV show and shouldn't be praised just for its authenticity. I felt like season two took me for granted as a viewer and didn't define its world or its characters well enough.