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Monday, November 20, 2017

The Milch Studies: DEADWOOD, Season Three. “Didn’t I Tell You How Well It Wafted?”

Although some claim that any talk of a four season plan for Deadwood only occurred after the show’s cancellation, it’s become accepted lore that the series was always intended to run this length.  The original Deadwood camp existed for four years before it was consumed by fire, and Deadwood the TV series, we’re now told, was conceived to have each season represent one year of the camp, before ending the show with the eradicating fire.

There’s no evidence David Milch ever intended to be that strict, and his own words show he doesn’t plan his stories so far in advance.  The amount of time that passes between each season doesn’t match this schedule, either -- the gap between seasons one and two is anywhere between seven months and a year, based on different dialogue exchanges, and Season Three begins only a few weeks after Season Two ends.  Additionally, almost every episode of the show takes place the day after the last, so barely two weeks tend to pass during an entire season.

What Milch has revealed is that Season Three was supposed to end with Sherriff Bullock, having lost the county election, refusing to leave his office, even when armed men attempt to remove him.  This dramatic standoff is taken directly from history (the plotting of Deadwood often used history as its guide, even if the show wasn’t afraid to alter the details), and HBO loved the idea so much, they were prepared to use it as a promotional image for Season Three.  The final episodes of Deadwood have a very different ending, however, with Bullock once again shoved to the background so that Al Swearengen can commit another morally dubious act that will somehow work to the camp’s benefit.  No malevolent interference from the network is to blame for this deviation from the plan -- Milch acknowledges that he just didn’t get around to that scene.  (There isn’t even a sheriff’s office by the end of Season Three…Seth and Charlie Utter are still using Charlie’s storefront to conduct official sheriff’s business.)

What we do know is that HBO was under new management at this time, and certain people in power had major issues with the amount of money being spent on the period piece.  Some reports have HBO turning against Deadwood simply because it was co-produced by Paramount, meaning the network had to share Deadwood’s profits with the studio, and why would they bother to do that when they could just produce a new show on their own and keep all the cash?  Other rumors have HBO and Paramount never coming to terms with who should pay for what on the pricey series, HBO canceling the show in frustration, and then realizing (too late) after the DVD sales came in that they’d made a terrible mistake.

Milch, reportedly, was offered an abbreviated fourth season, one with a restricted budget and only a handful of episodes.  He refused, so a series of Deadwood movies became the compromise with HBO.  There’s been no definitive reason given for why the movies never happened (actor Stephen Tobolowsky has reported that he saw the props for the Deadwood movies while filming an episode of John from Cincinnati), but the most reasonable theory is that the cast couldn’t be assembled for a film, after HBO released everyone from their contracts and the lead actors became in-demand TV stars.

Milch has finally written a reunion movie; actor W. Earl Brown has read the script and claims it’s a thing of beauty, but who knows if it will be produced.  So, with all that said, Season Three is the existing finale of Deadwood.  Numerous subplots are unresolved, yet the performances remain extraordinary, the suspense is perpetually ratcheted up, and the dialogue is as amusingly crude and poignantly sophisticated as ever.  What Season Three lacks, however, is the tight plotting that developed over the show’s second year.  In fact, a case could be presented that Season Three’s plotting is borderline sloppy.

The Season of “Huh?”
Starting with the season premiere, we have characters acting in ways that just don’t seem to make sense.  In episode one, we have Al Swearengen declaring George Hearst, the wealthy gold miner who’s arrived to reconnoiter Deadwood, his enemy because…why?  Nominally, it’s because Hearst arranged to have some of his employees killed inside Al’s saloon, which Al declares is a grievous insult.

I know that some viewers believe this is all a feint by Al, a scheme that will somehow lead Hearst to exploit his connections to the Yankton government to stop dragging their feet and officially annex the camp, but how does that even work?  And given that this episode is set only a month or so after the last season finale, where Al goes out of his way to establish a cordial relationship with the influential Hearst, his sudden turn makes even less sense.

The ongoing Hearst plotline dominates the season, and while the performance of Gerald McRaney is undoubtedly powerful, any reflection on the plot leads you to believe the Hearst drama just doesn’t add up.  Overlooking the fact that this George Hearst doesn’t at all match the character we met in the previous season finale, and even if you do accept him as a heartless monster determined to ravage the town, it’s difficult to buy the story’s insistence that everyone is simply powerless to face him.

“He has too many connections!”  “He can bring the Pinkertons down on us!”  “He’s so rich!”  Okay, all true.  But in a town like Deadwood, are we to believe it’s impossible to stage an accident?  Al got away with disposing of Alma’s husband this way back in the second episode, and while it’s true that Hearst’s death would be investigated in a way that the Garrett murder wasn’t, it wouldn’t seem to be an impossible hurdle for someone as devious as Al.  And, even if a murder couldn’t be believably faked…why not arrange for a dupe to commit the deed?  If a random drunk or a simpleton like Richardson ended up with the blame for offing Hearst, would this really damage the camp’s chances of being annexed by the Dakotas?

Adding to this credibility gap is the increasingly ridiculous manner in which Hearst is portrayed.  Presenting himself in his debut episode as an affable older gentleman with a quirk about hunting gold and no other interests, he swiftly mutates into a monster this year, with no connections to other humans, outside of his bodyguard (who’s killed by Al’s main crony) and his cook (who reveals in secret monologues that she can’t stand Hearst.)  If you’re a soulless maniac, who’s going to bother to avenge your death?  Maybe you’ve hired the Pinkertons to distribute retaliation after you’re gone, but they’re only doing that for a paycheck, which means they can be bought off for a higher price.  And that’s assuming there’s anyone else left in your life who cares about you enough to even cut their check after you’ve died.

Unfortunately, the episodes get into a pattern of reminding us each episode of Hearst’s malevolence; arranging the murders of union organizers, killing his beloved cook’s son for no discernable reason, musing on how much he wanted to rape Alma during their private business meeting, and even detailing to E. B. the times he’s "roasted human flesh on a spit to savor the smell."  In addition to that (the guy’s so evil he’s practically a cannibal!), he has the beloved Ellsworth murdered, a moment that devastates fans to this day.  All the while, Gerald McRaney is giving the performance of a lifetime, but this character is growing more ridiculous with each episode.  Yes, we’re all supposed to be frustrated at the camp’s inability to fight back, but the hand is overplayed.  Anyone that hated in a town like Deadwood is going to end up with a knife in his back, or his skull cracked at the bottom of a mountain.

Making the existing characters so impotent in the face of Hearst (who I recognize ceases to be a literal character and more of a representation of whatever force Milch was railing against when writing these episodes), also leaves the viewer with a rather pathetic view of the series’ heroes.  The season/series finale has Hearst prepared to literally burn the camp to the ground, and he can only be assuaged if Alma sells her gold claim…and if Trixie, who previously took a pathetic shot at Hearst (only nicking his shoulder) is murdered.  The solution to this is for Al and Seth to make sure Alma actually is scared enough to sell her claim, and for a different prostitute with a passing resemblance to Trixie to be murdered by Al and presented to Hearst as tribute, because, hey, Trixie is a series regular and not a mere background player like this other character.

And Seth Bullock, the hot-tempered sheriff with an innate abhorrence of injustice and bullies, just goes along with this because it’s the final episode and apparently there’s not enough time to address his understandable aversion to this plot, and the election storyline, and the various character subplots that have been brewing all year.

What saves this season is the quality of the performances, which sell every plot development regardless of the logic gaps, and the undeniable beauty of the series’ language.  Milch is constructing this show scene by scene, creating a season that doesn’t entirely make sense in the macro, but is powerful in the micro.  Rewatching the episodes today, I even developed (at times) a new appreciation for a Season Three plot thread that’s become a notorious source of fan irritation over the years.

Acting!  Brilliant!
The majority of people recommending Deadwood to their friends will probably throw in this caveat: “That theater troupe subplot in the last season is just pointless, though.”  It’s hard to deny that the theatre troupe often distracts from far more interesting plotlines, or character arcs featuring players the audience has grown to care for, all the while presenting the adventures of a “dandy”, his female companions, the actor he hates for an unknown reason, and the troupe elder who arrives already on his deathbed.  To be fair, Brian Cox is one of the better actors to deliver Deadwood’s unique dialogue, and there a few moments when you can almost see his Jack Langrishe character becoming a legitimate town leader.  But his arrival comes out of nowhere, and the dramas surrounding his troupe often come across as petty when compared to the series’ competing storylines.

There actually was a historical Jack Langrishe, and he arrived in Deadwood years before the show introduces his character.  (The Jack McCall murder trial from Season One, for example, wasn’t actually held at the Gem; it was staged at the Langrishe Theatre.)  A pivotal figure in the real Deadwood, helping to establish a community and raising funds for needed services like hospital care, it’s understandable why Jack Langrishe would be introduced on the show.  And based on subsequent comments from Milch, we do have some sense of what role the theatre troupe was intended to play.

Representing the role of art in a developing community, the troupe was envisioned as a creative voice against the destructive force of George Hearst, a subversive rebuke of the man no one else in the town is able stand against.  We also know that Jack Langrishe was to befriend Alma Garrett in the fourth season, encouraging her to find her voice and become a writer.  And since the historical Calamity Jane was a performer at the Langrishe Theatre, it’s very possible the fictional Jane of the show would’ve sobered up enough to make her way on to the stage, possibly tying into her ongoing character arc of self-loathing and seeking validation from others.

How this would’ve worked, with Gerald McRaney possibly not returning for Season Four (thanks to his role on Jericho), isn’t known.  And none of this addresses the new “gypsy” member of the troupe, who has an extremely opaque conversation with Langrishe before joining, and seems to be hated by the group’s female members.  Bizarrely, it feels as if a good fifteen minutes is spent on this story, and absolutely none of it makes any sense.

But we do know, courtesy of W. Earl Brown in the comments section here, the resolution of one of the more irritating troupe mysteries from this year.  Claudia, the blonde troupe member who makes the unfathomable decision to seduce Cy’s main flunky Con Stapleton, had a secret history and motivation that we couldn’t have imagined.  While it isn’t clear in the episodes why Claudia is seducing Con (she clearly hates him), the idea is that she’s trying to make Jack Langrishe jealous.  Jack, for reasons Claudia doesn’t understand, always rejects her advances.  In Season Four, we would’ve learned that Claudia’s desire for Jack was actually misplaced “paternal longing.”  Unbeknownst to her, Jack is her father.  Jack knows this, so he of course rejects her advances.  We would also learn later that Jack keeps Claudia around, even though she’s a terrible actress, because he can’t push his daughter away.  Clearly, there’s more to the story, but what we do know now is enough to at least justify the Claudia/Con scenes.  (Initially, I wondered if Claudia was also an agent of the Pinkertons, sent to possibly spy on Cy’s operation for some unknown reason.)

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention again that my reviews of NYPD Blue have been collected in an affordable ebook, available now on Amazon.  Not only do I have updated versions of the reviews you read here, but the book features a new afterword, an episode guide, an examination of the Max Allan Collins prose novels, a look at the NYPD Blue children's book (seriously!)...and even more bits of trivia, including one amazing factoid, the ultimate piece of Blue trivia, that I somehow missed the first time around.  Anyway, hope you check it out and leave a review.

Next time -- Deadwood ends…abruptly.


  1. This is Milch discussing the ending of the series:

  2. I agree, Hearst was ridiculously over the top, somehow an exaggerated caricature of the most already exaggerated villain you could possibly ever think of -- but Gerald McRaney was great in the role! I think I've only ever seen him in two things, this and MAD MEN as Conrad Hilton, and I loved him in both.

    I also loved Brian Cox in this season, so I was willing to forgive the theater troupe business because I enjoy his performances so much.

    But the main thing I remember about season 3, even after all these years, is the grotesque fight between Dan and the Captain. I'll be happy if I never have to see that again for the rest of my life! (I get squeamish easily.)


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