In fighting off waves of melancholy over Deadwood’s premature demise (HBO and creator David Milch will wrap things up with a couple of TV movies), it’s helpful to reflect on the improbability of the show’s existence. Poised to enter its third season as a modest hit, and riding a wave of critical admiration, the series has flourished amidst inhospitable conditions. A densely plotted serial belonging to the least popular of genres, the western, Deadwood owes as large a debt to high school civics class as it does to the shoot-out at the OK Corral. With its pug-face character actors, horseshit-speckled costumes, convoluted dialogue and the foulest disposition you’re likely to find outside of the local drunk tank, the show is what you’d charitably call “an acquired taste.”
What’s so remarkable about the show is not just way it’s forced an audience accustomed to spoon-feeding to surmount its own prejudices, but the fact that it continues to do so in astoundingly break-neck, Byzantine ways. While network mates (both deceased and soon to be) Carnivàle and The Sopranos leisurely genuflect over the comings and goings which shape the world around them, Deadwood lays down track scarcely before it rolls over it, leaving the flat footed choking on its dust. Like the mayfly, a season of Deadwood has a very short lifespan—typically a matter of weeks. But oh, the things it accomplishes in that time.
The adjective “Shakespearean” is often applied to Deadwood for innumerable reasons: the reliance on fools and imps and conspirators swindling and undermining one another, often in high comic fashion; the regular embrace of operatic tragedy, and of course, the iambic pentameter-influenced dialogue, its beauty made ironic by Milch’s penchant for wrapping poetry as beautiful as any ever written for American television around such words as “fuck,” “cunt,” “cocksucker” “whore” and “chink.”
Even the way most initially appreciate the series reminds me how one first approaches Shakespeare.Back when I was in high school, there was a pecking order to when you were assigned each of the Bard’s plays. It began with Romeo and Juliet as a freshman and ended with Hamlet during the last semester of senior year (which, if you think about it, really does no service to the play) and Julius Caesar and Macbeth in in between. We were given every work, each so daunting on first glance, at a moment in life when we were most receptive to appreciating them, starting with the oh-so-prescient themes of young lust and lovers’ torment, then gradually working through the canon to obsession, insanity, deceit and murder.
On first reading we understood less the exact meaning of the words than the tenor of the voice. Deadwood operates in much the same way. Without the aid of repeat viewing and subtitles—not to mention helpful online communities such as this—I would speculate that 100% comprehension is near impossible. And, like my old curriculum, there’s a built-in learning curve. The series initially goes easy on us, using a broad brush to introduce us to a world where celebrities like Wild Bill Hickok roams the roads (it’s easy to forget now, but once upon a time the show was advertised around Keith Carradine’s character) avenging orphaned children and talking tough over ill-fated card games, while larger- than-life characters like Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a charismatic monster in the Tony Soprano mold, held court over dim subjects, dishing out bile-dripping insults as readily as beatings. And, as if the Sopranos-to-Deadwood segue weren’t easy enough, there are even de-facto Bing Girls in the whores, on hand to provide gratuitous T&A when needed. But, just as “that play they turned into West Side Story” paved the way for “Friends, Romans, countrymen…,” so too did season one’s tongue-twistingly verbosity in service of communal scheming prepare us for the loftier ambitions of Season Two.
Take the following passage, spoken in season one by Swearengen regarding his intentions towards the widow Garret (Molly Parker): “My oath on this; everyday that the widow sits on her ass in New York City, looks west at sunset, and thinks to herself “God bless you ignorant cocksuckers in Deadwood who strive mightily and have little money, to add to my ever increasing fortune,’ she’ll be safe from the wiles of Al Swearengen.”
Season Two applies the same flowery syntax to negotiating a charter for annexation of an illegal territory by a sovereign state. That’s right: it’s bureaucratic pentameter!
At this point it’s probably furtive to continue the analogy between Shakespeare and Deadwood, as there’s a much more recent and (in most circles these days) familiar antecedent, one that employed similar tactics to exemplary effect. I’m referring, of course, to the first two installments of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
The surface similarities are unmistakable. Both follow criminal organizations attempting to go legit. Both have period settings. Both are inherently pulpy, with the adulation and awards that followed seemingly an afterthought. The violence is graphic, with lasting consequences, yet there’s an undeniable vicarious thrill to watching “family business get settled,” or seeing a doped-up snitch get fed to Mr. Wu’s pigs. Both works also serve as microcosms of America, allowing us to watch the nation develop from within the confines of a tightly-knit community.
Look deeper and the similarities become even more pronounced. Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant of the unmistakable gaited walk), a community pillar and moral compass, initially shirked his responsibilities, running from his destiny as a lawman by opening up shop in a land with no laws. Cold-blooded Corleone family don Michael (Al Pacino) was once an idealistic young man who joined the military to defend the nation, and once told his WASP schoolteacher girlfriend (Diane Keaton), “That’s my family Kay, it’s not me.” In the aforementioned Hickok and Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) you have two forceful, soft-spoken, violent, yet ultimately moral partirachs who guide our reluctant heroes, and whose passing ultimately spurs their wards to become the men they were born to be.
Life in Deadwood is a commodity which is bartered and snatched away suddenly, often with reptilian detachment—a place where death is often just the beginning of indignities inflicted on the body. As Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) purrs at one point to his departing madam, “It’s kill you or let you go, [could] I make it with you dead?” (And really, is Cy Tolliver anything more to Swearengen than a rival family muscling in on his territory—his very own Barzini?) The Corleones have similarly been graced with an almost extrasensory ability to sniff out conflict and violently curtail problems, always with an element of chilling surprise; just ask Carlo, whose greatest sin was calling in sick the day Don Vito got shot. Furthermore, when it comes to exact your vengeance, both Deadwood and the Godfather pictures appreciate the value of staging calculated violence against the backdrop of a sacred communal event. The similarities are so legion that it feels as if the two works are speaking to each other across time—in season two, when Tolliver helps Garret Dillahunt’s Francis Wolcott conceal the bodies of the dead whores, how can one not think of Senator Geary in Godfather II?
But the most rewarding comparison point is the way the two works transition in their sophomore outings, expanding their narratives into unfamiliar and unsettling territories. Season Two takes place a year after season one. The once near-medieval town has acquired telegraph poles, a jail and heavy mining equipment. Yet interpersonal relationships are more contentious than ever. Bullock and Swearengen remain, at best, tenuous allies, with the dynamic between lawman and thuggish criminal destined to come to a head. In the season-two opener, “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2,” a spat between the two becomes a melee on the balcony of the Gem, then devolves into a blood-and-mud-caked brawl in the town’s main thoroughfare. As Bullock’s wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) and stepson (Josh Eriksson) arrive in town and interrupt the fight, Al barks: “Welcome to fucking Deadwood!” He might as well be welcoming viewers home.
Similarly, The Godfather, Part II begins much the same way the previous film did. After a brief prologue in turn of the century Italy and Ellis Island, Coppola again immerses us in a large, protracted family gathering where the Don (now Michael) holds court and conducts illegal business against a festive backdrop. Part II goes to great lengths to mirror its predecessor in these early scenes, all the way down to Frankie Pentangli’s (Michael V. Gazzo) ill-advised attempt at reprising the sing-along from the wedding, and the Don confiding in a visibly shaken Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) over a drink.
The events of Part II are set in motion by a botched assassination attempt against Michael. But the retaliation we’ve become conditioned to expect is defused early on: the trigger-men are found murdered on the premises. Revenge will have to be served (very) cold this time, because before we can follow Michael on his pursuit of a family traitor, Coppola whisks us back in time to the ascension of young Vito Corleone (now played by Robert De Niro) in 1920’s New York. What initially seemed a stand-alone prologue reveals itself as a parallel narrative; the 1920s backstory informs the life of Michael’s father, the man who both cursed him to this life while serving as a role model he should have tried harder to emulate.
Similarly, while Bullock and Swearengen reach a tentative accord at gun point, we’re never granted the resolution to which we feel entitled. Like the second Godfather, Season Two of Deadwood doesn’t merely revisit the predicaments and narrative rhythms of season one, but denies us other pleasures as well, entering unfamiliar territory while staying in the present and never leaving the limits of the town. In the first two episodes, Milch even removes his most vibrant character; Swearengen is incapacitated, silenced and brought to death’s door by an ailment wholly unrelated to his injuries: kidney stones, of all things.
Deadwood has always been a tapestry, an ensemble in the truest sense of the word, but Al always was in the middle of it, spurring events through instigation or back-handed encouragement. With his life hanging in the balance, Al is unable to snip certain complications (formerly difficulties) in the bud, and his absence from the public stage allows strong opposition to his control to take root. When The Sopranos attempted a similar tactic this past season it was used to allow Tony to grow and change because of the experience. When Swearengen is out of commission, it’s the town that does the changing.
With his recovery slow, Al is placed outside of the loop for the first time in the show’s history, no longer overtly pulling the strings (now where have I seen that image before?) and at the mercy of questionable intelligence often arriving after the fact. By the time he’s back on his feet Yankton’s Commissioner Jarry (Stephen Tobolowsky) has already planted the seeds of doubt amongst local land owners while Hearst’s man Wolcott has purchased all gold claims save the widow Garret’s. There are still battles to be fought, but the weapons will be misinformation, negotiation and the occasional bribe.
At the end of the first Godfather, the Corleone clan left New York City for Reno, Nevada. An almost entirely self-contained film (with the exception of Michael’s trip to Italy), Part I rarely ventured beyond the immediate actions and needs of, and direct threats to, the family. The Don’s godson Johnny Fontane wants the part in a war film, so pressure must be placed on the film’s producer; Sollozzo tried to kill the Don, so he must be killed in turn; the four families stand in the way of Corleone dominance so they must be removed. Etc…
Part II takes a much more global approach to crime, literally and figuratively. Not only do the flashbacks cover nearly 30 years in Vito’s life, (watching him rise from slighted young man to low-level thug to guardian of the neighborhood to international businessman to syndicate boss) but also traversing two continents. Michael himself leaves the safety of Nevada for Florida, New York and pre-revolution Cuba, snaking out his assassins and expanding his empire to the south and Latin America, and turning up in Washington, D.C., to flaunt his criminality. After watching Michael’s father broker deals with old school thugs in Part I—faces concealed by fedoras, unafraid to get their hands dirty—we watched Michael jostle for control with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) a withered old man not long for this earth (an early assassination attempt on him squandered when he’s rushed to the hospital with a legitimate health emergency). Like Gerald McRaney’s mining mogul George Hearst on Deadwood, Roth is an enemy who doesn’t need a gun to kill you.
Consider some of the conflicts and inciting incidents of Deadwood Season Two: “Territorial Disputes.” Installing the electoral process. Becoming annexed by existing territories. Real estate purchases. Validating land ownership claims. Pursuing representation in local government. Government officials issuing misleading press reports. Sexy stuff, right? The thrills of Godfather Part II include buying out ownership of casinos, haggling over gambling licenses and bribes to politicians, aquiescing to a decrepit mobster, investing in Third World countries, working with corrupt governments and testifying before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime. A bit far from sticking a horse head under the sheets, no?
As America changed, so too did the baseline requirements for would-be archcriminals—especially ones with delusions of legitimacy. While intimidation, extortion and murder still move the gears along, Michael Corleone, like Al Swearengen, is forced to adapt to “progress” which, as we learn, is as devious and challenging as barbarism.
In expanding the conflict beyond the immediate loss of life and into the loss of a way of life, both Deadwood and The Godfather risk alienating fans that have come to expect nothing more than lurid thrills, bursts of violence and T-shirt worthy quips. Overly ambitious, unwieldy and lacking some of the more exhilarating flashes of their predecessor, both of these masterpieces faced initial criticism for diluting the strength of what came before.
Yet by delving deeper into the rot of corruption, both ultimately reveal much about the men at the center of their respective stories. While Michael’s grasp for power and inability to trust those around him dooms him to a life of solitude and misery, Al proves to be a forward-thinking pragmatist, sacrificing personal gain in the form of a spurned bribe to help insure the lasting legitimacy of a newly rectified charter. Michael is insistent on moving against those who have wronged him, but men like Bullock and Swearengen put aside their differences, placing the strength of the camp above all else.
Beyond politics. policy and furthering criminal empires there’s a noticeable shift both in the dramatic beats as well as the way character’s relationships are defined. There’s something to be said for the way both Deadwood Season Two and Godfather II circumvent expectations, using our knowledge of these characters and their settings to keep us off guard. Having gotten in bed with those outside of the family (a Jew no less!), Michael’s loyalties are distorted and ultimately shattered. Unable to forgive his brother for (as he well knows) being weak and stupid, Michael orders Fredo’s murder, thus shunning the one rule thought unbreakable: never go against the family.
Similarly, the arrival of Wolcott in season two creates strange bedfellows around town, especially once it’s revealed Hearst’s man is a vicious sociopath who poses a threat to whore-turned-madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). Upon learning of the trouble at Joanie’s joint, the Chez Amie, Cy (Joanie’s former pimp, employer and presumably lover) chooses to help the man who plans to make him rich instead of the woman he once cherished by disposing of the bodies of three dead hookers and leaving Miss Stubbs to fend for herself. (Good thing she had Charlie Utter to look out for her, but that’s a piece for another day).
Even principal male characters’ interaction with the women they love is subverted, often painfully, by changes from without. Kay, long a doormat and passive participant in Michael’s illegal activities (yes, the original Carmela Soprano), finally takes a stand against something that is “unholy and evil” by “killing” Michael’s unborn son. Her confession to him, and his response, comprise a scene as dramatic as any in the series, despite physical violence limited to a slap to the face. With his marriage to Kay in shambles, his soul’s remaining anchor removed, Michael ceases to be human, shunning all but his own counsel and hardening his heart even to those closest to him. If he hadn’t spent so much time hopping around the Western Hemisphere, ignoring those he supposedly cares about most, could he have prevented any of this?
A fission also awaits the lovers of Deadwood. Season one slowly built to a bodice-tearing affair between Bullock and the widow Garret that seemed destined to form the beating heart of Season Two. Yet with the arrival of Bullock’s family, the relationship is abruptly terminated, in spite of their lingering passion and Alma’s illegitimate pregnancy. Their demonstrative affection is largely confined to in the past and off-screen, the white heat of their affair muted into the sorts of longing glances and awkward social exchanges seen in Ang Lee films. Over and over we see the ways in which the outside world infringes on these characters, and their responses, positive and negative.
These are weighty, pertinent issues, the ramifications of which don’t necessarily lend themselves to mindless entertainment. The art certainly doesn’t suffer by broaching these subjects, but popularity takes a hit. Deadwood reported a ratings decline in its second season, which many chalked up to losing The Sopranos as its lead-in. But I wonder how much of that viewer erosion was due to the fact that audiences don’t have the patience to sift through “amalgamation and capital” and weren’t willing to stick it out to see whether the camp joined forces with Yankton or Montana.
Pity. While Godfather II will never be as wildly popular as the more quotable, more “fun” original (they made a video game out of it, for crying out loud), it’s the more challenging and ultimately more rewarding of the two movies. The same can be said for the second go-round of Deadwood.
Of course, if you’ve read this far into what is is, in fact, a rather elephantine article, you likely don’t need me to tell you that when Deadwood isn’t challenging the viewer with its labyrinth of plotting and politics, it’s enchanting us with its impish wit, bold storytelling and pockets of humanity nestled among the filth and deception. Destroying our expectations and entertaining us aren’t mutually exclusive goals. And like my English teachers all those years ago, David Milch seems to be again preparing us for the next bold step in the show’s evolution (I’ve been privileged enough to see the first five episodes of season 3 and they are, in a word, riveting) and I’m grateful for each and every line, development and bit of subtext that flies clear over my head.
And how about that: I managed to go all this time without a Godfather III joke.