Picking up Deadwood


One of the challenges of researching contemporary television narrative is time – it simply takes too much of it to watch everything that should be watched. Coupled with my day-to-day responsibilities of teaching, chairing, fathering, reading the internets, and having a life, watching TV can often fall low on the to-do list. (I know I’m garnering tremendous sympathy about this…) And thus my attempt to grapple with the trend of narrative complexity in television storytelling has some blindspots, shows that I know I should watch but haven’t yet.

One of those major texts is Deadwood, the Western that most critics put in the holy trinity of HBO David-helemed masterpieces along with The Wire and The Sopranos. My colleague Chris Keathley taught the first season as a serialized text in this spring’s intro Aesthetics of the Moving Image course, reporting that students were truly enamored of the show. And two of my favorite online TV bloggers are writing about the show this summer: Myles McNutt after watching for the first time, and Todd VanDerWerff as a return to his favorite series. So with all of that inspiration, I’ve tackled the first season of the show over the past few weeks – spoilery commentary beneath the fold.

First let me contextualize my criticisms with the caveat that Deadwood is certainly a great show, in the upper echelon of everything on television or in the cinema in the past decade. But within that rarified realm, I must admit some disappointment. In large part this is due to my own contexts, taste, and immediate comparisons.

I generally have been watching the show late at night, after my wife & kids are asleep; thus my attention is dulled and it is too easy to lull me into a doze without a compelling narrative to hook me. And as Myles notes, Deadwood is almost plotless at times, and many of the plots are sufficiently predictable as to not generate suspense or intrigue – for instance, I saw Bullock’s fate to be both in Alma’s bed and wearing a badge as inevitable. So a few times, the slow pacing and texture produced fatigue that distracted me from the series – in this way, the show that most resembles Deadwood is Mad Men, another deliberate period piece that I found too mannered to get into.

The period aspect is also a drawback for me – the Western is a genre that I generally care little about, aside from a few standout films that I love (My Darling Clementine, The Searchers, and Unforgiven pop to mind). So while the premise of a serialized revisionist Western is intriguing, the way it tweaks the genre and plays with actual history has little appeal to me.

Finally, I spend the spring revisiting The Wire with my class (more on that soon!), so the comparisons between these two series are hard to avoid. And they certainly bear some similarities – both are sprawling ensemble pieces more about a place than a character, portraying the gray areas between law and crime, and reveling in dialogue that straddles realism and profane poetry (wouldn’t you love to hear a dialogue between Al Swearingen and Jay Landesman?). But The Wire‘s world and genre are both more compelling to me, and I find the show’s plotting to present the perfect balance between a measured pace and engaging forward momentum – I wouldn’t say that The Wire produces suspense per se, but I find myself tremendously invested in what will happen next in a way that Deadwood never generated.

With all that being said, I found Deadwood to be alternately compelling and disengaging. When the show focused on the attempts toward and resistance to civilizing the town, I found myself drawn in to the emerging political and commercial systems. But when it did try to tell a more conventional plotline, I found the show less engaging – the Kristen Bell arc seemed completely designed to drive a wedge between Cy and Joannie rather than actually convey something about the world or create an interesting new character, and likewise the drug fiend plot seemed more mechanical than organic. The show could never really get a momentum going, as I kept feeling things kick into gear, and then drift away into semi-enjoyable but ultimately disengaging diversions into the town’s texture.

I would have been even more harsh before watching the finale last night – while the result of Bullock’s arc was not a suprise, I found the intensity of his decisions to sleep with Alma and become sheriff quite compelling. Similarly, Swearingen’s dual murders out of mercy and self-protection worked more for the effect of the performance than plot. I still find Swearingen’s charismatic anti-hero a bit troubling, especially in how abusive he is to the women of Deadwood, and fear that Milch’s brand of troubled masculinty that turned me off from NYPD Blue will dominate.

While it’s difficult to pull apart different elements of a program’s creative process, I’ve come away from the series feeling much more impressed with the acting and directing than the writing, even though David Milch gets all the credit for Deadwood‘s greatness. I find the visual style outstanding, especially in the way it binds together the community through shots that connect different spheres and relationships. And nearly every performance is excellent, with Ian McShane as the obvious standout but William Sanderson’s E.B. Farnum and Brad Dourif’s Doc as somewhat more impressive given that they have less to work with. While the dialogue can be fun, and obviously the writing enables the performances and style, the inconsistency of plotting and pacing knocks Milch down a peg in my book.

Another comparison with The Wire that I find lacking involves the two series’s modes of meaning-making. The Wire is clearly a show with great social relevance, and it’s not hard to notice the arguments it makes toward understanding the state of the world. Deadwood also seems to traffic in social commentary, but it offers it more through symbolism and allegory. In part, that’s simply due to genre and period, as anything a Western has to say about today’s world needs to be expressed via indirect representation. But Milch’s tone seems to demand interpretation, with every character functioning as a symbol of something greater.

Todd sees this as a great strength, writingDeadwood uses its microcosm as a symbol for the whole universe better than any other series.” Again it might be a matter of taste, but I much prefer my fiction to to be more literal than symbolic, with the greater resonances emerging within the storyworld rather than in reference to something outside of it. I find the internal parallels between characters and institutions of The Wire to be much more rich in significance and resonance than the more overt symbolic aims of Deadwood and The Sopranos. (Sure, Simon can be allegorical in The Wire, but it’s less weighty and portentous to comment on the Iraq War than the meaning of life, God, etc.) Ultimately the characters in Deadwood seem to work more as figures than people – compelling and entertaining figures, no doubt, but even though many are based on real people, they seem more designed than alive.

I find this comparison continues today between Breaking Bad and Mad Men – the former seems cut from The Wire‘s cloth (albeit with a much tighter emotional and character focus), with the show focused on the micro-procedures of a budding criminal empire and the complex humanity of flawed people dealing with the day-to-day burdens of their lives. Mad Men (which I admit I have not seen much of) works more like Deadwood, looking backward at another era to Say Something Important about the world of today. And as I’ve made clear, the former is much more appealing to me.

So given all that, I’m torn whether to dedicate another 24 hours of viewing to the rest of Deadwood. I’ve heard some people say that season 2 is even better, but how is it better? Does it solve some of the plotting problems that troubled me? Or is it better in its symbolic weight? Any experience viewers want to weigh in, or argue with my take on the show?

18 Responses to “Picking up Deadwood”

  1. 1 Myles

    I’m kind of at the same crossroads, Jason – with deadlines piling up, and despite the similar words in regards to the second season being superior, I’ve halted my Deadwood watching not out of disinterest but out of concern for the commitment required. I watched the two part premiere to the second season (which is good, and complicated, and presents some real potential), but the show does strange things to me, things I don’t quite understand.

    It’s interesting from a writing perspective, as as a television show there are really two minds about it. On the one hand, I want to write about each episode to single out the performances, almost uniformly fantastic, as well as to capture the ways the show plays on certain visual elements or makes certain moves. However, plotless as the show often is, I feel like blogging about one set of episodes (when I’m watching for the first time) is just doing to prove redundant, and waiting until the end of the season to piece everything together seems most logical.

    I think that’s really at the heart of the question of serialized narratives, and what is perhaps most interesting about Deadwood is that there isn’t that suspense, and the pieces are almost already all on the table. Some have compared the series to Shakespeare, and it’s not like the Bard was all all about surprise or suspense in his stories. Rather, they were simple ideas executed with either comic skill or dramatic weight, performed and crafted in a way that elevated them beyond archetypes or known tales. Deadwood operates in much the same way, at least as far as I’ve watched, and while it keeps it engaging or entertaining it isn’t quite turning my understanding of history or humanity on its ear.

    At least not yet – chances are that I’ll get back to Season Two once the thesis goes off to the second reader.

  2. I found DEADWOOD to grow, well, dead, after only watching 4 or 5 episodes of Season 1.

    You are much more patient than me, Jason.

    Where are you with “24”?

    Did it jump the shark several seasons ago?

  3. I would definitely watch season two, which is my favorite season of television ever. If nothing else, it does some interesting things with the plot developments in the finale.

    Oddly enough, I think you would probably most like season three. Despite one plotline that is obviously a setup for a fourth season that never happened, the major plotline of the season (the town’s battle against Hearst) is the most cleanly and traditionally plotted storyline Deadwood ever did and an interesting commentary on the various primal forces driving the birth and growth of civilization. It’s actually my LEAST favorite season of the show, but I’ve heard a lot of folks who don’t like the show as much as I do single it out as their favorite.

  4. 4 Jessie Edwards

    I should be writing a paper right now but it turns out evangelising about Deadwood is high on my list of priorities.

    I really, really love The Wire, but I think I prefer Deadwood over it, which is no argument about quality but about personal preference. My tastes tend towards the epic, and the grandeur and tragic romance of Milch’s ambition, the heightened reality and personal squalor of Deadwood amazes me. Unlike you I find the characters much more than signifiers, as over the top as they are, because of performances like the ones you single out (Dourif’s may be my favourite performance by an actor, ever) and others like Garrett Dillahunt’s (in the second season) are so compelling. They and their relationships feel very real to me. And on top of that I really love the visual and aural aesthetics of Deadwood, much more so than the Wire. It’s a much more complete experience for me.

    The second season is only slightly more tightly plotted than the first, with one plotline in particular drives towards a conclusion with a real sense of doom. The third season on the other hand is a bit of a mess, narratively, but the character work is as stellar as ever. However as you note it’s not the concluding state of affairs that drives the narrative tension of the show but the interpersonal moments; not the what or why but how, and I find the intricacies and tragedies of the how a constant delight. What you see as inconsistency I see as room to breath and explore. I love texture! I really enjoyed, for instance, the Kristen Bell digression, the way her story illuminated Joanie and Cy and Eddie and Dan, the brief glimpse of feminine ruthlessness entirely different from other forms we’ve seen.

    Your note about the modes of meaning-making is interesting. For me, the obvious cultural relevance of The Wire is what makes it a little heavy-handed at times; whereas with Deadwood I can choose to watch it as a character fable, despite the really interesting things it has to say about un/civilisation.

    As for Al, the devotion of his underlings/friends is a beautiful thing to behold, and his trials in the second and third seasons may make him more sympathetic in your eyes.

    The Sopranos is the one that I am indifferent to. And, I mean, I got over Lost pretty quickly, so that’s where I’m coming from.

  5. I too am super-pressed for time these days, enough so that I spend my idle moments fantasizing about the shows I one day might be able to watch! That said, when I do the math (x episodes divided by x days, weeks, months, etc.), it gets daunting to think about catching up with too many series.

    Media scholar or not, one has little choice but to prioritize their viewing these days, and I agree that you’re probably better off bailing early than plodding through (if it is indeed a plod for you). I’ve been an extremely sketchy viewer for the past 2-3 years, following maybe a half-dozen series in all, and almost never watching anything else. After I finish the book, I’m planning on a regimen (seriously!) of viewing to catch up on a few shows that I know I’ll enjoy and are important (yes, including The Wire). In addition, I’m scheduling some reviewing of some old favorites (e.g., the original Star Trek) that I haven’t really seen in 20-30 years.

    In order to do this, my partner and I have reached an agreement of sorts about our viewing. Instead of only viewing what we both want to see, or cramming our individual viewing into odd hours (which, with kids, inevitably fall late at night), we’re splitting our nights into joint and individual viewing (or reading, or whatever else we need/want to do). I don’t much care for Dancing With The Stars, and she can’t be bothered with Breaking Bad, and so it’s off to the laptop for me!

    Still, serial TV is a massive time commitment when it comes down to it. And ultimately it’s a commitment that all of us can’t extend to everything that we may possibly enjoy. For that reason, I’ve yet to see any Buffy (beyond the odd clip), and at this point, I may never get around to it.

  6. 6 Christian Keathley

    I have to second Jessie — some of the things you don’t like are precisely the things I do like. Narrative (as you well know) is not just plot, but also incident and character. Deadwood seems to me especially rich on all three levels. Often, incident deepens character (even if that isn’t obvious at the time) and plot entanglements or payoffs are much richer later on.

    In addition to teaching Deadwood in my spring class, I also taught My Darling Clementine in the week on genre, and McCabe & Mrs Miller in the week on 70s film and society. Seeing those two films made clear to the students how much Deadwood is revisiting a well-worked generic/mythic terrain. And both those films are rich with incident and character as well as plot.

    Yes, it’s pretty obvious that Seth will become the marshall and become romantically involved with Alma — those are genre conventions. The compelling questions for me is, What circumstances will prompt Seth to take those steps? Certainly not the same ones that prompted Wyatt Earp in MDC. There’s also the question of duration. It takes Seth 13 hours to commit to becoming marshall; it takes Wyatt about 13 minutes. How will the show sustain this through various dramatic entanglements, postponements, developments?

    The generic issues specific to the western extend to broader issues of reprsentatios of the 19th century in bth history and literature. We have characters from a wide range of representative 19th century fiction colliding here, and that collision is something I find to be extraordinarily rich. There’s the traditional Owen Wister type cowboy (Seth), the mythic figure (Wild Bill), the Henry James character (Alma), the Mark Twain character (Calamity Jane), the Dickens character (E.B. Farnum), and so forth.

    Finally, Myles raises the name of Shakespeare — and as Sean O’Sullivan has noted, there are no other TV shows that are as interested in language as Deadwood. The show is hilarious, and most of that humor comes from the show’s rich, inventive use of language.

  7. 7 Brian Faucette

    I concur with many of the comments about the narrative arc of the series and its connection to the prestige quality of the HBO model of television. While I truly loved the first season of Deadwood because of the way it attempted to deconstruct the mythic vision of the West and its heroes, the following two seasons seemed to deviate too far from this earlier feeling that I had for the show. Much of what I really loved about the first season was the ways that it laid bare the harsh realities of attempting to live in the West and how that lack of civilization acted as a force of freedom and lawlessness that could serve to challenge the more genteel beliefs and ideas of the east as represented by Alma and her husband.
    For me the two characters which I found to be the most interesting were Bullock and Wild Bill. Bill as he is played in the show is a combination of the ridiculous as iterated by the dime novel and the tragic because he wasn’t the great lawman or lover but simply a man who tried to get along in a world that was quickly passing him by. The friendship between he and Calamity Jane is of course greatly exaggerated for the show, because in reality Bill disliked her and her crude behavior. However, she acts as another element to show that life in the West as rugged, crude, and dangerous affected all peoples and genders.
    Bullock is a composite of all the other taciturn Saturday morning matinee lawmen, and in many ways is akin to Milch’s male cops on NYPD Blue. Yet, just as those men were often shown to be in “crisis” so too is Bullock with his interest in trying to be a merchant, a force for law and order, and trying to fulfill his duties as a husband and lover.
    Where the show fails is when they include a Jack the Ripperesque character and situation that often seems highly improbable and salacious for the sake of being salacious. This in conjunction with a concentrated focus on the whorehouses, gambling, and drugs seems to be more about deconstructing present day vices rather than trying to make a statement about our faulty understanding of the West and its impact on the formation of modern American identity.
    Despite all of these qualms, I would have to say that the first season with its smart usage of a keen visual style that combines the use of muted colors against the drab look of the town and the highly charged narrative events works. The music, performances, and the texture of that first season indicate a real respect and knowledge of the actual history of Deadwood. Unfortunately that reverence is tossed aside in the second and third seasons as the show tries to out “Soprano” the Sopranos with graphic violence, language, and sex.

  8. Just a “me too” regarding the challenge of finding time to keep up with what we research. I bought a stack of video games at GameStop in late May with the intention of catching up with all the games I feel I *should* know or particular games that are advancing the medium. This stack is part of my summer and fall sabbatical project! The most time consuming games are narrative-driven and/or those with massive worlds to explore. As a scholar, I am dedicated to experiencing the whole game (is that even possible?) and am equally appalled by researchers/critics who don’t play the game as I am by researches/critics who don’t watch the show.

    I would just add one “hardship” that perhaps watching a television series doesn’t have (unless watching late at night as Jason describes, when the intellect dulls). I’m actually not a particularly skilled gamer. I’m good enough, but I wish I could say I finished Mirror’s Edge in 4 hours. It took me about 12 hours, in many sessions over many weeks.

    Of course, this begs the question of whether or not playing the entire game, which might also include going back to explore corners missed the first time around, is required. I’ve had interesting discussions/debates with other game scholars about this question, with no consensus. And, of course, sharing with my non-media studies friends that I am spending my sabbatical playing video games, is met with eye rolls and tiny violins!

  9. Thanks all for the comments. I do think I’ll push on to s2, although there’s a lot on my to-watch plate this summer (Slings & Arrows, rewatching Lost with my wife on Blu-Ray, giving Mad Men another shot perhaps). And per Nina, the time commitment is certainly what’s keeping me from diving into being a full-fledged game scholar – per Al Swearingen: “In life you have to do a lot of things you don’t fucking want to do. Many times, that’s what the fuck life is…one vile fucking task after another.”

  10. I too had mixed feelings about Deadwood. I don’t think it’s at the same level of either The Wire or The Sopranos, but I will say that I loved John From Cincinnati, and think it functions both as the “lost” fourth season of Deadwood, and as an even more efficient distillation of some of the intriguing themes of Deadwood, all the while wrapping them in a more emotionally accessible and intellectually challenging magical realist package. It’s one of the best TV shows of all time, and it’s frustrating to see it consistently cited as emblematic of HBO’s failures.

  11. 11 elspeff

    My husband bought me the complete box set of “Deadwood” for my birthday. The first series had been shown briefly on BBC 2 late at night, and then disappeared never to return.

    Being a huge fan of the “Sopranos’ and westerns (which explains perhaps the other great TV passion in my life – “Firefly”) I had high hopes for the series, and so far, half way through Series 2, they have yet to be disappointed. Like the aforementioned series, and including “The Wire” referenced in other posts, I find it to be that rare thing for someone whose attention span and patience rivals that of a gnat with ADHD – a completely compelling, immersive experience.

    The plot lines reward your attention, even when, as with Swearengen’s dealings with Hearst and his acolytes, I feel wrong-footed and slow-witted in following quite what is going on (I recognise my own weakness in that – “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” often had the same effect. My husband is much faster on the uptake.) As Jessie Edwards pointed out, the emphasis on the squalor, struggle and plain misery of living in that time in that world is another important feature; it’s not by any mean the first time that the glamorous image of the Old West has been stripped away, but I don’t ever remember it receiving such a severe kicking.

    It is, however, the characters, and the playing of those characters, which are the major draw and the major reason for sticking with “Deadwood”. I take issue with the sugggestion that “Deadwood” is drawing again on Milch’s “brand of troubled masculinity” through which he justifies the abuse of women by making Swearengen, a chief exponent of the practice, “charismatic.” In a drama where all the characters gradually reveal themselves in shades of grey, the male characters stretch from the palest grey of Dourif’s doc, Farnum’s put-upon kitchen hand, Richardson, and Jim Beaver’s big-hearted Ellesworth to the charcoal of Cy Tolliver; someone whose profiteering on the murderous actions of Woolcott makes him seem more evil than his “golden egg.” Yes, the women are often ostensibly victims, but they are also strong, forthright, sympathetic characters with as rich a narrative role as the menfolk.

    All in all, on the basis of one-and-a-half series, my only issue with “Deadwood” is that my unborn child is now far enough along to hear what Mummy is listening to – I am slightly consternated as to what its first words will be.

    • 12 johnchristianplummer

      I’m more than familiar with Shakespeare’s works, having professionally acted in and directed productions of Shakespeare for years. You seem to have misconstrued the intent of my comment. Obviously Shakespeare’s works and the KJ bible were the works these characters had most access to, and thus influenced much of their speech patterns and vocabulary, as Milch has said in numerous interviews. My point is that most writers who comment on the Shakespearean cant of Deadwood’s characters often have nothing further to add as regards a depth of linguistic analysis. Milch is often intending to “confuse” or confound the viewer as much as he does the same with his characters (see Sol and Seth’s post funeral analysis of Rev. smith’s Paulist sermon over Bill’s grave) precisely in order to show that an effort to understand is a worthy one. Language is mutable and thus open to misinterpretation. As the fool Feste says in Twelfth Night, “A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.” That’s a scene, like many in Shakespeare, not written in verse.

  12. 13 Scott Ellington

    There’s something unsubtly disturbing in the invitation to persuade a media scholar to continue the exploration of a television series he’s already devalued in comparison with alternative texts.
    I’ll simply thank you for inadvertantly directing my attention to Simon’s The Corner and for the 1996 introduction of Omar Little in the fourth Season of NYPD Blue in the role of Ferdinand played by Giancarlo Esposito, and written by David Simon.

    In Deadwood, society evolves around organizing principles driven by the impetus of gold. Evidently in academia, time is a primal driver. My failure to understand your problem with making time for Deadwood precludes the fabrication of a persuasive argument.

  13. 14 John Christian Plummer

    The obvious theme of Deadwood is how does a civilization organize itself in a way that sustains the community without totally destroying the individuals — and therein lies the dramatic tension that sustains the three seasons. The Wire is about a civilization that is organized to the extent that the organizations (institutions) are, as a a matter of daily course, destroying the individuals who devote their lives to said organizations. David Simon has repeatedly talked about the ethical/aesthetic mission of The Wire being to create a seeming cops and robbers show that isn’t really about cops and robbers at all; and season 2, 3, 4 and 5 make this abundantly clear, as union workers, politicians, teachers, students and journalists come to share focus with the cops and robbers. David Milch has spoken at great length about the precedents for his work, which are various and run far deeper than Mr. Mittell’s most vaunted sentence.

    I could go on. But my biggest beef with Mr. Mittell is his disregard for the ongoing linguistic drama constantly being played out like emerging fractals on Deadwood. The characters on that show constantly alternate between struggling with and reveling in their capacity for symbolic communication. As Mr. Milch has pointed out, and any good linguist will tell you, a “character” is really just a letter, and what is a letter but a lie agreed upon, a social contract between peoples that an “A” is an “A”. But as one compounds these characters and binds them together, one will find that “A”, in the proper context, can become an “AH” or an “EEE” or an “AY” or an “AAAAH”, just as the word “cocksucker” can mean one who fellates, a reprobate or a person deserving of respect. Nearly every writer who has compared Deadwood to Shakespeare really only means to say, “The people talk confusing in both things!” But the deeper truth is there: that Milch and Shakespeare are both fundamentally concerned with the organizing power of language, of the line and the circle on the wall.

    • 15 Othello

      From your comment we can see that you are familiar with Deadwood and David Milch. However, your remark about Shakespeare shows that you must not be familiar with The Bard. The language in Deadwood is absolutely Shakespearean. I was a drama major in college and have been in 6 of Shakespeare’s plays and have read another 12 or so, and the language of neither Shakespeare nor Deadwood do I find the slightest bit “confusing.” Though not all of Milch’s lines are in strcit iambic pentameter, they are all pretty close with many of them being exact. The period of Deadwood is much closer to today than it is to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Though they typically did speak much more formally, they did not speak Elizabethan English. When Al Swearengen says, in episode 2 season 3, “Won’t you see with me what this might portend (10 syllables),” he might as well be speaking to Hamlet or Macbeth.

  14. 16 Scott Ellington

    “Any experience viewers want to weigh in, or argue with my take on the show?”


  15. 17 Jim Grodnik

    There are two “rr”s in “surprise.”

  1. 1 Get Milch? « Scott Ellington's Blog

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