Tuesday, April 29, 2008

36. Deadwood

In their music Led Zeppelin has sung a lot of world-wide, common sense truisms, such as: “If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a sprinkle for the May queen.” I can't tell you how many times a day this piece of advice saves me from being alarmed. But this quote, “It's been a long time since I rock and rolled”, best fits in with the tardiness (as in late, not retarded – though you have to read this entry to weigh in on that) of my posts of late. Life, kids. Life sometimes gets in the way of writing.

Let's shrug off the day-to-day weight of life and get down to why we're here, to slog upwards to the top of the mountain of television greatness. Please don't forget that I am your Sherpa guide and in this entry, we're going to make a base camp at the summit of the HBO western, “Deadwood”.

Traditional Westerns have never done it for me; I didn't like “Bonanza” or “Wagon Train” or anything starring John Wayne. The whole genre seemed a little too hokey for me; the bad guys are always wearing black hats and the good guys in white always riding to the rescue of a town. The only payment for the good guys is the faint whiff of sweet lady justice—and the ability to put holes in people without getting tossed in the clink. And the rest of the characters were equally cartoony: the damsel in distress, the grizzled prospector, the pussy-assed “law man”, the savage Indian.

All of these people had flimsy excuses for living and had even lamer reasons for doing what they did. Why is the good guy good? Why is the mayor so lilly-livered? There was never any backstory or any shades of grey in westerns; good was good, bad was bad. That's just the way it was back then.

But was it really? Of course not. The west was the last bastion of no-man's land on this planet. Men who needed a new beginning or a change from the East or who were interested in making their fortunes fled to west because everything was up for grabs out there. Like to have sex with prostitutes for 50 cents? Come out to the west. Like to drink your weight in booze? Come out to the west. Like to kill Indians or want to be the boss of a boom town? Come out to the west. Don't want to work in a factory where your arms could get ripped off? Come out to the west.

These are some of the themes that “Deadwood” delved into. This show wasn't set up like the traditional westerns of the past, and that's what was so great about it. The one thing that traditional westerns glazed over was that there wasn't any “civilized” rules in the wild west and people acted upon it. Sex, drugs, drinking, swearing, killing—these kinds of things happened every day in “Deadwood” and it probably happened every day in “Bonanza”, yet the viewers weren't allowed to see it, or hear about it. Because of this puritanical attitude that was prevalent during the majority of last century,“Deadwood” is probably the best mirror to what the real post Civil War west was like.

I know that societal mores were different when the western was the popular form of entertainment, but how could an audience not question the actions of the men portrayed in a truly free society? “Deadwood” shows the type of lawlessness that happens when man is not governed by some set of rules.

There are a ton of characters in “Deadwood”; some real, some fictional. Calamity Jane is a lesbian drunk (which makes sense if you think about it), Wild Bill Hickok starred in a few episodes before he was shot in the back; but the two characters most focused upon are Sheriff Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen. Bullock comes to Deadwood, South Dakota with his partner Sol Star to open a hardware store because he is sick of being a lawman in his home town. Swearengen is the muscle that runs the local brothel and the rest of the town (unofficially, of course).

The two square off in the first season, realize an uneasy truce in the second season—when Swearengen has to mobilize to fend off Cy Tolliver, the proprietor of even shady business dealings and a new whore house that has been cutting in on Swearengen's business. Tolliver is small potatoes compared to the menace that shows up midway through the second season: George Hearst. As Hearst makes himself home and begins to summon his men to claim this town for his own—strictly for the gold in them thar hills—Swearengen and Bullock both agree that this isn't good for them and indirectly the people of Deadwood and mobilize a counter attack.

Those two paragraphs do nothing for the intricacies of each episode as there are often four to five plot lines running concurrently that may effect each season's story arc. I believe that what creator David Milch wanted to show is that like today, the west wasn't cut and dry. These were not people who had one moral compass; even the “good guys” do things for their own selfish reasons and that doesn't make them bad. And for the most part, the bad guys (even Hearst) aren't completely and totally bad.

Hearst is set up to be the villain purely because he arrived at Deadwood a few years too late. If he had taken the initiative and Swearengen had been lax in getting to South Dakota, the roles would be reversed. Like many HBO programs (“The Sopranos”, “Rome”, “Big Love” and even “Entourage”) everything comes down to power and how you protect it. Swearengen and Bullock don't want to give up their power and will do everything they can to keep it. That means that the sheriff may have to get dirty with the pigs in some cases.

Also, it is my belief that Milch sets Hearst up as the personification of progress and change; bringing the east out west. His character was like many of the factory owners, oil or land barons of that time where they were made rich off the sweat of the working man. They were unsympathetic towards the plight of their workers and treated men like raw material. Hearst does the same thing, only in the wild west there are people to try and stop them. Ultimately, Swearengen and Bullock will learn that they can't stop progress. If Hearst is halted, then there will be another and another and another until the “civilized” world is brought to South Dakota and their lawless paradise is destroyed.

There are also themes running through the three seasons: how women were treated (poorly, but with some respect), how black people were seen following the Civil War (a lot of the western settlers were soldiers from both sides of the conflict and thus their interactions are tempered by that), how the Chinese were treated (very poorly, almost subhuman—though Swearengen was intelligent enough to strike a bond with the Chinese ghetto's leader Wu). Even issues with children, Jews, the handicapped (played by former “Facts of Life” star Geri Jewell—another terrific character is played by follow 80s sitcom alum, William Sanderson as dim witted, puppet “mayor” and hotel owner E.B. Farnum. Sanderson played Larry—not Daryl or his other brother Daryl—on “Newhart”.) and other immigrants are brought to light in this series.

There are two hurdles to jump regarding this show: the cadence and quickness of each speaker is tough to pick up during the first episode. You begin to grow an ear for deciphering what each character says, understanding Deadwood is almost like understanding a different language. The other hurdle—and this is a big one—is that show never was given a proper send off. Once the third season concluded, it was thought that despite low ratings, “Deadwood” was going to get either a full or half-season to tie up loose ends. Then it was decided that Milch was going to work on his new series, “John From Cincinnati” (which was terrible) and wrap up “Deadwood” with two movies. That never materialized either.

So unless something happens soon, we are left to wonder what happened to the all too human inhabitants mining camp that tried their damnedest to stop civilization.


Anonymous said...

That's "...spring clean for the May queen."

Byron said...

Yup. You're right about that.