Discussion Thread: Deadwood

This is what happens when a review is 13 years in the making. You’ll understand when you’ve read to the end!

Those of you who have been reading this blog for some time–or, for that matter, those of you who know me in person–probably realized pretty quickly that I have some odd hang-ups when it comes to pop culture. I prefer to think of them as eccentric, but really, that’s just to make me feel better about myself.

One I don’t think I have chatted about on here is my tendency to delay reading or watching something that I suspect I will like simply because I fear being disappointed by it.

So, instead of eagerly trying something that I am excited about like, I don’t know, a normal human being, I will procrastinate about it. And I’m not talking about a matter of days or weeks or months. I mean putting it off for years.

Such was my experiences with Deadwood, the 2004-2006 HBO show about the rough mining camp of Deadwood, South Dakota during its heyday in the 1870s. I first read about the show when it was airing. I was a teenager without access to HBO, but my curiosity was piqued. I love history, and as we established a couple of weeks ago, I also really like Westerns.

I’m also a big fan of several of the character actors in the cast, so knowing that there was a show that brought together the likes of Powers Boothe, Keith Carradine, Garret Dillahunt, Ray McKinnon, William Sanderson, Brian Cox, Zach Grenier, and Leon Rippy just made me ridiculously happy.

After I started working at the library, every time someone would check it out or return it, I’d think, “Oh yeah! I’ve wanted to watch that since I was a teenager. I should put that on hold.”

I also would stumble across discussions about it on pop culture websites, and I was always intrigued by the nostalgic tone its fans adopted when talking about. After reading any article and comment section devoted to Deadwood, I’d think to myself, “I really need to watch that show.”

But I kept putting it off and delaying because I also read about how the show was cancelled suddenly and doesn’t have a proper ending. I didn’t want to devote hours to something that would disappoint me.

I also secretly feared that I wouldn’t even like the earlier seasons before the cancellation was an issue, and for something that I had built up so much in my head, that was just something I couldn’t quite bear. So, I spent nearly 13 years not watching Deadwood but frequently thinking about watching it before late last year, when I finally decided that I was being ridiculous.

And having just wrapped up the final episode several hours ago, I can say conclusively that I was being ridiculous because I absolutely loved Deadwood, suddenly-cancelled third season and all. I grew quite fond of the motley assortment of miners, murderers, gamblers, drunks, prostitutes, con men, and business people who lived in Deadwood, and I already miss spending time with them.

To that end, I thought it would be a fun show for the discussion thread, so if you’re a fellow Deadwood fan still distraught by its premature demise or if you have watched it but were underwhelmed by it, here’s your chance to reminiscence and rant!

I’ve tried to keep my discussion points relatively spoiler-free, but we can certainly discuss points far more in-depth in the comments.

1. What was your favorite part of the show?
2. What was your least favorite part of the show?
3. Who were your favorite characters?
4. Who were your least favorite characters?
5. What did you think of the show’s infamous profanity? Did it bother you or was it a non-issue?
6. What are your thoughts on the regular rumors of movies being made to give the series a “proper” farewell?

1. There are several reasons I ended up enjoying the show so much. As I mentioned last year when I chatted about television shows, all of my favorite shows are period dramas about Machiavellian political intrigue, and Deadwood certainly had that in spades. I loved watching the shifting alliances that developed and fell apart with the town’s changing fortunes.

But I think the overriding reason that I liked the show so much was that it surprised me on so many levels.

I’ve watched and enjoyed a lot of “prestige dramas,” but I can’t really think of one that combined the horrific, the heartwarming, and the humorous quite so well as Deadwood did. It is, undoubtedly, a show about terrible people doing terrible things, and as a result, it has some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a television show. (And I watch a fair amount of disturbing television shows.) But it also had some of the sweetest moments I have ever seen on television, as well as some of the funniest.

Deadwood isn’t really a Western so much as a study of civilization. It’s about what happens when an illegal mining town crops up in Indian territory, a place without law and jurisdiction, and evolves into something more, and I thought that was a fascinating journey.

Indeed, many of my favorite moments stemmed from the town’s journey to civilization as its decidedly non-community-minded leaders start to realize that maybe the very anything-goes attitude that drew so many to the area will be its undoing. Of course, civilization itself was never going to be an end to the problems that beset the town and brought its own challenges, but it was an unusual, intriguing premise for a show.

And, as a result of it being more universal in its focus, I also liked how it avoided something that has annoyed me in other shows with historical settings. A lot of shows I have watched that are set in the past have a tendency to really oversell the historical side of it, with scenes whose sole purpose seem to be “LOOK, WE’RE SET IN THE [fill in appropriate decade]!” or its more preachy variant of “LOOK AT HOW AWFUL PEOPLE WERE IN THE [fill in the appropriate decade]!”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of those things, but I find them tiresome. I prefer stuff that is more subtle in its development of period details. Deadwood is very evocative of its time and place and does not shy away from the darker side of the time period, but I liked how it usually developed these issues in a way that seemed organic to the story and not forced. 

But more than anything, I liked how frequently the characters surprised me. In fiction, as much as I love a good plot twist, my favorite moments are inevitably when a character manages to surprise me. Not because the writer pulls a cheap plot trick but because they behave in a way that makes perfect sense but never would have occurred to me. That happened all the time on Deadwood and was one of the reasons I looked forward to new episodes so much.

2. I know the third season is controversial and divided fans into those who loved it, those who liked it, and those who hated it. I still really enjoyed the show, but I think there is some merit in the complaints from numerous fans that there were too many outside characters introduced. I liked most of the storylines from season 3, but one that I did find a bit underwhelming was the theater troupe. That’s not to say I hated it entirely. I really like Brian Cox (sorry, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal fans, he’ll always be my  favorite Hannibal Lecter) and thought he gave a great performance as the troupe’s leader and the amateur hour the theater folk host in the camp is one of my favorite moments in the show, but I had a hard time following some of their storylines or working up much concern about the rest of the acting troupe.

In all fairness, though, I’ve read material that discusses what would have developed with them in a theoretical season that follows, and I think their inclusion, within that context, makes perfect sense. It’s a shame that the show was cancelled before it could develop all of its disparate threads.

3. I had a hard time coming up with a list of favorite characters. I enjoyed almost every single character on the show–which is unusual for me. Most people cite Al Swearengen, Ian McShane’s complex saloon owner, as their favorite. And he is a great character!

But I think I actually liked his various minions and hanger-ons even more. There was a dysfunctional family vibe to their interactions that I particularly enjoyed, so if I was forced to pick favorites, it would probably be his henchmen, especially the loyal, dangerous Dan Dority and the eager but very dumb Johnny Burns. Any scene that involved the two of them bickering with others or each other, speculating on camp events, or attempting problem-solving was comedy gold for me.

I also would have to pick the local hotel owner E.B. Farnum as a favorite. A conniving, inept, sleazy, pathetic man, he really has no redeeming qualities, but he was so awful it kind of transcended being merely awful to being gloriously awful, and I couldn’t help but enjoy him for that reason.

But more than anything, I liked how the show lent all of these characters a complexity that I didn’t expect. It would have been easy to just make Dan the muscle, Johnny the village idiot, and E.B. the sleazeball, but the show infused all of them with a pathos and vulnerability that transcended those tropes.

I also have to give favorite character honorable mention shout-outs to Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Cochran, Ellsworth, Jewel,  Charlie Utter, Tom Nuttall, Reverend Smith, and Richardson.

4. Since I enjoyed most of the characters, it’s hard for me to pick one I didn’t like. Even the people I wasn’t supposed to like or the ones I started out hating, I enjoyed. But after some deep thought, I’m probably going to go with Trixie, the not-quite proverbial hooker with a heart of gold. I didn’t dislike Trixie, but she probably irritated me more, especially in season 2 and 3, than the other characters.

5. One of the things I heard over and over again about Deadwood before watching it and one of the things that seemed to be a deal-breaker for many viewers when it first aired was its record-breaking use of  anachronistic profanity. I understand why that bothers people, but truthfully, it didn’t bother me. As the showrunner David Milch has explained, Deadwood was notorious in its day for its inhabitants’ cursing, but the sort of language they were using would sound quaint and tame to modern ears. So, he decided to use modern language that would shock his audience in the same way that early visitors were shocked. That reasoning made sense to me, so when I found myself (as someone who is not offended by profanity) occasionally thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of cursing,” I thought the show was having its intended effect. But I can completely understand why it was a turn-off for many people.

6. As much as I love the show, I actually hope they don’t make any new movies or productions. I don’t really like when any show does this, mainly because I think the quality rarely ever is the same, especially when there has been a substantial amount of time in between productions.

Maybe because I had been warned so many times about it, the show’s abrupt ending didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. (I would, admittedly, have a very different view on this if I was blindsided by it.) I still was shouting frustrated rhetorical questions at my computer screen for a few minutes at the end about some of the subplots’ resolutions, but overall, I think the show could have done a lot worse in wrapping stuff up.

Are you a Deadwood fan? Gave it a try but didn’t enjoy it? Never have seen it? Have you ever put off watching or reading something for 13 years? What’s your favorite TV Western? Tell us in the comments!

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Author: berryvillelibrary

"Growing a bigger, better library"

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