I’ve recently been rewatching the final season of David Milch’s HBO Western, Deadwood. It’s been some time since I first saw it, and if anything it is better than I remembered. Back then, I wrote in another place that the season “corrects every pretty story we’ve ever heard about the American west.” This is still true: at the close of its 12 episodes, the characters go out not in a blaze of Gunsmoke glory, but with a morally compromised whimper. But, equally, it is about far more – as Milch himself discusses at academic length in this series of videos (there is particular Deadwood content – including a section about its cancellation – in the linked video).
When artworks reach a certain level, choosing between them becomes largely a matter of personal taste, but for this critic Deadwood is easily a competitor with The Wire in the quality stakes. At times, its less deterministic, perhaps more humane, aspect edge out even David Simon’s cop show, which is famously also about far more than its chosen genre.
All of which makes it a pity that two recent pieces about the decade-long renaissance at HBO rather brush Deadwood aside: Sam Delaney in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph gave it barely a mention, whilst a few weeks ago James Bradley in The Australian called Deadwood’s pivotal character, Al Swearengen, “a sort of low-rent Tony Soprano.” Deadwood never garnered the attention of David Chase’s mob drama, of even of Rome or Six Feet Under; critics are committed, it would seem, to continuing that under-appreciation in the show’s afterlife.
Delaney’s piece suggests that Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm was “home to probably the most obscene language ever heard on television.” One begins to suspect that Delaney hasn’t even seen Deadwood, which was infamous for its profanity. This no doubt put off many, and yet perversely the dialogue of Deadwood must be some of the finest written for television, so rich that at times it tends towards verse. This style is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and a very obvious affectation, yet Milch makes language integral to the show’s thematic concerns. In one memorable scene from the show’s first season, the spineless toady EB Farnum waxes Shakespearian whilst scrubbing a bloodstain, the remains of a contract murder, from the floor of a room in his hotel. Farnum’s soliloquy simultaneously burrows to the heart of the character’s sense of self-importance and thwarted superiority, whilst beginning to explore the nexus of power relationships with which the show is ultimately concerned. Deadwood is about the formation of a society, and about the human pull between individual and community. Its vernacular profanity represents the chaos and crime of the unfettered private agent; its dense, complex verbiage the organising, ordering instincts of human society.
It may be that in this manner Deadwood was overly diffuse, lacking the cast iron certainty of purpose of The Wire. Certainly some commentators would argue the show lost its way after its first season. Yet this very diffuseness is to my mind part of its brilliance. It does not seek to pretend that life is a system, even whilst it may contain them. Richard T Kelly, whose own post first drew my attention to Bradley’s piece, and whose sprawling social fiction Crusaders shares some concerns with Deadwood, is worried for the poor old novel; his own, however, leaves laudable gaps of light between its plotlines – like Deadwood, it knows that life does not always fit together easily. The Wire is at times too hung up on its thesis; Deadwood always leaves room for a countervailing breeze.
“Some goddamn point a man’s due to stop arguing with his-self and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is ’cause he can’t be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and fucking it up.” Wild Bill Hickock’s first season lament is at the heart of the show. It is about working towards an unattainable perfection; giving up that effort, rather than failure, is seen as the unconsionable action. Deadwood is undoubtedly a theatrical piece, flying in the face of the prevailing fad for naturalism, but it remains a shame that a show with such a message continues to be overlooked.