Sunday, August 27, 2006

Deadwood: Final curtain

When I got done watching the "Deadwood" finale, my initial thought was "good season finale, an absolute joke of a series finale." The more I thought of it, though, the more I realized that maybe there was more closure than Milch intended. Either way, I'm depressed that one of the best TV shows of my lifetime is over, probably never to return. (I believe the movies will happen the same way I believe Isiah Thomas is building a championship contender at MSG.) More after the jump...

So let's see: Hearst is gone, the camp is spared destruction by the Pinkertons, Alma sold her mine so she could stay in camp, and Seth is going to lose his badge thanks to Hearst and Jarry's vote-tampering. That's a fair amount of significant threads tied up, albeit many of them happening in the last 15 minutes or so. So what was left unresolved, and what were the odds Milch was going to deal with them in the mythical season four? In no particular order:
  • Where is Joanie and Jane's relationship going? The whole thing was both slow-building and sudden (took Milch forever to inch up to it, and then when he did it was quickly a full-on romance, or the closest thing Jane is capable of), and while they ended the season on a relatively happy note, I think there were interesting roads this could have traveled. Would Milch have eventually gone back to the history books and had Jane become a whore, possibly to spite Joanie? How would Joanie manage to stay out of the legend of Calamity Jane? Etc. (On a side point, Charlie giving Joanie Bill's coat for "you and the other one" answers my question from earlier the season about whether he knew Joanie was a lesbian.)
  • Why oh why oh why did we spend so much time with Langrishe and his theater company? You could argue that Milch was setting the stage for a lot of more significant theater stuff in year four, but I'm not so sure. That scene with Jack and Claudia where he lamented an actor's usefulness in the midst of such real-life drama as the camp was facing sure sounded to me like a meta comment on the value (or lack thereof) of these new characters. Then again, Milch rarely seems interested in going meta, so maybe not. Frankly, losing the chance to find out what's up with Jack, Claudia and the two mystery women won't be keeping me up at night.
  • What's eating Cy Tolliver? Okay, in this particular case, it was pretty clear: he was hoping his partnership with Hearst would lead to lavish criminal endeavors and the chance to kill or crush his enemies, and instead he became just another cog in the mining operation. Still, it felt like Cy outlived his usefulness a long time ago -- maybe not a surprise, since the character only existed because Milch felt bad that Powers Boothe was too sick to play Swearengen when the pilot was filmed -- and he spent most of his seasons being irritated at how marginal he had become. Hell, maybe Milch really does like writing meta, after all.
  • Odell's death and the Earps, two plots that popped up mid-season, didn't really go anywhere and then stopped abruptly. I doubt we would have seen Wyatt and Morgan again, and with Hearst on his way to Montana, would Aunt Lou be following, or would she be one of the people Hearst left behind to keep an eye on his interests (in this case, how E.B. runs the Grand Central)? And would she even be willing to work for him anymore? I suppose Lou might have become yet another member of this sprawling supporting cast in season four, because the show already didn't have enough characters to service. But I doubt we ever would have found out what Odell's game was, any more than we found out what Wyatt's genius plan was.
  • Is the Doc really dying, or is he just a hypochondriac with a bad cough? Not sure if Brad Dourif had other commitments that kept him away from the set a lot this season, but I felt like Doc, Sol and Adams suffered the most in terms of screen time sacrificed to new characters and concerns. I can only hope Al's "Get busy living or get busy dying" speech would have continued to keep Doc upright and active through the final season.
  • What does Ellsworth's death mean for Seth and Alma -- and, of course, Martha? This could have been one of season four's most interesting subplots: how does Martha balance her innate decency and selflessness with the knowledge that her husband is spending more time with his ex-mistress?
  • Whither The General and Steve? Ehhh... I love Franklin Ajaye in this role but could live without more of this odd couple.
  • What will Harry Manning be like as sherriff? I actually find it a bit sad that he won, not because Seth is out of a job that he didn't really want, but because the only reason Harry ran was to get enough attention to become a fireman. Tom went and bought the firefighting equipment, and now Harry's going to be stuck policing the camp when he'd rather be polishing the fire wagon. Still, I think I'm okay not seeing where this goes.
The most important question: what did the future hold for Al, Seth, The Gem, Sol, etc.? Well, you can find out the reality of what happened to most of the major figures here, and I suppose if the movies actually do happen, they would tackle a lot of this. But even though the fire was technically the end of the camp, I feel like we reached a good thematic end with Hearst's arrival and departure. After all, the show has always been about how civilization is born of chaos. We've seen the imposition of law & order and with the successful (albeit rigged) elections, the camp's assimilation into the United States is a fait accompli. And once you bring order to a lawless place, all that's left is for those with the most money to start swinging their weight around to prove that the law doesn't apply to everyone equally.

So we have greed and wealth (Hearst) triumphing over the rule of law (Bullock), common decency (Ellsworth) and even our famous Yankee cunning and know-how (Swearengen). (Warning: liberal political commentary ahead; skip to the next paragraph if you think I'm a commie pinko.) I know Milch and our Commander-in-Chief were frat brothers, but this scenario feels eerily relevant to our current socio-political situation. As David Simon from "The Wire" likes to say, unfettered capitalism is not a social program, and Hearst represents capitalism in its purest, bleakest form.

We all knew that evil was going to triumph to some degree, in that Hearst's survival and later ascendancy to the U.S. Senate is the kind of historical fact that Milch wouldn't fudge (as opposed to, say, Bullock's family situation), but what was surprising was what a rout evil accomplished. For all of Al's plotting and maneuvering over the last half season -- the stuff with Wu and Hawkeye and the editorial and even Alma's walk to the bank -- Hearst got virtually everything he wanted. Ellsworth is dead, Bullock is out of a job and all of Deadwood's gold claims belong to him. I've said that I wasn't expecting any significant gunplay, but at the end all of Al's scheming feels like just another narrative dead end like Odell and the Earps. Really, the only thing Al accomplished was preventing his people from giving Hearst any justification to have his men start a massacre and burn the camp to the ground. And even that came with the pricetag of two bodies: Ellsworth and Jen.

When Matt's review is up, I'll post a link to it here, but he had a big problem with the death of Jen -- or, rather, the lack of any opposition to it besides Johnny. I can see how even Bullock would be conflicted about the choice between an unknown innocent whore and his best friend's guilty woman, but I would have liked to see some arguments about it, or at least some more obvious internal wrestling by some of the "good" guys (if that term fits any living character on this show) than this. It also would have helped if Jen had been more of a known entity to us. I can barely remember her outside the incident with her and Morgan Earp, which in retrospect was supposed to be a hint that Johnny was sweet on her but at the time just seemed like a sign that Johnny was growing up into a true henchman like Dan.

But even within the all the bumps and wrong turns and whozawhuzzahowzahuh? moments, there was still plenty of room for reminders of the genius that's kept us all so riveted to this show for the last three years: Johnny explaining the meaning of the wall to Jen; Farnum's rant about Hearst and "oozing, gruesome goo!"; the look on Harry's face when Tom shows him the crate; Aunt Lou helping Richardson get dressed to cast a spite vote against Hearst; the troublemaking drunk from the No. 10 quoting the 15th Amendment at the Pinkertons; Al's "Play the lie as mine, knowing I speak of you in Heaven" speech to the troops; every word, look and gesture to come from both Gerald McRaney and Ian McShane; and, of course, one final shot of Al scrubbing blood (the symbol of how, yet again, civilization is built on acts of violence) off his floor.

If that's not the most fitting image to end the series on, I don't know what is.

For the last time (sigh...), the lines of the week:
  • Charlie to Hearst: "I'm the guy that, the next time you see me, you better take a different fucking tone with."
  • Hawkeye to Adams: "I came to camp to tell you, but I fell one saloon short."
  • Hearst to Seth: "You mistake for fear, Mr. Bullock, what is, in fact, a preoccupation. I'm having a conversation you cannot hear."
  • Con to Joanie: "I got 'stay the fuck out' written on a stone tablet in my bedroom"
  • Johnny to Jen: "On the surface, yes, it is (a wall). But inside, many creatures go about their lives, such as ants. They got a whole operation going. Soldier ants and worker ants and whore ants to fuck the soldiers and the workers. Right inside that wall, baby ants. Everybody's got a task to hew to, Jen. You understand me? Jesus Christ, fucking sake. We'll talk about this later."
  • Charlie to a Pinkerton: "If he don't make it, you'll be eating your spuds running till I hunt you the fuck down."
  • Al delivering the final line: ""Wants me to tell him something pretty."
And, finally, because it wouldn't be a "Deadwood" farewell without it: cocksuckers!


Todd said...

Why are you betting the movies won't happen?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Like I said last week, I think there are too many logistical hurdles to overcome, and I believe HBO ordered them only as a face-saving move after the fan and critical outrage, and that when all the hurdles can't be overcome, Albrecht or somebody will say, "Gee, sorry, we tried. What more could we have done?"

I have no insider knowledge; just a feeling. I would love to be proven wrong on this.

Louis said...

Excellent episode, but of course I want more.

Time to talk about The Wire!

Anonymous said...

Great column, Alan!

I'm in mourning over the passing of "Deadwood," which is weird, as you know, since I was ready to give up on the show after the first season. Where am I going to get my weekly dose of cocksuckers now? :-)

Re: Jen's death: I didn't have much of a problem with it. In the end, unfortunately, Jen was nothing but a whore (whereas Trixie was both a whore and a friend to Al), and as we've seen, the lives of whores in this show were hardly worth anything (all these years later and that situation hasn't much changed, too). All the people besides Johnny would would object either had more interest in saving Trixie (Bullock, Sol, Trixie herself), and or were people whose opinions meant nothing (Jen's fellow whores). It's sad all around. BTW, I'm surprised Hearst didn't want to take a look at Jen naked to make sure she was the right one. He seemed like the kind of guy who would request that.

Ah, well, The Wire is back soon! Fare thee well, "Deadwood." Fare thee fucking well.

Anonymous said...

There was one 'line of the week' missing. Adams to Hawkeye (I think), "If he's not lying to you, Al's the most honorable man you'll ever meet."

Anonymous said...

According to this article

The production on the movies is tentatively scheduled to start in May 2007.

Anonymous said...

What I didn't get about the killing of Jen was... the town spent weeks preparing for an apocalyptic armed showdown with Hearst. Why, then, the necessity to appease Hearst with a blood sacrifice? As if, what... Hearst's supposed longstanding plan to destroy the town wouldn't procede anyway?

Get what I'm saying? With Wu's chinks and Hawkeye's hired guns summoned to ground zero... with Al pronouncing nothing but the direst forecasts of Hearst's intentions for weeks... why not tell Hearst to go fuck himself when he demanded the death of the whore what shot him?

As Matt wrote, this whole story felt "off." And I didn't find much else otherwise to get thrilled about with this season finale. As with this season's "Sopranos," I feel like the storytellers got me all hot and bothered, then didn't get me off.

Anonymous said...

Canceleld my subscription to HBO this morning. After the Carnivale debacle and now this, screw Albrecht and his company. From now on, when HBO has some huge critical hit and people are callnig it the greatest thing since sliced bread, I will wait until it is completely over to watch it. And be sure, when I do watch it, I'll have DL'd it. Take that, Albrecht, Milch and co.

Oh yeah, the movies are never gonna happen.

Beakey said...

Excellent review, my friend. I still cannot believe that this show is over, but what can ya do?

Anonymous said...

Finally saw the last season of Deadwood after years of avoiding knowing it would probably leave me in frustration.. but due to your hitfix rewatch, i decided to watch again S 1 & 2. and then 3... and surprisingly even though i knew the hit was coming (great art cut short by business decisions) is still felt as painful and sad as a friend slitting your throat... HBO cocksuckers!