Deadwood: Season 3
Lately it seems that reviews of the best series on television have become eulogies. More and more shows of exceptional quality have been cancelled long before their time while the so called reality series seem to be immortal. One of the best things to hit HBO was the history based western, ‘Deadwood’. It had the writing, direction and cast that placed it as one of the best series ever to hit premium television. Of course, after the cliff hanger at the end of the third season it was announced that the series has been cancelled. Thankfully, we now have all there seasons on DVD so at least our enjoyment of this ground breaking series can live on. In the third season many of the plots which began earlier, simmering like a stew, have come to a boil. The characters that have been switching alliances have take sides for the final conflict, unfortunately one we may never see. This series had something special, something that will not be repeated in a long time. Hopefully by then the studio executives will realize that there is a place for quality on television.
The events of the third season begin about six weeks after the season two finale. With Deadwood about to become part of the territorial jurisdiction it is time for the democratic process to take hold. Elections are to be held for several posts including sheriff and mayor. With moves that would make Boss Tweed envious the two most powerful men in camp begin to arrange the pieces on the chess board. Businessman George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) has a Cornish worker murdered in the Gem Saloon just to demonstrate how he treats any opposition. The owner of the Gem and local power broker Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) goes against him in public ultimately resulting in Hearst slicing off one of Al’s fingers. Hearst also reaches out to an uneasy ally of Swearengen, the acting sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) with an offer to back his campaign if he took special care of the Hearst interests. Bullock is a rough but honest man. While he would typically like to come to a reasonable settlement to disputes he is not above beating or shooting an offender. Hearst does not get the answer he expected when Bullock pulls Hearst out of a bar by his nose and slams him in a cell.
Deadwood is a town in the midst of massive change. The hastily built tents of the early days have given way to more substantial and elaborate structures. There is a school run by Seth’s wife, Martha. Helping her is a former madam, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and former scout and skinner ‘Calamity Jane’ (Robin Weigert). Also new to the town is a bank founded by the holder of the richest gold claim in the territory Alma Garrett/Ellsworth (Molly Parker). Hearst is after her claim to had to his own holdings and she is carrying the child of Seth Bullock. The stagecoach brings some new players into the tapestry of Deadwood. Among them are Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox) an old friend of Swearengen and Aunt Lou Marchbanks (Cleo King) the black cook and housekeeper for Hearst. Both hold a unique position as confidant able to tell these powerful men exactly what they need to know whether they want to hear it or not.
Battle lines are drawn as Hearst and Swearengen gather their forces together. Hearst calls for reinforcements from the dreaded Pinkerton Agency while Swearengen calls one help from any gunslinger he can find a small army of Chinese immigrant workers. Both sides are pushed into bolder action. Hearst has his men physically threaten Mrs. Ellsworth forcing Swearengen to offer her sanctuary at the Gem. The two main lieutenants from each side come to grips. Captain Turner (Allan Graf) for Hearst and Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) for Swearengen, with a battle in the street with a deadly outcome. In the midst of this there is a lot of other deception and plotting going on. Former prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson) is having a relationship with Bullock’s business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes). She also has to help Alma when she returns to her drug addiction.
David Milch created something that was so far beyond the competition I supposed it couldn’t last. Deadwood was so full of detail that you could just about smell the horses. While not completely accurate from a historical perspective it did capture the look, feel and attitudes of that time and place. In some ways this was the Sopranos with horses. The vying for power and wealth, the manner in which individuals are used all would fit into today’s world. In this season Deadwood was undergoing the pangs of birth; transitioning from a little place that miners gathered to an important center of commerce in the new territory. The addition of George Hearst demonstrated how Deadwood has grown in reputation so that the rich and famous were now interested. This series had just about everything. There are the political dirty dealings of the elections, high finance with the new bank in town and even soap opera like themes of love and personal betrayal. The dialogue is often vulgar but what would expect from people living so far removed from polite society. With everyone armed with a gun it was better to vent your anger with words than lead. Milch recreated this time period with such amazing attention to detail.
Even the best scripts in the world would be empty without the right cast and Deadwood had it. Ian McShane was classically trained in the renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His transition to the power broker of Deadwood is perfect. This training was certain to have helped him with the Shakespearean iambic pentameter much of the dialogue is written in. It takes a special talent to give a long and complicated monologue while a prostitute’s head is bobbing up and down in your lap but McShane does. As Swearengen he plays a man who is rough, mean and volatile but also imbued with a strong sense of his own personal code of ethics. Timothy Olyphant plays Bullock to absolute perfection. Being a hero was relative back in those days. Olyphant provides a character who is basically a good man but also as one who realizes that those around him only respect strength. Of special note is Paula Malcomson as Trixie. Her character arc throughout the three seasons is spectacular. At the start of the series she was the ‘head whore’ for Swearengen but over the years has worked her way up to working in a bank and caring for others. Every single part in this series, from the leads down to the smallest character role is done with skill and talent.
Even though HBO did kill this series long before its time they did respect the fans enough to keep up the tradition of a great DVD release. Like the other two seasons this box set has an anamorphic 1.78:1 video. It is exceptionally clear with a reference quality color balance. The Dolby 5.1 audio will reach out and pull you back in time. You hear every hoof beat, the splash of water thrown in the street and the click of a bottle of whisky against the shot glass. Once again the commentary tracks are among the best ever. They mix and match the actors putting unlikely combinations together. The cast has a unique way of telling the behind the scenes stories; part as the actor and part in character. Alas, poor Deadwood you left too soon. Perhaps there will be a movie or two as planned. Until then get this set as one of the best examples of what television can aspire to be. Just make sure the kids are not around when you watch.