Saturday, June 4, 2011

"Deadwood" - Series Finale/Series in Review

Spoilers for the "Deadwood" series finale (as well as the series as a whole) after the jump:


Much has been made of the fact that "Deadwood" really didn't have a resolution. And while I agree that "Tell Him Something Pretty" isn't exactly a real ending, it left me with a real sense of finality (much in the same way that "Party Down's" finale did, even if the two shows couldn't be more different).

As the episode opens, Al's preparing for a possible war with Hearst's army by assembling an impromptu militia of Wu's men and Hawkeye's hired guns. The episode is setting up for a major showdown. And some shows might have gone down that route.

But "Deadwood" doesn't. The big battle with Hearst's men doesn't happen. Is this anti-climatic? Maybe, but it also feels appropriate given how much the camp has changed over these three astonishing seasons. It's gone from a rough, uncivilized place to a real community: a community where not every dispute has to be settled by violence. And yet as we see in the final shot of Al cleaning up after Jen's "necessary" murder, it's also a place were that stability has been bought by blood.

So Hearst leaves the camp, and the characters that remain (pretty much everybody except Leon and Ellsworth) are in various states: some good, some bad. Trixie's understandably an emotional wreck, realizing her impulsive shooting of Hearst has resulted in an innocent woman's death. Bullock appears to have lost the sheriff's race thanks to the fixed election. The vile Tolliver feels powerless and seems ready to go on a self-destructive rampage, starting with his murder of Leon.

But some characters got happy endings too. One of the most compelling subplots from this final season was the slowly-developing friendship and romance between Joanie and Jane. I loved both of these characters, and was deeply moved by their final scenes together. Alma chose to sell her gold claim to Hearst, yes, but she received a whole lot of money for it. And she has Sophia. So I expect she'll be all right.

The only thing that didn't work was the same storyline that dragged down an otherwise stellar final season: the theatre company. I don't know what the point of these characters were, and the only time they added anything to the show was when they hosted that highly entertaining amateur night. I've heard that they were to play a prominent role in season 4, but I'm hard-pressed to imagine what that might be. In any case, the introduction of these characters was to "Deadwood" what the newspaper storyline was to "The Wire": intriguing in theory, but deeply flawed in execution. It was the one major mistake in an otherwise nearly-flawless series.

And finally, what of Al Swearengen? He easily ranks among the most compelling and complex characters ever to appear on the small screen. He's capable of evil acts (including ordering and committing a number of murders) if they serve his means, and I've heard some reviewers speak of him as a villain. But if there's one thing to take away from this finale, it's this: Al's not simply a villain. He's more complicated than that.

Hearst was villain, and a cold-hearted abuser of power. Al had power too, but in addition to using it for his own gain he used it to help improve the camp: such as when (without much assistance) he secured the annexation of Deadwood at the end of season 2. He admittedly benefitted from all of this, but there's a small part of him that's decent hidden deep within an otherwise terrible human being.

He's also not without his own extremely skewed sort of moral compass. You could see he didn't want to kill Jen, but he did so because to him it was the only way to save both the camp and Trixie (a woman he deeply cares about even if he usually didn't show it). He's a pragmatist, and everything he did was because he felt it needed to be done. At least, that's how he rationalizes it. Were his actions morally repulsive? I think that goes without saying. But in a way, they're also kind of Al's twisted version of heroism, even if he's also saving himself in the process. And I think that aspect of the character (and of Ian McShane's tremendous performance) is a big part of what made this show so incredibly compelling.

Finale Grade: A

Series in Review - I expected "Deadwood" to be more like "The Sopranos". Silly me. I didn't really know much about the series when I decided to watch it, other than that it was considered by many to be right up there with HBO's other flagship series in terms of quality. That it certainly is, but it's much more similar to "The Wire" (at least in terms of dense plotting and thematic continuity) than to the organized crime related show which put the premium cable channel on the map.

It took a while for me to get into the show's first season, truthfully. Based on the three shows I've watched, HBO shows tend to throw you into the water headfirst and let you find your own way from there. "The Sopranos" did this to a degree, but it also featured a smaller cast and a somewhat less complex narrative. "Deadwood" features an enormous cast (almost as large as that of "The Wire"), and putting names to faces can be tricky for a few episodes.

However, once all that's figured out it becomes clear that this is a show about as good as any ever made. All three seasons tell one complete, totally serialized story. The acting is unrivaled by any current movie or show (as well as most past ones). Ian McShane's performance as Al Swearengen (if the show has a main character, he's it) is a wonder, and the work by the rest of this ensemble cast is uniformly brilliant: so brilliant that I don't think I can single anyone out for special praise. The result is a stunningly alive show with a cast of complex characters who only grow richer with time.

"Deadwood's" second season in particular is one of the greatest seasons of dramatic television I've ever seen: building on the foundation of the first year while introducing just enough new elements to keep things interesting. It was tight, filled with compelling storylines and subplots, and just sensational from beginning to end (the episodes dealing with the aftermath of a tragic death in the camp were particularly stunning).

The first two seasons are so utterly perfect that I was even beginning to entertain notions that "Deadwood" could knock "The Wire" and "Arrested Development" out of their spots as my co-favorite shows (which one is first depends on my mood).

Season 3, alas, was a slight step down in quality. Not a major one (merely an A- instead of an A), but much like season 5 of "The Wire" it's a slight blemish on an otherwise spotless show. As I've mentioned, the theatre company storyline was problematic. In addition to that, I also felt the season shifted aside a number of the show's most compelling characters: Alma and Doc Cochran in particular. It did that in service of a number of subplots that just didn't work very well, including the feud between Steve and Hostetler as well as the mostly pointless (and thankfully brief) appearance of Wyatt Earp and his brother Morgan.

Still, overall it was a strong final season. 90% of the material was excellent, and the slowly-escalating battle between Hearst and Swearengen was a highlight of the series. And as I've already written, the finale is terrific even if it wasn't really intended as a finale.

In the end, we're left with a show that is not quite up to the level of "The Wire". But I think it's a little bit better than "The Sopranos" (as well as "The Shield" and "BSG" for that matter). It's definitely one of the greatest shows I've seen, and anyone who's a fan of brilliant TV should watch it as soon as possible. One word of warning: reports of the show's profane nature are not exaggerations. If you were bothered by the profanity in either of the other two HBO dramas I have mentioned, be advised that it's nothing compared to the language in this series. But please, don't let that stop you from watching it.

Series Grade: A
Best Episode: "Boy the Earth Talks To"
Best Season: Season 2

Coming Soon: I amend my ranked list of every show I've ever watched to include "Deadwood"

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