I Just Finished Deadwood

For years I’ve said that Deadwood was the best television show in the history of television and shows. Whether you were comparing it to The Wire, The Sopranos, whatever, it went unmatched in scope, in voice, in the sheer effing weight of the thing. The funny thing was, up until last night, I had never actually finished it.

I had almost finished it. Out of its three seasons, I had watched through episode five of season three, “A Two-Headed Beast.” I had seen Dan and Captain Turner take each other on in the camp’s thoroughfare. I had seen Captain Turner beat Dan within an inch of his life, and at the last minute, Dan pop the good captain’s eye out of its socket. And then I stopped watching. When it was originally airing, I didn’t have HBO. I had to drive over to my grandparents and watch episodes they had taped (shudder) for me. I was a huge fan of the show, but around that time life and school and getting married were more than enough to keep me busy, and the show got put on the back burner. I’m not proud of it.

In the seven years since the show was canceled, I tried rewatching the whole thing, always with the intent of finally finishing it. Several times, actually. For whatever reason, I never made it past the end of season two. And that was okay, because I could go back and watch what I hadn’t seen anytime. After a while that turned into my joke: As long as there were episodes I hadn’t seen, I always had new Deadwood to look forward to. But this summer, after making it about halfway through my long rewatch of The Sopranos (after hearing the news about James Gandolfini, may he rest in peace), something in me said, “It’s time,” and I broke out the Deadwood blu-rays. I toyed with the idea of not watching the finale, just so I could hold onto that “one more episode” idea, but ultimately decided against it. The fact that the show was taken from us before its time, much like John F. Kennedy, has been the source of much heartache for me. Despite that fact, I decided to meet the finale head on, although its impending arrival filled me with a sense of dread every time I crossed another episode off the list. Much like a car wreck I was watching in slow motion, or some other accident I was equally powerless to overcome.

And the verdict, now that it’s over? I’m more sure now than I ever was before that this is the single most important television show ever made. And not just because of the dialogue or the characters. Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, any show can do those things. There was a larger story Deadwood was telling. A story about society and the way civilization rises out of the muck, and the roles that elements both good and bad play in that. That the show gave us actors like Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in the roles of a lifetime was really just icing on the cake.

Other shows that I’ve liked have, obviously, been canceled before. Dealing with those has always been easy enough. I go through a few weeks of, “That sucks,” but quickly get over it. Deadwood is the one that still hurts. And my biggest fear going into the final season was that, once all was said and done, the whole thing was going to feel like a story without an ending. It’s bad enough that I’ve had to listen to David Milch drop bits and pieces in interviews of what he planned to include in the show’s (presumably final) fourth season. It was bad enough knowing that we got so close before HBO f**ked up the endgame. But if what we did get was just going to sit there like a limp dishrag, well, that was really going to suck. But, after watching the finale, I have to say the thing works.

“No law at all in Deadwood.” That’s the premise of the show we hear in the pilot from Clell Watson shortly before he’s hanged. For two seasons, Swearengen and Bullock and everyone else had tried to legitimize this place that was founded outside of the United States. They’re successful, and are rewarded for their work with the arrival of George Hearst, whose relationship with the camp and its inhabitants is summed up by a conversation he has with Richardson in which he says, “This place displeases me. I’m taking measures to bring it down.” If the show had gone on another year or five or ten, there would have been others like Hearst, because he’s representative of power and the corruption that is part and parcel of the establishment. He’s a constant. And although it’s infuriating to see him ride out of camp having gotten absolutely everything he wanted from the place, that story couldn’t have ended any other way. The line we hear as we watch Swearengen clean one more bloodstain from the floor of his office — this one coming from the whore Jen — just after sending Johnny away: “He wants to hear something pretty,” might as well have been directed at us. We’d like a happier ending. We would have liked to have seen Hearst’s brains splattered against the wall, but that ending wouldn’t have been true to the show.

It’s a shame the show was canceled. Milch had before said that he had story enough to carry these characters through another twenty-five years, and I would have happily watched every one of them. But if I can’t have that, I’m glad that I at least got these three. And while I’ll put it away now, I’ll enjoy breaking it out a few years down the road and watching the whole thing all over again. Even though it’ll open up all the same wounds. Really sucks the show got canceled.

PS: I’ll just leave this here for the fans.

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I Haven’t Been A Very Good Friend

Yeah, I know. It’s been eight months or so since I’ve updated anything around here. I’m sorry. I’m a little OCD, so when I get hooked on a show and decide I want to write about it, I want to review every episode. I watch a lot of TV, so that was turning into several reviews a week that I just didn’t have time for. So I decided to take a break. I’ve been getting the itch again, though, so I’m going to make an effort to write some stuff. “Stuff” may not take the form of weekly reviews, however. From now on I’m just going to review a show when the mood strikes me. That means that, hopefully, what I write will be of a better quality, and also that I’ll be able to take a look at more shows than I was before. So, LET THE GREAT EXPERIMENT BEGIN!!

Homeland Season 2 Check-In

Wow. To be honest I’m a little speechless after this most recent Homeland. I will try however to explain exactly why and offer my thoughts on these most recent couple of episodes and why they’ve been so interesting.

One of the great strengths of 24’s (Gordon and Gansa’s earlier work and very much the spiritual forerunner for Homeland) early seasons and it’s great weaknesses in later seasons was the sustained tension (in early seasons) and ridiculous padding (in later seasons). The required twists and turns to keep audiences and characters on their toes is a difficult balancing act, lean too far one way and you have mountain lions, too far the other and you have indecipherable and ultimately inconsequential leaps in character logic.

When, last week, Saul discovered the video of Brodie’s confession and showed it to Carrie I was worried simply because I assumed the next couple of episodes would be a series of ‘how did they lose the video?’ antics or variations thereon. Instead Homeland took the storyline by the balls and are heading into what could be very rich and compelling territory. What happens when a US senator has, let’s face it, pretty incontrovertible evidence of not only sympathizing with terrorists but having actively attempted to carry out an act of violent terrorism on US soil and against the very man who he now works for, the Vice-President of the United States.

This is the same rich territory I had hoped they would mine by having Brodie actually carry out his act of terrorism at the end of last season, what an amazing end to a series and a second season of the show dealing with the fall out from a second large scale terrorist attack would have made for unmissable television. I can only hope that the show follows through this time. That we aren’t subjected to a quick resolution in an episode or two with various stretching of the limits of plausibility to get there.

There have been some odd moments in the past 17 episodes from the show, I am hesitant to call them missteps as I’ve discovered what I find implausible and, frankly, ridiculous others embrace and explain for their own reasons and vice versa. However, the guts to throw a black hood over an United States senator and deliver our heroes such startlingly indefensible evidence against him seems to put the show runners in the clear, with no one in the end zone. They are the only ones who can fumble this now, I pray they don’t.

The Walking Dead – “Seed”

Listen closely and you can hear the sounds of cash registers ringing and execs high-fiving each other over at AMC Headquarters. That’s right, it’s that glorious time of year when The Walking Dead returns to our TV screens, and the network quits pretending it cares about little art-house pieces like Mad Men. With season two ending back in March, I had completely forgotten the show was starting up again. I only remembered to set my DVR because I saw AMC running commercials that said, “Stick with DISH. See if we care, pussies.”

It’s been a few months since Rick and the other survivors escaped the zombie hell that was Herschel’s farm. They’ve spent the winter scurrying across the countryside, looking for shelter and food. We know things have gotten pretty bad for them when we see Daryl stuffing owl feathers in his mouth and the “jackpot!” look Carl gets in his eyes when he comes across two cans of cat food. It’s obviously been a hard couple of months, and not only because of the lack of amenities. Living this way has obviously changed the group in very fundamental ways. But while everyone seems like they’ve made the best of a bad situation – Beth singing by the campfire, Daryl and Carol (the writers missed a golden opportunity not naming her Caryl) making jokes about fooling around – Rick looks like a man constantly staring Death in the face. Whatever it is, exhaustion, or just the weight of the responsibility of keeping these people alive has stretched the man to his limit.

But the prison we all saw amidst Bear McCreary’s Battlestar-esque beating drums at the end of last season seems to have given the group a slight reprieve. This just might be the long-term holdout Rick and the group have been looking for. I was a little surprised they were only now finding it. When we saw it the first time, it looked like the group had basically camped out in the parking lot. And was it really not on any of the maps they’ve been using, driving back and forth? Oh well. Sometimes TV shows do crazy things.

So Rick convinces the group that they should hole up there, at least for a little while. And no one really seems to disagree. I don’t know if this is because they all agree it’d be a good idea, or because the law Rick laid down at the end of last season – the Ricktatorship – is in full force, and nobody’s going to challenge him once he’s made up his mind. So they decide to go in, with the only serious challenge posed them is clearing the place out. And it’s here we see exactly what they’ve all learned after months on the run. The group works like a machine, systematically clearing out the prison yard. Inside, too, although close quarters and no lights made that half of it much harder. Of course, nothing on this show turns out just how Rick imagines it. Herschel gets bitten, and Rick is forced** to hack his leg off with an axe. And just as they’re all catching their breath and wiping Herschel’s leg spray from their faces, they find that they’re not alone inside the prison, that there’s a group of prisoners holed up there as well.

(**Was this just because of the infection one might get from being bitten from a rotten corpse? Because we know now that it doesn’t matter if you get bit or not. Once you die, you turn into a zombie. Everyone’s infected.)

So, more complications in a long string of complications. I also thought it was interesting to see that Rick’s given Lori one big hand to talk to ever since the baby bump stopped holding. Shane may be dead, but Rick’s grudge hasn’t. If Lori hadn’t of spent so much of the series up to this point being such a punk and then acting all shocked and shaken when she found out what Rick had done – despite signaling to him that that was exactly what needed to be done – I might feel sorry for her.

We didn’t get to see much of Michonne and Andrea this week. Andrea’s sick and she and Michonne go back and forth with their, “Just go! Let me die!” routine that we’ve seen oh so many times in the past. Well-tread ground made interesting again because of those two jawless zombies Michonne keeps on a leash. Let’s see more of them.

I had a pretty big rager whenever this show was first announced, but I have to say season one left me a little cold; it threw cold water all over my rager. Season two saw a huge jump in quality, and now, in season three, the show feel’s like a well-oiled machine. If you can get past some of the dialogue, that it. But I suppose as long as the show can keep delivering zombie getting their faces peeled off because their heads are rotting inside their riot gear, I’ll be able to manage. Somehow.

Homeland Returns

A couple of months ago James asked me to offer some thoughts on a little show called Newsroom. As an ardent Sorkin supporter I was only too happy to do so… unfortunately my schedule was less excited and it never eventuated. This past Sunday saw the return of Showtime’s Homeland, a show I had actually ‘speedwatched’ last year the day before the finale aired in order to find out what all the hype was about. I was not disappointed and while watching it in quick succession did reveal some troubles, they were clearly not big enough to stop the Emmy’s making it rain Homeland a couple of weeks ago where it won numerous awards including Best Drama beating out competition like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey (the show apparently everyone loves).

For those who missed season one the show details the return home of prisoner of war, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who CIA agent, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), suspects of having been turned into an Al-Qaeda terrorist. It was the sort of show that would lull you into a false sense of security for 39 mins of a 40 min episode only to reveal some new bit of information and blow your mind. After a season of is he or isn’t he it was revealed he was in fact a terrorist intent on killing the Vice-President of the USA who had initiated a strike that killed a young boy he had befriended. The season ended with a faulty bomb, a perfectly timed phone call and an operation that would cure Carrie’s bi-polar but also make her forget vital information.

Season two kicks off with a time jump, Brody is now a Congressman, Carrie is teaching English to Arab immigrants and there is trouble in Israel. Carrie is pulled back in just when she thought she was out because an off the books informant of hers has vital information to the Israel situation and another possible attack but refuses to speak to anyone but Carrie. Brody is approached by a family friend of Abu Nazir who informs him that it’s not over yet and that he is still expected to use his new position to help that side.

It was a solid return for a show that I worried had perhaps shown its hand with the season finale last year and would have no where to go. A renewed focus on Mandy Patinkin’s Saul bodes well and will hopefully utilize a character that while hardly background in season one still deserved more screen time.

This is a show that could so easily have descended into cliched action movie tropes (ala 24’s later seasons) but manages to walk a very tight tightrope as it examines the US’s complicated relationship to terrorism. Stick with me over the course of the next couple of months. I’ll be dropping by every couple of episodes or so to discuss where we have come and where we might be headed.

Boardwalk Empire – “Bone For Tuna”

Every now and then, we have to dispense with the silent introspection and get down to the meat and potatoes of storytelling. Well, kind of, at least. “Bone For Tuna” still had a lot of Nucky staring off into the middle distance, but more on that in a bit. What tonight’s episode did primarily was show us the direction the story’s taking. And in that direction lies Gyp Rosetti, who’s fragile ego is going to cause all sorts of problems for Nucky going forward.

Gyp is still pissed that Nucky won’t sell him the rum he demanded in “Resolution,” so he’s decided that until he gets it, he’s going to shack up in Tabor Heights and block off any of Nucky’s other shipments that might be trying to get through. Nucky’s a man with obligations, so in the interest of business, he’s decided to sit down with the man, try and hammer something out so they can all get back to making money. And for a few minutes, it looks like it’s gonna work. Nucky agrees to sell Gyp the rum, with the stipulation that it’s the only shipment he’s going to get. And Gyp says he’ll back out of Tabor Heights. Great. Let’s all go get smashed and laid. Right? Wrong. The thing about Gyp is, he doesn’t just want Nucky’s rum, he wants a seat at the table. He wants to be treated like an equal when he’s with Nucky, Rothstein, and Torrio. So it’s not good enough that Nucky’s sell to him, Nucky also needs to be there to hand him the stuff, and to see him off. When he’s not, Gyp sees it as a horrible breech of protocol. And when Owen dares to tell him good luck – buona fortuna, or bone for tuna – in Italian no less, Gyp’s ready to raze Atlantic City, then salt the earth so that nothing grows there ever again. Ever.

So Gyp goes back to Tabor Heights, and not only is he staying, but he sets the poor fat bastard sheriff on fire, too. That’s just mean. And Nucky, who seems to be suffering from one perpetual migraine this season, will like it none too much.

Of course, even before the unfortunate incident between Gyp and Owen, we saw Gyp sweet talking Gillian, trying to learn a little more about her history with Nucky. So, he obviously has other shenanigans in the works, the whole “bone for tuna” thing just exacerbated them.

But Nucky didn’t steal the spotlight entirely this week. We also saw Van Alden narrowly avoid arrest. Then he got laid. And Meyer Lansky shot a guy.

But anyway, back to Nucky. While we got a lot of pure plot stuff tonight, we got a good look at Nucky’s lingering feelings over the Jimmy Darmody killing. A year and a half later and Nucky hasn’t shaken it completely off. That’s alright. Any excuse the show needs to get Nucky and Richard in a room together to discuss these issues of the soul is fine by me. When Nucky asks Richard if he still thinks about the people he’s killed, Richard tells him he already knows the answer to that. So you have to wonder if any of this is going to get any easier on Nucky. The show’s tagline this season is “You can’t be half a gangster.” But can you go from being a gangster to not being one? Or do we have a Tony Soprano situation where The Life is The Life, and Nucky’s just too set in his ways to ever get out of it?

It’s always been interesting to me to compare Nucky to Margaret in this way. Nucky likes the lifestyle – the money, the power – but it took him a while to really get his hands dirty. Margaret has no qualms about getting her own hands dirty, lying and stealing from those close to her – that was a nice bit of business with the priest at Nucky’s knighting – but she’s disdainful of the material possessions Nucky’s life has brought her. Anyway, think about that and what it means for their relationship (and their eventual reconciling, I’m betting), and we’ll talk more about it next week.

Until then, can we please get back to Al Capone? We can skip over Van Alden and his wife having sex. It’s cool.

Boardwalk Empire – “Spaghetti & Coffee”

I don’t know if this is what “Spaghetti and Coffee” set out to do, but I thought the episode had some interesting things to say about family relationships inside [PrisonMike]The Life[/PrisonMike].

In a perfect world, TV shows do the things they do because the storytelling demands it (it sucks, but Nucky had to kill Jimmy). But there are also more practical reasons making their own demands**. This week we saw Eli walk out of prison after the year and a half stretch Nucky told him he’d have to serve at the end of last season. And I imagine that was part of the reason season three picked up where it did. Shea Whigham’s a great actor, and the show wasn’t going to sideline him for an entire year.

**(You see this sort of thing crop up in other shows, too. Game of Thrones fans will probably have heard executive producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff say that, going forward, their goal isn’t to adapt the books exactly as they’ve been published, but to take George R.R. Martin’s story and adapt it in a way that’s best suited to television. I’m sure a not insignificant part of that is because characters like Tyrion Lannister don’t appear in A Feast for Crows (the fourth book and theoretically the show’s fifth and sixth seasons) at all. And really, if Game of Thrones had to go an entire year or two without Tyrion, what’s the effing point?)

So Eli’s back, and maybe I’m wrong (probably), but I can see what’s happened between him and Nucky  playing a big role this season. Eli’s always been the man handling things behind the scenes not because he wanted to be, but because that was the roll Nucky forced on him. He’s tried breaking out of that mold. We saw him preparing his speech to the Celtic Dinner in “Nights at Ballygran,” trying maybe a little too hard to show everyone that he was smarter and more eloquent than they were all giving him credit for. That didn’t work out very well for him, and neither did his plans to go against Nucky. There, the men he was taking his orders from both ended up dead, and Eli ended up in prison. Now that he’s out, he’s got this do-it-or-don’t-do-it-I-don’t-really-care vibe about him. He knows he has to work under Mickey because he’s got a family to feed and no other prospects. The sting of that whole situation’s probably worn off somewhat in the past year and a half, at least enough so that he sees its necessity without getting too pissed off. Eli made a lot of enemies as sheriff, and he knows it’d be better to work inside Nucky’s sphere of influence than outside it. So he’s just gonna keep his head down, make some money. Not what he envisioned for himself, but he can deal with it.

What I think will really stick in his craw will be his standing with his family. We saw that, while he’s been away, his son’s been forced to drop out of school and take a job, which kind of puts him on funny footing as far as providing for everyone goes. He’s got some work to do to get back into that father figure role. Right now he’s more like the uncle living in the garage. All this can go one of two ways. He can quietly plot his revenge, or he can show everyone that he’s actually worth something, and play an important cog in Nucky’s machine. I’m betting on the latter. The Eli we saw tonight is quiet, wrestling with the decisions he’s made (or rather, the consequences of those decisions), but still focused on what he needs to do to get back up on his feet, as distasteful as that may be. This stands in contrast to the Eli we’ve known, full of bluster and mostly pissed at his brother.

On the other side of town, we see Nucky shacking up with Billie Kent. I was actually a little surprised with how predictable their relationship played out this week (especially after how big a surprise it was that they were together in the first place). Billie isn’t a one-man kind of girl, which is obviously what Nucky’s looking for. I think the contemplative looks he kept giving that ringing telephone were the biggest hint that this split between him and Margaret is only a temporary one.

Finally, we checked in with Chalky White, and saw that his daughter’s boyfriend wants to propose. I guess he’s into the whole self-punishment thing, because he knows what a whackadoodle family the White’s are, and all the crap he’d be opening himself up to once he became a member of the family. And apparently Chalky’s all too eager to take advantage of him, telling his daughter that having a doctor in the family’s going to help them. I don’t know what to make of the way the guy shook Chalky off to help the guy who had just cut off his face. Maybe he won’t be as easy to control as Chalky thinks. Considering how little we’re seeing some of these characters this season, I’m sure we’ll know how everything turns out five or six seasons from now.

Eli’s a family man and has always been a family man. Many of Nucky’s relationships have been superficial, but he’s realizing now that that’s just not cutting it anymore, and needs something deeper. And Chalky, while I’m sure he loves his family very much, isn’t afraid of using them for his own purposes. It’s easy to see the split between Nucky and Margaret and Eli blowing over, but I’m not sure where things with Chalky are headed. Although I can’t imagine the show spending any time on it and not intending to pay it off somewhere down the road.


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