“No Law In Deadwood. No Law At All…”

03/08/2010 at 4:20 pm Leave a comment

Stuff I Like #5: DEADWOOD

Enough happens in the first fifteen minutes of the opening episode of Deadwood to hold repercussions throughout the entire three seasons, so intimately have the writers and producers crafted this subversive take on the mythology of the Old West. Not for the faint-hearted, it manages to fuse the intense violence and extreme vulgarity with a strange nostalgia – although anyone who actually found themselves in such a place as the Deadwood ‘camp’ would likely be not prone to happy memories. That is of course assuming they make it out alive. The body count in episode one alone sets up a precedent of such tension that from here on in almost any scene seems like it could turn sour. Such is the lawlessness and greed on the gold rush frontier, populated with a swathes of anti-heroic men and women; some the stuff of legend, like Wild Bill Hickok or ‘Calamity’ Jane Cannery. Both these real-life characters are represented in a kind of broken fashion, shadows of the glory that was. Other characters also drawn from history (although lesser known) make up the real dramatic grunt, in particular the sweltering rivalry between the self-righteous, decent settler Seth Bullock and the proprietor of the local saloon (with a slightly looser set of moral values) Al Swearengen.

That these are all real-life figures depicted in a real-life town is a neat device to add gravitas to the storyline, much of which is straight out of the books. It’s hard to tell where poetic license begins, not that it matters with a cast carrying it’s weight in gold; Ian McShane, Powers Boothe, William Sanderson and Timothy Olyphant among the heavyweights, but it’s the (relatively) unknown actors stepping into the female roles that really open up the stakes in camp Deadwood. It’s not that they’re as tough as the men (although some will hold their own when necessary) but the portrayals open up all manner of empathy and complexity in what otherwise is a stark and brutal political power struggle. From the murderous whore Trixie to the stately Mrs Alma Garrett, it’s the womens’ journeys that truly mark the transformation of Deadwood out of the lawless pit which so many of the men are pitching themselves to control.

And that’s the metaphor, as so many of these events are based on history, it’s a fascinating microcosm for the birth of the United States; a creeping and corrupt Caesarian it seems, brought forth from a brawling and bloody thirst for wealth. All the elements of the modern culture we know are visible in seedling form: celebrity mythologisation, vice, liquor and sex, multiculturalism (and the ugly racist cousin), the free commercial press, the thirst for knowledge, the fascination with all forms of entertainment and of course – Capitalisation. What starts as barely civilised and unrecognised muckhole grows into the American Dream, or at least some bestial version of the overtly classical hype and fervour surrounding the traditional view of American History (as written by the victors).

Far be it for me to unveil plot spoilers, but it’s an extraordinary piece of work from the writers and creative team that Al Swearengen and his cronies manage to become the eventual heroes of the story. At least insofar as heroic archetypes can exist in a show where complexity and flawed characters are the rule. On dramaturgical examination it’s easy to see how and why this is the case but the language and poetry of the staging is so brutal; even the staunchest of critics will get lost in the moment and forget their analytic urges as the foul-mouthed saloon manager lets fly with a well phrased and dryly threatening riposte at one of the morons he seems invariably surrounded by. For an absolute hateful dope-dealing pimp bastard, he’s got an educated charm and an unscrupulous sense of fairness that becomes as much an endearment as a puzzle. Like a king-of-exiles, all the misfits of Deadwood fall under his spell at one stage or another. Until that is, his home away from everything starts to become a part of civilisation again. But I’ve said too much… suffice it to say the true believers will follow through to the end and be rewarded with one of the greatest fight scenes ever staged for television, the stakes of which are not just symbolic, but metaphorical, like a struggle for the heart and soul of America herself.

DEADWOOD screens on ABC2 from August 3rd.
If you missed that, a DEADWOOD Marathon is screening at The Stables Theatre, Sundays in September

Entry filed under: Film REVIEW, Stuff I Like. Tags: , , , , , , , .

A Life Less Ordinary is There for the Imagining “the glasses where they view themselves”

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

since 2009

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