DEADWOOD: THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON
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"Tell Your God to Ready for Blood," "I Am Not The Fine Man You Take Me For," "True Colors," "Full Faith And Credit," "A Two-Headed Beast," "A Rich Find," "Unauthorized Cinnamon," "Leviathan Smiles," "Amateur Night," "A Constant Throb," "The Catbird Seat," "Tell Him Something Pretty"
ROME: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
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"The Stolen Eagle," "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic," "An Owl in a Thornbush," "Stealing From Saturn," "The Ram Has Touched The Wall," "Egeria," "Pharsalus," "Caesarion," "Utica," "Triumph," "The Spoils," "Kalends of February"
by Walter Chaw HBO is the watermark for televised drama, no question. With "The Sopranos"--which began like high-concept and ended like avant-garde--as their flagship, they've progressed through the psychic devastation of "Six Feet Under" (was there ever a final episode of any series so steeped in existential terror?), the insouciance of "Entourage", the social nihilism of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", and the repugnant popular deviance of "Sex in the City", only to find as their bedrock circa 2007 something so slight (if so brilliant) as "Flight of the Conchords". Two contenders for that crown, "Rome" and "Deadwood", alas received their walking papers, victims of too high a budget, too heavy a burden of viewer investment (can I confess that I didn't like "Deadwood" until I started it from the first episode?), and too niche a viewership. I hesitate to compare even the extraordinarily-similar-feeling "Rome" to the channel's short-lived (equally short-lived, in fact: two seasons) "Carnivàle", but I do wonder whether "Deadwood" and "Rome" weren't nixed because they weren't interested in seducing new lovers and may have seemed, from the outside, like so much dry coming and going, talking of Michelangelo.
Intellectual exercises, period pieces--indeed, the two series are frighteningly accurate according to every reliable historical source, yet both are steeped in the bestial: blood, semen, liebestraum. They're nasty-talking, ugly, violent pieces of work so disinterested in sugarcoating history that the history itself feels like science-fiction. Martian dramas played out on vaguely familiar landscapes by roughly human icons (mythological avatars come to stinking, shambling life)--and goddamnit if their brute poetry doesn't justify their places in the canonical pantheon as models for our better yearnings. Too easy to say that these shows are allegories: what they do is present our interpretation of history as allegory. It's mystical, nay, mysticism; and it's fucking spiritual.
"Rome" is about that brief period between Caesar's conquest of Gaul and his assassination in the Senate: the disintegration and re-establishment of society. "Deadwood" is set in South Dakota in the small, quiet eddy of time before statehood, when rival interests competed for control of what was, essentially, a free-fire zone. The place where Wild Bill (Keith Carradine) went to die, "Deadwood" is the prototype of the post-apocalyptic--yes, post-9/11--epic that posits what the world might look like if it were riven by paranoia, forced to rebuild by force and re-forged in testosterone. "Deadwood" is the quintessence of our time, but it's also the quintessence of every time. Comprising thirty-six too-short episodes, it's a masterwork. It's among the best things I've ever seen in any medium, and its effect on me has been life-changing; I feel comfortable saying that it's akin to witnessing Shakespeare, to seeing "Hamlet" for the first time and having the privilege of knowing as it's happening that you're in the presence of something endlessly adaptable and possibly eternal.
Start with Ian McShane's indelible performance as kingpin Al Swearengen: beginning the series as the undisputable bogey, he's become by the third season so complicated and nuanced that it could be that he's the heart and soul of the piece. Better yet, start with show creator David Milch's unbelievable teleplays (he wrote 17 of the 36) and his rumoured methodology of rewriting dialogue the morning of a shoot. Not unusual in and of itself in the world of series television, but considering the expense of the show for one and the astonishingly Byzantine nature of the plotting and language for another, that Milch (who, before creating "NYPD Blue", was an English Lit lecturer at Yale) would do such a thing to his cast--and that his cast could pull it off--is a testament to the power of his vision.
"Deadwood" is a model of that anthropological "state of nature"--a base reduction, the nascence of humanity coalescing into society on account of some elemental urge towards surface tension. Milch's dialogue is extreme and profane because, he says, "apes beat their chests so they don't have to fight 24 hours a day." Yet in the midst of the "cunts" and the "cocksuckers" that litter the speech ("fuck" is so casual a punctuation that it's more of a shock when someone doesn't use it) is a formality that sounds oratory by nature. I don't know that they talked like this in nineteenth-century South Dakota, but I do know that Milch has created a literary distance that (like Shakespeare to the modern ear) fashions kabuki from every rough movement.
In the fourth hour of the first season, Milch killed Wild Bill without much ceremony, thus extinguishing one half the name recognition of the earlygoing (the other being Robin Weigert's amazing Calamity Jane). Not long after, Milch collapsed the legend of Jane, too, by allowing her fear in a situation contrary to one's expectations for bravado. I wanted the Mexican standoff until Milch showed us the alternative. For a series this unpleasant and dank, it's more often about the brutality of words and the savagery of Machiavellian machination than it is about actual physical violence. And when blood is shed, besides being superbly calibrated, the impact of it is due the strength of first our instant impressions of famous names (the Earp brothers appear later on--you couldn't imagine my excitement and edification) and ultimately the multi-faceted characterizations. "Deadwood" is amazing for a lot of reasons, the least expected of which the ways it transforms history into something usefully alien.
Dominating the show's debut season, Swearengen is sidelined at the beginning of the second with a bladder stone that needs to be extracted sans anaesthetic (says the doc (Brad Dourif, also remarkable): "Dear god, please don't let me kill another one") over the course of the first four hours. It allows time for other subplots to take seed: the affair between virtuous sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Gold Rush widow Alma (Molly Parker); the inexorable approach of madman George Hearst (Gerald McRaney); and the simultaneous climax of the two when Bullock's boy is killed on the eve of the proverbial storm. Duly inaugurated, Season Three premieres with an episode called, appropriately enough, "Tell Your God to Ready for Blood," as Milch and company craft a Polonius for Swearengen's Claudius (or is he The King, un-slain?)--the Shakespearean Wise Fool who, self-consciously put-on as a windbag of a traveling actor named Langrishe (Brian Cox), acts as foil and chorus.
In the episode "Leviathan Smiles" (3.8), Langrishe performs three acts before the literal talent show of the next hour, "Amateur Night"--"Deadwood"'s theatricality surfacing in mousetraps within a play within a remarkable balancing act of a construct teetering between the life of the word and the life of the mind. Splitting a main character in twain for truth in its deconstruction is an old saw; the disappointment, if there is any in "Deadwood", is that with this development, for the first time in the show's history a character's purpose is instantly clear. The interplay of Hearst's psychopathic capitalism and Swearengen's equivalently-psychopathic rage for (is it?) collectivism--certainly city-building, possibly nation-building--is fission of a rare and distinct vintage. But for all its eloquence, for all its vile poetry and visceral carnage, the truth of it is that one moment where Swearengen's chief henchman Dority (W. Earl Brown), following a particularly horrific battle won, sits on the edge of his bed and cries.
The third season is devastating, but it feels incomplete in a way that the others do not. The chief difference probably has something to do with the knowledge that despite promises of three feature-length films to wrap-up the storyline, there is most likely no tomorrow for Milch's masterpiece. The ending, once it comes, is a remarkable reversal for the Swearengen character and a foreboding of how Deadwood the city becomes incorporated into a large, empty, monolithic whole. The series is far from anarchy: it's the prototype for humanity. It's almost a blueprint for how we begin to build and how, when things fall apart, we begin the process of putting them back together again. It reads like a Donald Symons textbook and swaggers like a bar brawl. (The two aren't that distinct, after all.) Hearst is a bigger monster than Swearengen because Hearst's religion is shared by more people--in a way, the show's demise is an illustration of the difference between loving gold and getting pulled along by the endless vagaries of human intercourse. The death rattle is poignant: On his knees in a puddle of blood, Swearengen's epitaph begins "when in Rome." "Deadwood" honours its debt to McCabe and Mrs. Miller in this way, and it kills me that what comes next isn't ours to know.
"Rome" isn't nearly as good as "Deadwood", but what is? The show's first four instalments, in fact, feel a lot like something you're supposed to like but don't--that are supposed to educate but bore instead. You admire that it's beautifully-done, appreciate that it's most likely exhaustively accurate in its details, and recognize the quality of the performances--and still there's a severe problem with detachment, a decided lack of suture. That changes, thank God, but I do wonder how many potential devotees checked out before the hook had a chance to sink. Rome is in turmoil as Caesar parlays his military victories into a play for the throne. The city having a Senate, the idea of a throne to be had is a bit, shall we say, presumptuously autocratic; needless to say, it all ends in tears at the end of a knife. As with "Deadwood", there's not much to spoil, but unlike "Deadwood", "Rome" provides a conduit to the events through a pair of Centurions mentioned in passing in Caesar's Conquest of Gaul: Pullo (Ray Stevenson) the brute and Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) the family man, shoehorned sometimes implausibly into the stirrings of the fall of the Roman Empire (who survives a shipwreck? Who impregnates Cleopatra? Yep), yet somehow without the blatant disrespect of, say, Forrest Gump. Rather, the series, already its own Shakespearean drama, has added a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and rewritten it along Stoppard-ian lines. It's not post-modern, but it's smirky just the same--the better to sweeten the medicine of its suffocating historio-political diary.
"Rome" is good; "Deadwood" is nonpareil. Besides the conspicuous lack of Milch at the typewriter (both shows are completely unapologetic about their graphic depictions, both are period pieces), "Rome" differs from "Deadwood" in that we're already so familiar with the primary players in this ancient Passion that it becomes a sometimes-unintentionally-funny game of trainspotting. At the very least, it's distracting. More's the shame, because "Rome" is eventually an enthralling melodrama with lavish appointments. The first season feels like the complete article, ending as it does on the Ides of March, leaving my anticipation for the second season limp, if not altogether nonexistent. (I mean, without the looming spectre of Pearl Harbor, what is From Here to Eternity but another piece of shit genre fluffer?) For what it is (and while it's not by any stretch of the imagination destined for eternity in the same way) and for as far as it goes, however, it works in much the same way that "Deadwood" works: This is not only how the world tilts, but how it rights itself as well.
HBO brings "Deadwood: The Complete Third Season" home again in a lovely box set complete with consistent 1.78:1 anamorphic video that crackles with clarity and vibrancy. The budget that euthanized the series is on full display here. Almost better is DD 5.1 audio that reproduces every sound with logical separation and a dedicated pop. Disc One of the six-disc set sports a yak-track by executive producers Gregg Fienberg and Mark Tinker that fascinates mostly for revealing the extent to which Milch had a hand in every aspect of the production. Tinker directed the episode in question ("Tell Your God to Ready for Blood") and comments that one long pan early on might be the last that Milch permitted him, seeing as how he's not a fan of that particular action. The rest of it comes off a little smug and self-congratulatory, with moments of self-deprecation ringing hollow in the way of people doing the false-modesty tango without realizing that they're speaking the unadorned truth. Recaps of the first two seasons wrap up the first platter. While Disc Two supplementally contents itself with a series index, Disc Three includes an actor's commentary for episode 5, "A Two-Headed Beast." Jim Beaver, Sean Bridgers, and W. Earl Brown do the honours and the result is convivial and lively. The term "heterosexual Rip Taylor" is bandied about, setting the tone for a high good time had by all. As I'm inclined to regard all things "Deadwood" with something resembling awe, it's sort of a revelation to hear it treated like a bit of a laugh. (And the yakker would be worth a listen for the insight into Gerald McRaney alone.) Speaking on "Amateur Night" (3.9), fellow cast member Robin Weigert is unfortunately long on silences and bland observations.
Milch himself finally chimes in on Disc Five's "Tell Him Something Pretty"--the final episode of the season and possibly the series proper. When he says that he'd been "too sad" to watch the episode until recording this yakker, it tells me that the promised TV-movie follow-ups will stand as one of the great lost trilogies in film history. His "here we go" as the opening credits wrap is chill-inducing for the initiated. Milch is thoroughly understated and listening to him speak on "Deadwood" is a bit like earning an audience with the Emperor. He identifies the series as a whole "speaking truth to power"--as the fundamental franchise that the underclass has against the forces allayed against them from above. Remarkable. Milch might be as good a critic as he is an artist. His analyses of his characters' motivations are mesmerizing. Disc Six, the bonus disc, features "Deadwood Matures" (20 mins.), a "historical documentary" that offers a fulsome backstory for the series replete with photographs of the real individuals represented in the series. I absolutely fucking love it. "The Education of Swearengen and Bullock" (20 mins.) has Milch dissecting the relationship of the two principal bulls in the series in his brilliant, inimitable style. He goes through the entire season's confrontations between the two, taking a moment with Al's visit to Bullock's house to observe that it may be the first time Al has ever set foot in a house. Not at all flippant: I'm amazed by the perspective. Rounding out the package, "Deadwood Daguerreotypes," a photo gallery comprised of vintage shots of actual personages, is an astonishing way to end an astonishing, landmark show.
"Rome: The Complete First Season"'s A/V quality is likewise beyond reproach. Blacks are lacquer-black, shadows are nicely delineated, and the colours--especially Ancient Rome's imperial red--are represented lushly. The accompanying DD 5.1 audio is no less adept. Disc One contains a yakker for the pilot, "The Stolen Eagle," with producer/writer Heller and historical consultant Jonathan Stamp. It begins inauspiciously as the pair decides that the series' opening narration should speak for itself (the assumption that people could be watching the show for the first time with the commentary activated a strange one indeed). The value of the track comes in Stamp's ability to annotate details like the true physical toll of whipping as a punishment, and of at what point during the Gallic Wars the series commences. Alas, too much silence remains the enduring hallmark of their dialogue. Heller and Stamp return for "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic" (1.2) with more of the same. Every episode is also equipped with a "pop up" trivia option that is remarkably informative: prepared by Stamp, it deepens the settings and characters (giving population figures--no Western city would approach Rome's population for 1,500 years--and so on), underscores the extent of the privilege enjoyed by the Roman hoi polloi, and serves as a nice 101 in classical civ. A featurette, "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" (11 mins.), is a fairly typical making-of that serves as a rehashing of known events. The first disc (as does every subsequent platter) finishes out with a "Series Index" that provides titles and summaries of each episode.
Actor Stevenson does the yakker for "The Ram Has Touched the Wall" (1.5) on the second disc and brings to it a lot of the virile energy he does to his performance as Pullo. He even sounds like Russell Crowe! Swoon! (For what it's worth, it's fun to see the Russell Crowe-ish manliness of Pullo set against the Guy Pearce-iness of Vorenus in this re-imagining of the L.A. Confidential model as a foundational text for Rome.) Here he reveals that the series was shot on 35mm and that the powers-that-be at HBO were completely behind going whole hog on the series. Better to fail magnificently--one reason of many, I'd surmise, that HBO is kicking the rest of television's ass in terms of posterity. Stevenson's no slouch, either, in placing the show in a historical context; one comment, too, about the quality of light in Italy, locates him as a future director. A superior commentary in every regard. Disc Three sports another track by Heller and Stamp (1.7, "Pharsalus") that, unfortunately, is exactly like their first two collaborations. Director Steve Shill's commentary for hour 8, "Caesarion" (Shill having done a couple of episodes of "Deadwood", as well as having written a script or two for "Carnivàle"), is a little superior, if not plainly self-obsessed. Shill appears awfully interested in presenting his credentials, reminding us that he's British, and celebrating his "British sensibility." There's a bridge missing in my mind linking what he's going on about with anything of intrinsic value. He talks a lot about how hard it is to direct "Rome"--how "mind-blowing" it is, how this was bigger than anything else he'd ever done, and so on, before touching on stuff about what shots were bluescreen and on and on. Dreadful.
Onward: Disc 4 provides commentary for "Utica" (1.9) with director Jeremy Podeswa, who proves far more conversational and chummy. Unfortunately, he spends most of the time narrating the action and praising the actors. "Shot X Shot: Caesar's Triumph" (23 mins.) deals with one sequence (Caesar's return to Rome), essentially highlighting how hard it was. Disc Five appends "The Spoils" (3.11) with a yak-track from actor McKidd that's frankly worthless, especially in comparison to his counterpart Stevenson's: if he's not saying anything literally, he's not saying anything figuratively, either. Heller and Stamp return for the season finale, "The Kalends of February" (1.12), with more of their brand of the same. After McKidd, though, anything sounds pretty good. "Shot x Shot: Gladiator" (23 mins.) is self-explanatory. Last and perhaps least, Disc Six (the "bonus" disc"): start with "The Rise of Rome" (23 mins.), an extended "making of" featurette that's fairly mediocre in every respect; "When In Rome" (23 mins.), which could just as easily have been mushed in with the previous docu; and an extensive photo gallery. The six platters are housed (as are "Deadwood"'s) in a gatefold case that slips into a wooden box ("Deadwood"'s outer shell is cardboard and more evocative of a hardbound book than of a humidor) that looks simply fabbo on the shelf. Originally published: September 8, 2007.