Reconnoitering the Rim: Thoughts on Deadwood and Third Seasons
Reconnoitering the Rim: Thoughts on Deadwood and Third Seasons
Sean O’Sullivan explores numerous aspects of narrative and seriality in his examination of the HBO series Deadwood, created by David Milch. O’Sullivan argues that Deadwood often resists seriality’s dictates and conventions by adhering to, amongst other structures, Aristotlelian dramatic principles that are by nature at odds with seriality’s essence. This is but one example of the existence of an “internal constriction” that “pushes against some of the conventions of television serials by denying the very principle of expansiveness, of stretching out, inherently endorsed by a narrative that cannot be contained, whose sum exceeds our capacity to remember it.”
This essay was first published by The MIT Press in 2009 in the collection Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. It appears here in full as context for the related ripostes published on ebr.
Narrative, we might say, comprises three elements: the possible, the necessary, and the possible disguised as the necessary. The possible offers the originating conditions for watching or reading a story, the promise of infinite directions in which a particular character or situation might develop. The possible is particularly crucial to serial narrative, which by its structures of storytelling and necessities of production must keep the possible omnipresent, and constantly changing.
The HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006) makes the possible its thematic core and essential premises, as it begins with the settlement of a camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota at the onset of the 1876 gold rush. The possible is the promise of Deadwood to its settlers, the desired story of sudden wealth, material transformation, or more simply beginning anew, shedding the fixed conditions of an earlier existence. Such a narrative of transformation encloses not only prospectors like the veteran, rough-hewn Ellsworth or the neophyte, city slicker Brom Garret but practical businessmen like Seth Bullock and Sol Star, who see in Deadwood not so much possibility-as-magic but possibility-as-investment - a sound enactment of the narrative of what-might-be - through the establishment of a hardware store for miners, the possibility of transformation rendered through hip boots and pickaxes.
The genre of the Western, of course, uses a certain version of the possible as its template - the sense of a world stripped of certainty, where each day offers the promise of unknowable and perilous adventure, where artful improvisation is necessary for survival. Deadwood, through its creator David Milch, takes that rubric of artful improvisation beyond the one-on-one clashes between civilization and the wild, or between the known and unknown, which the Western puts front and center. The series’ main interest lies in the creation of community, or the organization of the possible, the metamorphosis, from the mud of the main thoroughfare that is the town’s chief medium, of a scattering of possibilities (of people, ambitions, and ideas) into a collection of possibilities.
The second element of narrative, the necessary, must operate in possibility’s wake. We want, as viewers and readers, to enter a world suffused with the possible, so that we can guess, or be mystified by, what a certain character might do, what direction the plot may take, or simply what the tease of another installment might contain. But if the possible, or certain aspects of the possible in the particular world of the narrative, do not assume the character of the necessary - a direction or resolution toward which the narrative must be tending - then the narrative remains caught in the sphere of potential.
One immediately recognizable avatar of the necessary, especially in serial drama, is sexual tension between two central characters. Here we have a basic illustration of the give-and-take between possible and necessary: an unconsummated attraction, both in life and art, represents the thrill of the possible, the imagined collision of the speculative and the physical, but oriented toward a particular, necessary goal. The aim of a serial drama, in respect to sexual tension, is to stay in the realm of the possible for as long as feasible, all the while recognizing that this realm of the possible must hint at the necessity of resolution.
The first season of Deadwood dutifully offers such a scenario in the figures of Bullock, the sheriff turned hardware retailer turned sheriff, and Alma Garret, widow of the neophyte prospector Brom Garret. They meet in the fifth episode, are hampered by familiar narrative impediments (he is married, and she is supposedly in mourning), and then consummate their affections in the twelfth and final episode of the year.
But the series shows itself alert to the necessary not just in terms of basic strategies (sex) for keeping viewers interested but as a force both to be acknowledged and feared. That force is represented, in part, by Yankton, the capital of the Dakota Territory that exists in Deadwood’s narrative infrastructure as the incarnation of the necessary, the camp’s eventual transition from infinite possibility to the grid of laws and conventions.
Al Swearengen, saloon keeper and presiding spirit of the camp, practices the improvisational methods of the possible while recognizing the necessity of the necessary. Late in the first season, when Swearengen and oleaginous hotelier E. B. Farnum are parceling out bribes for Yankton politicians, Farnum complains that the ad hoc government the camp’s fathers have created may have to fund projects other than the administration of graft, such as an infirmary and a garbage dump. Swearengen shows himself attuned to narrative’s accommodation of the necessary with a breezy acknowledgment: “That type shit’s inevitable” (“Mr. Wu,” 1.10).
The programmed clash between possible and necessary will continue to drive the series until it reaches a terrifying embodiment in the third season in the figure of George Hearst. His success as a miner derives precisely from his nose for the possible, as the “Boy the Earth Talks To” (2.12), who is able to address the mishmash of potential embedded in an array of claims. Hearst sees himself as a narrative both fabulously successful and utterly predictable.
The fixed mechanics of that narrative are apparent midway through the third season, when Cy Tolliver, a rival saloon keeper and whoremonger to Swearengen, arrives to take direction from Hearst in the plot to induce Alma Garret to sell the property bought by her late husband, the only property standing between Hearst and his total ownership of the camp. “My instructions,” Hearst tells Tolliver, “would have to do with bringing the inevitable about.” Now the inevitable refers not to the basic elements of solidified community - an infirmary or a garbage dump - but to one man’s absorption of a narrative requirement into himself.
Just as Deadwood thematizes the possible as a subject and danger in its first season, the series thematizes the necessary as a subject and danger in its third season. Hearst’s ingestion of the camp offers a kind of critique of a viewer’s desire for the necessary, for shape, for amalgamation and consolidation.
And here we reach that third narrative element, the possible disguised as the necessary, the element most critical to serial drama in particular. I should pause here, and distinguish between that vein of narrative known as soap opera and the vein of narrative that goes by the name of Deadwood, or The Sopranos, or Six Feet Under.
The most relevant distinction has nothing to do with perceptions of “quality” or degrees of melodrama; it has everything to do with the fact that soap opera - and here I mean those serials that run and run on daytime television, or in comic strips of the daily newspaper - operates outside the requirement of conclusion. Beyond the rhythm of the hour or the week, which imposes some kind of shape to what might otherwise be molten plot, soap opera traffics in the possible and the necessary, but with no need to synthesize those forces into destination or result. There is no such thing as the end of a “season” of All My Children, and certainly not of the overall arc of All My Children itself. All My Children may stop at some point, but no one will interpret such a cessation as anything other than an unforeseen exhaustion on the part of the makers or viewers, or both. What All My Children lacks is any sense of “the between.”
As I have argued elsewhere, in the context of Deadwood’s second season, close-ended serial drama has, since its rise in popularity at the hands, initially, of Charles Dickens, negotiated between the old and new, between the compact of earlier episodes and the promise of new ones, and we navigate such a territory conscious that we are between one thing and another, between a beginning and an end (O’Sullivan 2006, 121).
In Dickens’s case, this beginning and end frequently were expressed in terms of twenty monthly installments, beginning with The Pickwick Papers in 1836. That template operated vestigially even with his weekly serials (such as A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations), where the total number of episodes was not advertised in advance but where the assurance of imminent terminus - the knowledge that the end would arrive within a few months of the beginning - shaped the readers’ response to the narrative.
I would suggest here that another way of thinking about the “between” is as the possible disguised as the necessary. By this I mean the way in which, out of the array of possible stories and interests presented in the start-up operations of a narrative, some get selected and acquire the force of necessity without having ever really been necessary all along. This force of necessity accrues from the existence of a terminus, which asks that the possible acquire some short of shape over the course of the regular production of episodes.
I exclude from the possible disguised as the necessary such story lines as the one pursued by Bullock and Alma, since they are introduced to the narrative from the beginning as love interests, as an inevitable necessity of the drama - an inevitability underscored by the facts of the actors themselves: their physical attractiveness, degree of fame (especially in regard to other actors in the series), and prominent position in the opening credits. I mean then the specific directions and consequences - the ends that look necessary only in retrospect - that we might not automatically expect, given the field of possibilities at the start of a serial drama.
To watch such a drama is to want two things at the same time; namely, a multiplication of potential directions and consequences - to keep us guessing and active, eager for the terminus - and a deferral of those potential directions and consequences - to delay the inevitable disappointment of selection, the extinguishment of the imagined in favor of the actual.
To some degree, the possible disguised as the necessary haunts the very making of serial drama, since frequently the authors do not know how exactly the narrative will end until that end is reached, or, even if some plot resolutions have been predetermined, the specific execution of the narrative, the details that make it more than a series of arcs and arrows, invariably occurs midstream. Again, Dickens’s career offers a spectrum of models, from the wholly improvised, barely sustained narrative of The Pickwick Papers to the carefully mapped-out trajectories of his last novels, which were nevertheless always vulnerable to alterations and redirections.
Milch’s scrambling approach to Deadwood offers an extreme example within the schedule-driven world of cinema and television of the last-minute style; as Sean Bridgers, who played Swearengen’s lackey Johnny Burns, says, “Every actor who works with David struggles with the fact that you have to have faith in the way he works, that you might not get your lines until you are about to shoot the scene … When it feels like there’s a gap in the story, we know that David will put something in there” (Milch 2006, 160).
Milch’s strategy emphasizes dwelling in the realm of the possible for as long as he can, fending off the necessity of finished dialogue, images, and plot threads - an approach that illustrates just how contingent its narrative circumstances are - so that what in hindsight appears to be the fixed trajectory of a character (what she or he did, or said, or chose on-screen in front of the viewer) retains the aspect of being one possibility among many. The disguise of the necessary looks deliberately thin in cases like these.
As always with Deadwood, things that are true of its narrative infrastructure are also true of its subjects and events. Milch provides an illustration of this in discussing the ritual of canned peaches, which Swearengen offers, to the mystification of his fellows, at the camp’s first semiofficial meeting of elders (“Plague,” 1.6) and then at subsequent gatherings:
Now it happens that Swearengen remembers that food was served at a meeting he once saw. He has some canned peaches, and so he puts the peaches out on the table. And in the electrical force field created within that meeting, the presence of the peaches has a significance as a gesture. The symbol becomes separate from the specific moment that generated it. So from then on, you don’t fuck with the peaches … Watching these accidental accretions of meaning, we realize how provisional order is, how mystical and superstitious it is. (Milch 2006, 137)
Milch’s sense of the “electrical force field” - that is, the combination of aleatory and planned elements that shape all of experience - and the provisional nature of order argues for a kind of resistance to narrative itself, or at least a resistance to an interpretation of narrative where the inevitable effaces the possible.The most famous instance of a refusal to disguise the possible as the necessary would be the instantly notorious conclusion of The Sopranos, which also pointed to the disjunction between, in Milch’s terms, symbols and the specific moments that generate them.
The popular convention, used often to explain narrative circumstances of real life, that “everything happens for a reason,” would seem to represent the exact opposite of Milch’s attitude toward narrative, where everything happens for no single reason at all, or for a collision of reasons that is beyond any being’s control. Hence character George Hearst’s role as an anti-Milch, as an author of events who might indeed agree that everything happens for a reason - the reason, in this case, being Hearst, the god of the totalizing narrative system of capital.Authorship and plotting are frequently recurring phrases in season three, especially in regard to Hearst.
For the remainder of this argument, I would like to examine the intersections of the possible, the necessary, and the possible disguised as the necessary in light of the third season of Deadwood - but also in light of third seasons more generally. The topic of this collection is vast narratives, and I would suggest that the third season of a television serial marks the point when that narrative becomes vast, when it threatens to sprawl out beyond what we might have conceived of as the recognized and perhaps necessary limits of that narrative.
In conceptual terms, we can see the scheme of this evolution. The first season of a serial creates its universe, populates it with possibilities, and frequently reaches a crescendo of necessary storytelling termini, while keeping other storytelling possibilities open. The second season inevitably operates as a sequel, speaking in direct dialogue with the first season - as either an explicit continuation, explicit reversal, or some combination thereof. This dialectic tension between the old and the new, that which makes a serial world familiar to us, and those foreign elements that are introduced into that serial world, is explicitly explored in Deadwood’s second season (O’Sullivan 2006, 119). However fraught that dialectic might become, its very presence suggests a kind of continuity, an explicit connection that marries the first two seasons.
We might look to two of Deadwood’s sister narratives, under the HBO umbrella, for evidence of such connection. The Sopranos offered linkage within the narrative frame, as the story of Tony Soprano’s betrayal by his best friend, Pussy Bonpensiero, bridges the gap, moving from open-ended question at the end of season one to the final narrative terminus of season two. Six Feet Under offered linkage within the frame of viewership, as HBO announced, before the first episode aired in June 2001, that the network had decided to order a second season, instantly providing for the audience a narrative space that would extend through twenty-six, instead of only thirteen, episodes.
When faced with two seasons, we might feel that we can still contain the shape of the series, to enclose it either as a collective experience extending over little more than a year of our lives, or as a tennis match between one narrative cluster and another.
Three, though, is a crowd. Since television serials that have survived as long as three seasons threaten to survive considerably longer - in part due to economic reasons involving syndication and built-in audiences for DVD sales - viewers may realize just how deep their commitment may have to be, not only to keep the series’ history in their heads, but to prepare for a narrative future of uncertain length. We have moved past sequel and into franchise, a franchise predicated not on a single biennial update - as may be typical for a series of novels or feature films - but on a weekly schedule, accumulating gradually to many more hours than can easily be squeezed simultaneously within a continuous spectatorial perspective.
While it would be impossible to pinpoint exactly when we lose containment, either in terms of an individual series or in terms of individual viewers of individual series, third seasons would seem likely candidates for such an event. This potential trauma of narrative consumption may explain the predictable declarations, around this time in the life cycle of a series, that a show has jumped the shark, loosely defined as the point where it has stopped being itself - stopped behaving as the essential, the true, and the faithful version of the show that each viewer contains in his or her mind - or as the point where it starts to parody itself by exaggerating its eccentricities, or repeating behavioral or narrative tendencies beyond some acceptable limit.
While it is difficult to calculate the precise validity of such laments, it is less difficult to posit that there is some correspondence between third seasons and the laments’ volume and violence.These laments are followed, occasionally, with later recantations when the series succeeds in reprogramming its audience’s expectations, or when what was seen as tediously iterative or annoyingly inappropriate is understood and valorized. Examples of this reversal abound. Virginia Heffernan’s initial negative verdict on Six Feet Under - “the ties that tangled up the Fishers and the Chenowiths, internally and then with each other, during the first two seasons have simply come undone” (2003a) - was followed, exactly ten months later, by her declaration that the third season proved the show to be the best program on television (2003b). More recently, see the excoriation of Lost, which was attacked furiously in its third season until its finale, when it was perceived to have gloriously redeemed itself (see the sine curve of reaction on the Television Without Pity discussion boards.) The fact that such redemption often depends, narratively, on much of the material that was earlier vilified appears to be a predictable feature of this ritual. Partly, we can attribute this phenomenon to the weight of nostalgia, which kicks in once we are distanced enough in time and have fetishized enough memories to provide a powerful counterweight to the latest generation of material. On a broader scale, this postlapsarian backlash once again finds a parallel in Dickens, since Pickwick - a picaresque anomaly in a career defined by fictions of grand architecture - was always his most beloved novel, and since the public readings he gave at the end of his life, in deference to the assumed inclinations of his audience, were never drawn from his most recent work (Collins 1975, lxvi).“In confining his Readings to the earlier novels… Dickens was - whether to please them, or himself, or both - giving his public what he rightly guessed they would most want” (Collins 1975).
The violation of norms in the third season may not simply be a matter of spectatorial perception but rather a manifest rupture within the narrative, such as the death of Livia in The Sopranos or the absence, for the first four episodes, of Brenda in Six Feet Under.Livia’s death on The Sopranos was written in due to the unexpected death of actress Nancy Marchand in 2000. Similarly, actress Rachel Griffith’s real-life pregnancy led to the character of Brenda being written out of the first four episodes of Six Feet Under’s third season. Or the third season may offer a violation-in-waiting, like the famous missing Russian from the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos, whose complete disappearance from the narrative became emblematic, many seasons later, of the series’ persistent rejection of the possible disguised as the necessary.
The existence of a third season means that the first season - the beloved object - is now officially outnumbered, and will get increasingly outnumbered as the seasons increase; so the beloved object must either be rescued from the increasing sprawl (by mourning the first season’s diminishment), or the sprawl must be allowed to recontextualize the meanings - the possibilities and necessities - of the first season.
The peculiar situation of Deadwood is that its third season does not quite fit the model adumbrated above in that this season represents not simply the transformation from sequel to franchise but also the cessation of the series; in a reversal of the immediate-renewal scenario of Six Feet Under, Deadwood’s cancellation was announced before the third season began.The reasons for this cancellation remain somewhat murky; for a murky explanation of these murky reasons, see Milch (2006, 217). With the significant exception of Deadwood, HBO’s glamour serials - those that garnered critical acclaim, and that the network made synonymous with its brand name - have always had their final season announced prospectively, so that the structure of valediction could be built into both the making and reception of that narrative. These “glamour serials” would include The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, The Wire, and (perhaps less prominently) Oz - all of which aired for at least five seasons. So instead of a sense of expansion stretching to a distant point on the horizon, the third season arrived suffused with the spirit of elegy. And yet everyone associated with the show during the making of that third season assumed that the show was closer to the middle of its run than to its end.
Milch, in Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, a book written during but released subsequent to the third season, explains that Tolliver “will wind up becoming, over the course of five seasons, the great philanthropist and feminist of Deadwood” (2006, 91), and that “the true test for Trixie is gonna come when Star proposes to her” (111) - a proposal still in the offing at the end of the last season. The show’s sudden death complicates our response to its narrative, thwarting our impulse to see the possible disguised as the necessary, to read this season as the inevitable, as an outcome, even as, faced with cessation, we cannot resist such an impulse.
The third season, then, is both a between point and an end point, an oxymoron italicized by the season’s reluctance to conclude. Both the first and second seasons of Deadwood finished with some version of comic conclusion. In the first case, this conclusion arrives not simply through the long-delayed sexual congress of Alma and Bullock but a kind of marriage between Bullock and Swearengen - who reach a long-delayed understanding of sorts, a fusing of interests - and the spectacle of grumpy Doc Cochran and Jewel “the gimp” dancing merrily in Swearengen’s Gem Saloon. In the second case, we have a literal matrimony, the wedding of convenience between Alma and Ellsworth, designed to legitimize her pregnancy - a scene that for all its fictions, gives us another moment of festival, of the camp asserting its existence through rituals of courtship and camaraderie, and once more the spectacle of Cochran and Jewel dancing awkwardly but happily.
The iteration of the Cochran-Jewel pairing - two characters who normally have little business with one another - serves to bring together not only scattered inhabitants of the community but also the first two seasons, to affirm a kind of narrative unity. In both cases, Swearengen looks benevolently on from a balcony, containing, we might say, the narrative below him.
The third season, by stark contrast, concludes with Swearengen scrubbing blood off the floor of his office, alone, talking to himself, between a coffin and a safe. This is, at the very least, a violation of the norm established by Deadwood in its first two seasons - coming-together replaced by isolation - and most certainly a violation of any kind of protocol of valediction. This is a rejection of containment, by any standards. It’s evidence of a third season looking for trouble rather than for solace.
To assist our investigation of the looking for trouble that we might say describes the ending and the business of the third season, we might look back to the early stages of the first season, and one of Deadwood’s initial moments of trouble searching - certainly, the first moment of trouble searching involving a character who might resemble a member of the audience of Deadwood. That character is Brom Garret, the arrogant, clueless New Yorker who has come to Deadwood with his wife for what she calls “an adventure,” a brush with the forbidden and the strange - much as spectators in the twenty-first century, wholly unfamiliar with the realities of Deadwood and largely familiar with the urban, cultured, meekly thrill-seeking milieu of Brom, watch Deadwood for a brush with the forbidden and the strange.Such characters - the bourgeois sophisticates who get jazzed by watching others kill and cuss - are also lampooned mercilessly in The Sopranos, most prominently in the second-season episode “Bust Out.”
Brom realizes that he has been duped into buying a claim that all the colluding parties deem to be worthless, at the cost of $20,000. He confronts Swearengen, the chief colluder, and threatens to bring the Pinkertons to town unless restitution is made. Swearengen asks Dan Dority - his henchman, who has been assisting Brom in his efforts - if Brom has asked Dan to “reconnoiter the rims” of the claim. Brom, like all newcomers to Deadwood the camp, and like all newcomers to Deadwood the narrative, is confronted with a term or a construction of language that he doesn’t understand but that seems readily understood by the natives, or at least by Swearengen.
Garret: What are you talking about, specifically?
Swearengen: The gold you found washed down from somewhere - that’s the law of gravity. And your claim runs rim to rim the width of the fucking gulch. So the original deposit, the gold you found, washed down from is likely, on your claim, above, near one of the rims.
Garret: And that’s what you feel I should reconnoiter?
Swearengen: First place the Pinkertons would look. Unless I’m fucking wrong. (“Reconnoitering the Rim,” 1.3)
“Reconnoitering the rim,” a phrase that also provides the title of the episode, is an archetypal Deadwood neologism, a collection of words that may or may not mean something, yet that when assembled, create an electric force field, an accretion of meaning, that gives it the status of epiphany.
Brom returns to Alma and tells her of his plan to reconnoiter the rim of the gulch with Dority, since this is the kind of “due diligence” (another near-meaningless phrase, from another field of language making) that his father would require. When Brom and Dority arrive at the rim at night, Dority throws Brom to his death, following Swearengen’s instructions - only to discover that the site of Brom’s landing also proves the immense value of the claim.
I take this incident as a fable illustrating the perils of mapping this territory as a narrative space, specifically the perils of sketching that space that runs rim to rim the width of the gulch; it is a warning against, while also an invitation toward, the viewer’s quest to contain the narrative. That this warning/invitation should be issued near the beginning of the series does not make us any more adept at containment or reconnoitering the rims as we go along - so tricky are Deadwood’s labyrinths of diction and design.
The additional complication of the third season is that Swearengen, for the first time, found a gulch that he is unable to reconnoiter successfully - the gulch that goes by the name of George Hearst. Not only does Hearst, with the help of his own henchman, chop off Swearengen’s middle finger early in the season, but Hearst’s maneuvers continue to baffle the one character who, until this point in the series, has successfully reconnoitered all that came before him. If the third season does not exactly turn Swearengen into Brom Garret, it nonetheless makes him similarly endangered by the rims of his environment - the rims as those places where one thing abuts another and therefore becomes defined, becomes knowable.
The connection between the site of Brom’s demise and the disorientations of the third season go beyond the allegory I have been drawing. As I have argued elsewhere, each of the first two seasons are governed by a controlling figure who controls as much by absence as by presence. In the first season that figure is Wild Bill Hickok, whose death early on signals a crisis for the itinerant, pioneer flavor of the camp. In the second season that figure is Hearst, who while represented only by his deputy Francis Wolcott until the final episode, is the force behind the corporate interests and territorial acquisition that drive Deadwood’s transition from tribe to system (O’Sullivan 2006, 127). In the third season that figure is another absent presence: the very gulch that doomed Brom and made his wife rich.
The only obstacle to Hearst’s mastery of the camp, his containment of it, is the property that Alma owns but refuses to sell, at least on Hearst’s terms, until the end of the season. Hearst champions, early in the season, “the virtue of consolidating purposes” to Swearengen, but his antagonist sees it otherwise: “purposes butt up against each other, and the strong call ‘consolidating’ bending the weak to their will” (“I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For,” 3.2).
Is Hearst’s consolidation so different from Swearengen’s containment? Those closing tableaux of seasons one and two, when Swearengen seemed to contain the camp, provide an answer here: not only are those images of containment plainly temporary, they represent the illusion of the organic, of a feral world ruled by a creature (Swearengen) who nonetheless belongs to that world. Jack Langrishe, the theatrical impresario and old friend of Swearengen’s who descends on Deadwood with his troupe in the third season, calls Hearst a “murderous engine,” a vision of Hearst as machine that dovetails with Swearengen’s awareness, in the same episode, that he is limited by his technological primitivism: “I should have fuckin’ learned to use a gun, but I’m too fuckin’ entrenched in my ways” (“Tell Him Something Pretty,” 3.12).
Langrishe and his company connect to another way in which the third season resists containment, by either echoing the known ground of the series or cloaking the possible as the necessary. The second season began with the arrival of a coach in camp - a coach whose inhabitants would all soon be dead or traumatized by death. Most of the inhabitants were prostitutes headed to Joanie Stubbs’ new bordello, the Chez Amis, where Wolcott eventually murders three of them. Early in the third season, another coach full of the possible arrives, this time bearing Langrishe and two actresses in his employ; their form of entertainment is only slightly more proper than that of Stubb’s prostitutes, and they too will end up at the Chez Amis. Langrishe’s remakes the brothel (lately used as a schoolhouse) into a theater, bringing high-minded drama to a low spot of infamy.
In some ways, Langrishe is another version of Brom - the sophisticated outsider who fits in awkwardly in the rough-and-tumble of Deadwood, though certainly a more adaptable one. We see the scattered members of the troupe rejoining in Deadwood - two actors arrive by a later conveyance - arranging a new schoolhouse to serve the children, attracting public interest through an amateur night … and then never putting on a play. In a season far more replete with loose ends than its predecessors, the entire subplot of these newcomers sits around, waiting to “develop,” in some conventional sense, a plot. The actors exist almost exclusively in the realm of the possible, untethered from the necessary.
This is largely true of the two most prominent characters on the coach that immediately precedes the Langrishe group’s arrival: Aunt Lou Marchbanks, Hearst’s cook, and Mr. Wu, the leader of the camp’s Chinese population, both from San Francisco. Aunt Lou, we will learn, merely plays the submissive mammy role for her employer; in her free time, she smokes cigars while playing rowdy mah-jongg and has a scheming son, Odell, who soon arrives with a scam for Hearst. But her role diminishes greatly over the final episodes, once Odell has died offstage, on his way out of town. Again, she remains a cluster of possibilities more than a compelling necessity.
The same, in even sharper relief, is true for Wu, whose main narrative function in the season is to gather 150 Chinese fighters, in alliance with Swearengen, to confront Hearst and his Pinkertons. Those would-be troops never come into play, as a result of Swearengen’s hesitancy and Hearst’s superior numbers. Rather than serving as a literal vehicle of plot or the possible disguised as the necessary, as the coach did in season two, here the coach serves as a vehicle for the possible tout court. Milch counterbalances in the third season the hypertrophy of necessity, of bending things to one’s will in the figure of Hearst, with the hypertrophy of the unnecessary, of characters and possibilities that refuse to be reconnoitered, at least not by the industrial methods represented by Hearst’s consolidating force.
We do get one thespian moment in the third season, but it is a private performance. One of the two late-arriving actors in the troupe is on the verge of death, but not through the plot-infested means that dominate the second season; rather, he suffers from an illness that resembles tuberculosis, or even more proximately, old age - an unheard-of condition in Deadwood. His name is Chesterton, and Langrishe arranges for him to be brought to the renovated bordello in anticipation of the theater’s opening and the actor’s demise.
As they sit in the darkness, looking in the direction of the stage, they exchange words about the muses of comedy and tragedy, and the configurations of the rake. Langrishe, sensing this to be his last opportunity, then asks: “Dost thou know Dover?” He and Chesterton haltingly exchange dialogue from the play that Langrishe has quoted, until Chesterton, barely sentient, asks “Line?” of an imagined prompter and dies. Langrishe then calls the other members of the company, whom we have not seen, in from the darkness to see to their colleague’s remains.
This is a moving scene, though radically free of context, since we really know nothing about Chesterton, and little more about the amiable but buffoonish Langrishe; it seems to belong to another narrative, another mood. But the source of the final exchange between Langrishe and Chesterton opens up an array of issues, one that shows Deadwood’s third season to be embedded with seeds of ideas that have been deliberately kept undernourished. “Dost thou know Dover” cites the fourth act of King Lear, and specifically the blind Gloucester’s question to a man who calls himself Poor Tom, who is in fact Gloucester’s disinherited son. Gloucester asks to be taken to the cliffs of Dover, so that he may end his misery with a suicidal fall. Edgar pretends to lead him to the place. After the addled Gloucester slumps to the ground in the belief that he is plummeting to his death, Edgar, adopting another guise, tells Gloucester that he indeed fell from a cliff, and that the man leading him appeared to be a fiend. Gloucester, amazed to have suffered no injuries in his descent, agrees to take this miracle as a sign that the gods have deliberately spared his life.
The invocation of King Lear fits the pattern of reversal that infects the third season of Deadwood. These two narratives are in many ways stories moving in opposite but contiguous directions. If Deadwood is a story of creating community, laws, and social relations out of nothing, then Lear is a story of destroying community, laws, and social relations, ending in nothing, the play’s signature word. If Deadwood’s third season is about consolidation, the systematic alignment of many properties into a single property, and the fiefdom of Hearst, Lear is about dissolution, the disastrous carving up of the single kingdom of Britain into several parts.
There is a gruesome act of eye gouging, midway through the third season, which echoes the blinding of Gloucester. In this case the victim is Captain Turner, Hearst’s deputy, in muddy hand-to-hand combat with Dority, a brutal struggle that, as Milch explicitly writes, recalls Lear’s characterization of man as a “poor, bare, forked animal” (Milch 2006, 169) - a spectacle of mere biology, in contradistinction with the pathos and familial crisis resultant from Gloucester’s injury, and the scene with Edgar that Langrishe and Chesterton summon. And while the positions and strengths of the town are hardening, each warring faction more entrenched in its position, there is a touching fragility to the way in which Langrishe and Chesterton switch roles imperceptibly during their scene, with Langrishe swapping Gloucester for Edgar, and Chesterton swapping Edgar for Gloucester - again, a suppleness that bespeaks a desire to linger in the possible, and avoid the necessary.
Most telling, however, are the words themselves, specifically Gloucesterfs words of instruction, as recited by Langrishe: “There is a cliff whose high unbending head / Looks fearfully on the confined deep; / Bring me but to the brim of it, / And … from that place / I shall no leading need.” Then, picking up Edgar’s role, at the pretended arrival at the cliff, Langrishe marvels, “How fearful / And dizzy it is to cast one’s eyes so low,” and finally says, “You are now within a foot.” It is at this point that Chesterton asks for a line, and perishes.
We have here a rendering, by completely different participants, in a completely different space, through recitation and imagination, of the death of Brom. Once again a perilous cliff that instills fear, once again an act of deception, and most important a fatal rim, or in this case a brim. If Langrishe is a revisitation of Brom - and Langrishe is given a tour of the camp, a reconnoiter of its rim, on his arrival, which is a favor bestowed on no other character on the show - then he is manifestly a reversal of Brom, a person who seeks the immediate gratification of plot, of the necessary (the Pinkertons, an extraordinary gold strike) at its most predictable, turned into a person who is all possibility and no action, a theory and not an enactment of narrative.
This theatrical interlude serves to illuminate how curious and full of accidental accretions of meaning is the world of a serial drama like Deadwood, especially in middle age. The fragment from King Lear points to an immediately recognizable foundation of facts - facts that we call words - to which actors on the stage can return again and again. Live theater, as a medium, could not be more different from television drama: the compression of time, the stress on imagination over imitation, the performance’s control over the space and context of reception, and the knowledge (on the audience’s part) that what is begun will be finished.
Milch, by infusing his narrative with a pinch of this alien narrative mode, seems to be resisting seriality’s dictates and conventions. He offers another form of resistance, if we can call it that, in his use of narrative time. As he notes in the afterword to his book, each of Deadwood’s episodes “took an Aristotelian approach to dramatic structure - more-or-less, each story took place in twenty-four hours” (Milch 2006, 217). That internal constriction already pushes against some of the conventions of television serials by denying the very principle of expansiveness, of stretching out, inherently endorsed by a narrative that cannot be contained, whose sum exceeds our capacity to remember it. Milch pushes the constriction further in the third season, as seven episodes - the fifth through the eleventh - appear to unfold on consecutive days. This pattern is not unusual for Deadwood, or Milch more generally.For further evidence of this tendency, see the names of the first four episodes of Milch’s successor series to Deadwood, John from Cincinnati: “His Visit: Day One,” “His Visit: Day Two,” “His Visit: Day Two, Continued,” and “His Visit: Day Three.” But the intensity of this onrush of story is particularly acute here, as he works to eliminate the gaps, the spaces between emphasized by Dickens, that define serial narrative.
At times, it seems that he is trying to film a twelve-hour play, to make the genre continuous, rather than exploit the gaps and shifts, as did Alan Ball with Six Feet Under and David Chase with The Sopranos. The effect, in the last half of the last season of Deadwood, is of a narrative that cannot quite be contained by its rims and brims, that sloshes over from one hour to the next, and that threatens to slosh on past the final episode.
As I have argued earlier, that last bit of sloshing offers a new maneuver, refusing to pause for a scene of reunion, eager to get to the next season, or perhaps to dismiss seasons altogether and simply keep rushing.
The blood that Swearengen is cleaning, in that final shot, is the blood of Jen, a prostitute he has killed to sate Hearst’s requirement for revenge. In the ultimate stages of the season, Hearst arranges to kill Ellsworth, whom he rightly sees as the last impediment to Alma’s cession of her property, of the gulch with the perilous rims. This murder outrages Trixie, Swearengen’s lead prostitute and Star’s love interest, who shoots Hearst in turn, succeeding only in wounding his shoulder. As a last gesture of submission, Hearst requires that Trixie forfeit her life for her attempt on his - although Trixie’s stratagem, in baring her breasts and genitals to Hearst as she shot, succeeds in making him uncertain as to her facial appearance.
The unwitting Jen, who looks enough like Trixie to fool Hearst, is dispatched instead, to the consternation of Burns, who is made distraught by the unfairness of it all. This unexpected switched-at-death prestidigitation differs strikingly from the culminating and necessary deaths of season one (Reverend Smith, whose fatal disease had been a prominent story for most of the season) and season two (Wolcott, whose dark adventures always seemed headed for a dark end).
The improvised solution closes off the third season in yet another struggle against the necessary, or what might look like grand design. Jen is a character, unlike Smith or Wolcott, who is barely known to us, and who has not reached any kind of discernible narrative destination as her predecessors did. Johnny is particularly saddened by the fact that she is just learning to read. In the world of narrative, she is possibility itself.
Deadwood, like Edgar with Gloucester, goes out of its way to stage a kind of suicide at the end of its third season, killing off a narrative that has not even begun. It is a crime entirely appropriate to a season more interested in pursuing failed stories than successful ones, in pushing past the rims of its own claim.
Collins, Phillip (ed.) (1975). Charles Dickens: The Public Readings. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Heffernan, Virginia (2003a). “The Living End of Six Feet Under.” Slate, February 28.
Heffernan, Virginia (2003b). “Television: The Highs.” New York Times, December 28, sec. 2, 26.
Milch, David (2006). Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills. New York: Melcher Media.
O’Sullivan, Sean (2006). “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction.” In Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, edited by David Lavery. New York: I. B. Tauris.
Shakespeare, William (1623). King Lear. Complete Works of William Shakespeare Online.
Deadwood (2004-2006). Creator David Milch. HBO.
The Sopranos (1999-2007). Creator David Chase. HBO.
Six Feet Under (2001-2005). Creator Allan Ball. HBO.
28.1 Brom and Alma Garrett (Timothy Omundson and Molly Parker) in “Reconnoitering the Rim.”
28.2 George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) meet for the last time in the final episode of Deadwood’s third season (“Tell Him Something Pretty” ).