And so ends Deadwood, with Al Swearengen down on the floor with his scrub brush, washing off the blood one last time, muttering about a man who wanted an explanation for it all, “Wants me to tell him something pretty.” Then the credits rolled while Bruce Springsteen sang “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.”
All season long, we’ve had an excruciating buildup to an explosion that seemed to be demanded by the pressures of the narrative. All along, though, we in the audience knew something that it would seem the creators of Deadwood did not know. They put together the third season in the expectation of a fourth; we watched the third season knowing a fourth would never happen. We expected the explosion because we knew the series was ending; there was no explosion because when the show was made, the end wasn’t yet in sight. As Alan Sepinwall noted (and he was reliably excellent about tonight’s episode), “my initial thought was ‘good season finale, an absolute joke of a series finale.’” And that’s because it was never meant to be a series finale.
So, what do we have, besides the absence of an explosive conclusion? The first season was about emerging capitalism, exemplified by Al Swearengen, who would kill anyone who got in his way, and whose outlook on life seemed to be demonstrated by his occupation: running whores at his bar, with a little gambling on the side. The town of Deadwood in that first season was so muddy it was almost a quagmire, and civilization, such as it were, barely existed. By the end of the season, the town had a sheriff, and the presence of officially sanctioned law marked the beginning of a new era.
A year ago, I claimed Season Two was about “America,” and I wasn’t wrong, but I was also simultaneously too expansive and too narrow in my vision. There were too many small things about the show to make it seem a statement about America; those things made too many references to America for the show to be anything BUT such a statement. Law and order was a relatively stable aspect of Deadwoodian life by then; the town was actually becoming more “civilized,” although it hadn’t quite made it yet. By season’s end, elections were on the horizon, there was hope that Deadwood would soon be accepted as part of the United States … and, oh yes, George Hearst had come to town to make money from the gold in them thar hills.
And so, Season Three. The shocking thing, revealed over time, was that Al Swearengen, for so long the true deity of Deadwood, was actually small potatoes. For two seasons, Al had personified the beginnings of capitalism. In Season Three, it appeared his time was done. Now it was George Hearst, with all his money and all his power, who represented the changes in America. Hearst was such a great villain that he made Al Swearengen seem like a hero, although Al was most definitely not … his final “heroic” act was to slit the throat of a whore as innocent as anyone could be in such a profession, just to satisfy Hearst while protecting a different whore for whom Al had fond feelings. Such was Al’s relative harmlessness in Season Three. He was the mom-and-pop store of corruption ... Hearst was the Wal-Mart. And we know how those battles usually work out. In the end, we felt nostalgic for the times when Al did what he pleased with his town, just as some will tell you that America was a better place when you bought your groceries at Johnny’s Market.
Again, Alan Sepinwall hit the nail on the head: “Hearst got virtually everything he wanted.” By the time he left town at the end of the episode/season/(series?), Hearst had: forced the richest woman in town, the only holdout to Hearst’s attempt to take over every gold mine in Deadwood, to sign over her property to him; rigged the first elections the town had seen so his candidates won (or rather, so his enemies lost); and essentially established control over all of Deadwood. After which he left town … how appropriate, that the greedy rich bastard triumphs over every foe, sets up his “Wal-Mart,” and then moves on, secure at least in his own mind that his absentee ownership will be sufficient.
The above attempts to get at some of the essential themes of Deadwood. But this wasn’t a textbook … it was a television series full of life, and while the underlying themes gave Deadwood its depth and took it to the highest levels, it was the excellence of the overall production that made it worth watching in the first place. The acting was universally superb … the writing astonishing in its intentional approximation of Shakespeare in the Old West … the photography, especially in hi-def, as gorgeous as anything television has ever offered.
It must be admitted, there were a few cracks beginning to show in the Deadwood armor in Season Three. For all his greatness, it is not clear from his past work that creator David Milch can maintain excellence on a particular project over time. And so there was more than one plot thread in Season Three that went nowhere, a sign perhaps of a decline to come. But we’ll never know, because there will be no Season Four.
HBO is not perfect, and they have made a terrible creative mistake in cancelling Deadwood now (even if the decision can be justified on a financial basis). This was not a series that had overstayed its welcome. There were more stories to tell. And now we’ll never see them. (Yes, I am aware that there are supposed to be a pair of movies to substitute for Season Four … I will believe that when I see those movies, not before.)
Thus, we are left where this blog post began, with Al Swearengen scrubbing blood off the floor while noting his refusal to ever paint a pretty picture of life.
Grade for season finale: A
Grade for Season Three: A+
Grade for series: A+ … this was one of the finest shows in the history of television.