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Deadwood: Intersections of performance and theme on TV’s greatest Western

Deadwood: Intersections of performance and theme on TV’s greatest Western


Over the last decade and a half, much has been made in critical circles about the “coming of age” of dramatic television programming. Since The Sopranos began to become a cultural touchstone, HBO has been a central part of that discussion, with some broadly suggesting that its most beloved dramas – particularly The Sopranos (1999-07), The Wire (2002-08), and Deadwood (2004-06) – began to outstrip the greatness of contemporary American film by bringing cinematic flair to projects with a necessarily much larger scope. While that contention is subjective, it does begin to suggest what separates these programs (as well as other revered non-pay-cable series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, WB/UPN 1997-03) from many of their contemporaries: with each series, to varying degrees, the influence of the series’ respective showrunners/creators is plainly evident. Buffy is consistently informed by Joss Whedon’s sense of pop-culture awareness and devotion to clear emotional stakes, even in the later seasons when his involvement is less direct. The Wire is fuelled throughout by David Simon’s journalistic leanings and intimate knowledge of the Baltimore setting. The Sopranos‘ sojourns into surreal, tangential, and counter-intuitive dramatic territory can be seen as an extension of David Chase’s difficult, sometimes combative relationship with the usually-glorifying nature of mafia drama. Deadwood, however, is a decidedly more unwieldy beast, especially in terms of measuring its status as an auteur piece. Through a close analysis of the show’s acting dimension, however, we can glean certain truths about the way the show’s eclectic approach to casting and performance styles both subvert viewer expectations of the Western genre and reflect the philosophical concerns meant to be reflected in the program.

Not much has been written on the specifics of television performance; even less so, in fact, than to those in film. In her overview of the importance of studying film acting, as well as the rubrics with which we can begin to do so, Pamela Robertson Wojcik writes of one possibility for assessment, that of authorship, that is, assigning responsibility for the particulars of a given performance. “To what degree does a star function as author? […] To what degree do ensembles…function as authors?” In the case of Deadwood, these are among the most important questions, as the show is both an ensemble piece and very clearly the work of a televisual auteur as well.

Before the specific aspects of performance on Deadwood can even be parsed, the notion of authorship and control on the show needs some clarification. Directorial or authorial intent are already difficult things to quantify in the realm of film, but in television, where the extended format tends to add variables (the presence of a multiplicity of credited directors and writers, the possibility of reduced or expanded episode orders, network responsiveness to audience feedback and fluctuating ratings, etc.), it tends to be even trickier. In the case of Deadwood, it’s a little simpler than most, as show creator David Milch not only had an unusually high level of creative control over the series, he was also very vocal about the philosophical biases he intended to inject into the material. A New Yorker set visit and interview piece from 2005, around the time of Deadwood‘s second season premiere, notes that he originally pitched the series as being set in ancient Rome; the Wild West setting only came about due to HBO already having the series Rome on its future docket. His primary interest, the one that transcended setting, was in “how people improvised the structures of a society when there was no law to guide them,” and “[h]ow the law developed out of the social impulse to minimize the collateral damage of the taking of revenge.” While Deadwood is primarily thought of as a Western, the fact that its setting was ultimately thought of by Milch as being secondary to the show’s base concept is key to understanding the way Deadwood works: it’s intended as a detailed study of a social experiment dressed as a traditional Western. Comparing Deadwood to past series, Steven Peacock astutely sums up the shortcomings of past efforts, in both long and short form, to dramatize Wild West settings:

A survey of previous TV Westerns…show little evidence…of a richness of physical and verbal expression, a sensitive handling of locale, or complex characterization. […] Series such as Gunsmoke (CBS, 1955-75) and Rawhide (CBS, 1959-66) are bound by a tight economy of structure, language and movement that is at times taut, at others restricted and restrictive. Characters…form an economy of gestures and words that is firm and stark, each act or oration being singularly purposeful. …[T]hese series channel their efforts into the constraints of a single line of action. […] There is little expansiveness to these tales of Western expansion.

Milch not only created the show and wrote the pilot (as is standard operating procedure for most television shows), he also had a significant role in the writing of every single one of the show’s 36 episodes. While he only gets an explicit writing or co-writing credit on five episodes, it’s repeatedly corroborated (including in the New Yorker piece, and in the DVD commentaries with the cast, producers, and Milch himself) that Milch kept a close watch over episode and season story and character arcs, as well as wrote and rewrote individual scenes obsessively, with the actors often not receiving definitive pages until the day of the shoot.

Commentary tracks are often an inefficient source of useful insights, doubly so when the commentators are actors, who in many cases aren’t necessarily privy to the minutiae of a particular production. Through listening to several of the actors’ tracks on the Deadwood DVDs, however, we can glean some important particulars about Milch’s approach to guiding actors through the show’s material – or leaving them be. While Milch’s penchant for fine-tuning (or even concocting wholesale) dialogue at the last minute is often mentioned, what’s also clear from the commentaries is that the actors had a fairly wide berth in shaping their own performances and their conceptions of their characters. Brad Dourif, for instance, who plays the nobly cantankerous Doc Cochran, mentions that he altered the natural sound of his voice in a manner that he felt reflected the character’s implied tumultuous Civil War background. As Cochran, Dourif speaks in a hoarse, persistently agitated huff that departs significantly from his more leisurely speaking voice. As Calamity Jane, Robin Weigert modelled her physical stance – in particular, her widened gait – on the rodeo cowboys who were brought to the set to act as background players. Some of the actors show evidence of having done extensive research on the period (or, in the case of the actors essaying real historical figures, their counterparts), while others adopted a more intuitive approach. Dourif mentions key historical factors that influenced his performance throughout one of his commentaries, and John Hawkes (Sol Star) researched Judaism on the frontier and pioneer Jews in order to get inside his character. Timothy Olyphant, on the other hand, who essays real-life lawman Seth Bullock, claims both in commentaries and at the Paley Center talk that he did absolutely no research, simply intuiting performance choices based on what Milch wrote.

These seemingly contradictory notions of how to grapple with a historical setting and characters actually serves to reinforce Milch’s themes, particularly through toying with traditional notions of body language and semioticization. Olyphant, as Bullock, is openly the protagonist of the Deadwood pilot, in which he and Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) gun down a man responsible for the killing of a Polish family. Olyphant plays Bullock as a man in a state of near-constant righteous anguish, with his neck in a permanent half-cock so as to propel his wide, irritable gaze forward, teeth usually gritted. Though he leaves his sheriff’s badge in Montana, he still carries himself like an Eastwood-style equalizer, with a permanent strut and a close-to-the-hip quick draw. Yet Bullock is more often than not an obstacle for the camp’s progress, not a vehicle for it; his penchant for violent acts of retribution and his rash handling of affairs endanger the lives and livelihoods of the camp’s residents on more than one occasion. Unburdened by notions of clinging to historicity, Olyphant plays Bullock as a creature of sometimes-noble, generally-flawed instincts. Bullock’s chief rival (and later tenuous ally) is saloon operator Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), who gradually becomes the closest thing Deadwood has to a central figure. Compared to the constantly striding Bullock, Swearengen is more often than not filmed as either seated in his office, partially obscured behind the bar of his saloon, or seen perched on his balcony overlooking the camp. As written by Milch and his staff, Swearengen is also a man capable of great violence, but he’s also prone to soliloquy, whether they’re delivered to whores who work in his establishment or, in the second season, to the severed head of a Sioux Indian. He tends to be limited in his movement, preferring words over action, until the latter becomes necessary. His office chair functions as the closest thing to a king’s throne in the lawless camp. Yet while their physical juxtaposition suggests a traditional good-evil binary – Bullock is tall, handsome, and mobile, where Swearengen is slightly paunchy, middle-aged, and generally immobile – it’s Swearengen who most frequently protects the camp’s interests.

Through acts of transformation and obfuscation, Milch uses members of the ensemble to reflect the camp’s slowly emerging sense of humanity and community, as well as the challenges to it. Early in the second season, Swearengen is diagnosed by Cochran as having kidney stones, and the resulting deterioration of his health (as well as the brutal medical procedures of the time); McShane’s performance is best described as “helpless” – with the aid of makeup, his face grows swollen to nearly Joseph Merrick levels, he can barely speak, and Cochran’s procedures are clearly both invasive and painful. As the New Yorker piece has it, Milch directed Dourif to view the event as being akin to helping a woman through labour, while reminding Dourif of his character’s past as someone who’s witnessed countless horrors. A pregnant woman is possibly the least likely image to project onto a character we’ve seen slaughter several men and order the deaths of countless others, but through the simple intervention of period illness, the viewer is able to see multitudes through just one character.

Another act of transformation is more literal. Milch twice casts actor Garrett Dillahunt, in two seemingly very different but similarly malevolent roles. He’s first seen as Jack McCall, a degenerate, literally slack-jawed gambler who shoots Wild Bill in the back of the head. As a personification of evil, McCall is merely a pest or parasite – a bottom-feeder only able to gain the upper hand through cheating or dumb luck. Dillahunt affects an open-mouthed drawl and alternates between appearing cocky and terrified here. In the following season, Dillahunt reappears as Francis Wolcott, a geologist (and advance man for George Hearst) who happens to have a penchant for murdering prostitutes. As Wolcott, Dillahunt wears a fuller beard, holds his head higher, boasts clearer diction, and projects the air of a man protected by special interests. The act of casting the same performer suggests the evolution of opposition to the camp: incidental, even random at first, but ultimately taking much more insidious forms. (More specifically, Wolcott’s ties to Hearst make for an implicit criticism of unfettered capitalism, an argument made more explicit in the show’s third season with the arrival of Hearst himself, played by former Major Dad Gerald McRaney – speaking of transformations.)

A less sinister act of transformation, and a much subtler one, is enacted by Calamity Jane, as played by Robin Weigert. At the outset of the series, Jane is presented as an incorrigible lush with a penchant for outsized profanity and wanton self-abuse. Weigert slurs and hollers nearly every sentence, embracing the character’s vulgarity, which she plays as both gleeful and self-nullifying. Whenever the character has softer notes, though – as in her scenes with Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), caring for the town’s schoolchildren, or mourning Wild Bill – she adopts a wide smile, and softens her voice (without sacrificing the character’s particular sense of diction).

These performance choices all work as a bridge between the actors’ creative visions for their characters and the teleplays laid out by Milch and his writing team. But they’re also, collectively, a strong case for the show’s core theme of the many and wildly divergent coming together as one to establish a contiguous entity, be it a town , a nation, or even an entire species. Here, well-researched performers work side-by-side with performers who prefer to work by the seat of their pants, historically existent figures brush shoulders with composites and fabrications, and a wide variety of brogues, tonalities, and body types come together to represent the evolution of an idea. That idea may have been proffered by Milch, but it’s his show’s ensemble that enables that idea to come to the fore through the specifics of their performances.


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