Friday, October 12, 2007

Deadwood and its Secret Fourth Season

I finished watching Deadwood yesterday, a show I constantly enjoyed, but didn’t love in the way that a lot of others did. The third season in particular was brilliant, with the looming menace of Hearst throwing the entire camp into chaos. While I would love to see the promised, but unlikely to happen TV movies, I don’t think it’s quite true that the series had no conclusion. The last episode resolved the Hearst arc, and featured the pull between civilization and the wild that’s been the key motif of the entire series. Yes, it’s more of an Angel go out in battle ending than a definitive conclusion, but I don’t know that any conclusion would have been truly definitive.

Still, conclusion comes in the most unlikely of ways, and, as Milch himself has said, you’re always telling the same story. John From Cincinnati functions as a kind of Earth 2 Deadwood, taking the same character archetypes and central narrative focus, but flinging it a century forward to the present day. The last season of Deadwood put our heroes in conflict with the standardizing force of corporate America, the beginning of a process that continues to this day. It’s notable that as the series begins, the entire JFC crew has been devastated by their encounter with a large corporation that mined their talent and discarded them when it was used up. The Deadwood camp formed around the gold deposits in the town, the community in JFC grows up around the Yosts’ talent.

So, let’s imagine that Hearst had mined all the gold in the camp, then he’d leave and there’d be nothing left but the sort of messy ruins that we see on JFC. How do you rebuild from that? That’s the question that haunts all the characters in JFC, tormented by trouble in their past they have slipped into isolation. On Deadwood, we saw characters pulled out of their lonely isolation and form a community. The third season is all about the crystallization of the bonds in response to an outside threat. JFC has the same central theme, but it treats it in a different way.

In Deadwood, it is the need to survive that forces the characters to unite. Alone in the wild, they are all in peril, like Sophia in the first episode. Brought into a community, they each find their place and gradually form a functioning civilization. By the time of JFC, it’s pretty easy to survive, there is no longer the necessity to band together to survive, but isolation has thrown the characters into depression. That’s why John appears. John is a literal incarnation of the force underlying all of Milch’s work, the force of community that draws people together and allows individuals to become something more through collective effort. Whatever John’s origin, that’s what he does, he brings people together.

John From Cincinnati even offers a solution to the Hearst conflict, with Stinkweed standing in for Hearst. Rather than trying to beat Linc at his own game, as I assumed they would at the start of the season, Butchie and his crew turn Linc to their side and wind up in control of the corporation. The force that threatened to destroy Deadwood is now under the control of the people. Corporations have a huge amount of power, and harnessed for good, they could remake the world. That’s the scenario Milch offers at the end of John From Cincinnati, the destructive forces turned to positive ones.

Ultimately, that’s what I loved about John From Cincinnati. Amidst all the grittiness, there was a real light and hope. This was a show full of joy and happiness, about characters overcoming their problems and coming together. But, because he made it hard, he made it real, it felt genuine. The essential appeal of Milch’s work is this notion that everyone has a place and can be accepted. The characters in Deadwood certainly suffer, but they all have a group of people to support them.

What of the characters? The most obvious parallels are where the same actors reoccur. Milch doesn’t cast them against type, Freddie the drug dealer is what Charlie Utter probably would have been in today’s world, associated with the same vagrant underclass. Same for Trixie and Jerri, she wouldn’t be a whore in the present day, but she has the same power. Obviously, these parallels aren’t the same thing as actually seeing the character arcs resolved, but if you want to understand where the series was going, just consider John a 130 year jump into the future.

It’s frustrating that a lot of people who loved Deadwood seemed reluctant to engage with JFC, when it was as close to a fourth season as we’re going to get. Milch’s new cop series for HBO probably won’t have the same sprawling ensemble cast, he’ll probably reign himself in a bit after two cancellations.

As for Deadwood itself, those final moments were full of tension and in some respects, certainty. The community has asserted itself, and Hearst leaves on their terms. I do think it’s a bit of an anticlimax, that he all of a sudden decides to leave, but I love when a show goes out on crazy tension, and this was like that. I would love to see the movies, but the show feels more about day to day life in a singular moment, and hopping through time to get ‘resolution’ for the characters might deprive us of the show’s real central character, the camp itself. I suppose my dream fanboy Milch project would be some kind of crossover between JFC and Deadwood, where characters hop through time and see the effects of 130 years ago on the present. But, I’ve probably been reading too much Crisis on Infinite Earths.


Babs said...

Finally! Someone else besides me saw that JFC was Deadwood later in time! Thank you!

Mega said...

At risk of forming a habit of commenting only with links... just read this, wondering if you caught it:
"...Milch says the dismantling of the sets makes little difference to the fate of the project. The pair of two-hour movies take place after the town of Deadwood is destroyed by fire and floods, thus the sets are unnecessary."
Also more info on the new show.

Patrick said...

I did see that article, though I'm still very skeptical about the movies happening. Plus, as I said here, the town itself is so central to the series, I'm not sure a movie where all the characters are scattered off in different places would work. Still I do wish it would happen, after the end of Twin Peaks, I would have been reluctant about a movie set before the show even began, but that wound up being the perfect conclusion. said...

This won't really have effect, I think so.