"A Constant Throb" -- it's the title of an episode from Deadwood's third and final season, but it's also a fairly apt description of the show itself. Tension pulses beneath the surface of each season, nearly every scene and every exchange and certainly many of the characters populating creator David Milch's thrilling evocation of the rough-and-tumble South Dakotan frontier. The third season ratcheted up the suspense, raising the stakes for many of the principal players and revealing the inescapable brutality that touches everyone.
Ace DVD Talk scribe das Monkey has done a superb job of setting up the world and characters of Deadwood in his reviews of the show's first and second season sets; I won't dive deeply into the overall minutiae relating to the show -- instead, I'll focus primarily on the narrative arcs that comprise the flawless third season.
The ruthless businessman and prospector George Hearst (a brilliant Gerald McRaney) continues to attempt bending the town of Deadwood to his will; as the third season progresses, he becomes ever more reckless, attempting to position the townspeople like so many chess pieces, moving them about towards bloody inevitability. Fighting like hell against the near-tyrannical impulses of Hearst are a pair of increasingly rattled allies -- town sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and poetically profane saloonkeeper Al Swearengen (a note-perfect Ian McShane). Both men have an interest in seeing the town survive its tentative early years, establish a legitimate democracy and sustain itself beyond the current gold rush. While the men fight against the power of a bitter millionaire, life does go on, as Deadwood prepares to elect its first slate of public officials, a bank is opened and culture - in the form of a traveling theater troupe - arrives in town. There are more developments, of course, but those are further explored a little later in this review.That the writers and directors can keep these myriad threads sustained without slighting any of them is a testament to their focus, as well as their inimitable skill.
What's perhaps most impressive about Deadwood is the effortless way in which Milch and his writers draw parallels with modern-day life; it's all too easy to read political subtexts into the characterization of Hearst and his bloodless sneer, just as it's simple to see a straight line connecting the idea of governments hanging by a thread attempting to get their footing and possibly being undermined by insidious outside interests (as it is in Deadwood, so it might be in Iraq, for instance). All of these deft narrative touches wouldn't carry nearly the weight they do were it not for the majestic, ornate language that's become a trademark of Milch's show. Rarely does blistering profanity sound as lyrical as it does on Deadwood; volumes have been written about the flowery, filthy speech, but it truly does capture your attention in a way few episodic dramas can.
Tragically, in May 2006, HBO forewent renewing actors' contracts, rendering a fourth season of Deadwood impossible with the existing cast; in June 2006, Milch and HBO announced that two two-hour telefilms would wrap up the world of Deadwood, in lieu of a shortened, six-episode fourth season. Milch had moved on not long after that announcement, with the revelation that modern-day surfing drama John From Cincinnati would be his next project, also to air on HBO. According to a Jan. 13, 2007 interview with Zap2it.com, Milch stated that the films would see the light of day after John From Cincinnati's first season wrapped. "We have every intention of going forward," Milch said. Until his richly drawn characters have a chance to achieve some kind of dramatic conclusion, viewers are left with these 36 magnificent glimpses at a barbarous, grueling way of life that often deeply resonates with our modern existence.
The third season of Deadwood is packaged just as the previous two seasons were: 12 episodes spread across five discs, with the sixth disc housing the special features, all secured in a six-panel foldout that fits snugly inside a hinged case that looks similar to a thick novel. As is customary with HBO TV DVD releases, it's aesthetically pleasing and perfectly complements the tone and feel of the show. Below, I'll provide brief synopses of season three's 12 episodes; for those who haven't yet viewed any of these episodes, be aware mild spoilers may follow. Season 3 episode synopses
Episode 1 ("Tell Your God to Ready for Blood"): The promise of Deadwood's inaugural elections are the focus of the early episodes this season -- Hearst continues to lean on Swearengen by staging a killing in his saloon, while Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) seriously contemplates suicide and Alma Ellsworth(Molly Parker)'s pregnancy takes a potentially deadly turn. (Features commentary from executive producers Gregg Fienberg and Mark Tinker.)
Episode 2 ("I Am Not The Fine Man You Take Me For"): Hearst's Machiavellian power plays continue, as he authors cryptic messages and literally brings the hammer down on Swearengen; Calamity Jane regales the schoolchildren with tales of adventures with the late Wild Bill Hickok while Alma's deteriorating health raises concerns about her ward Sofia's future.
Episode 3 ("True Colors"): Old friends and new faces turn up as the stagecoach arrives in Deadwood -- Swearengen's friend, theatrical promoter Jack Langrishe (guest star Brian Cox) and Aunt Lou Marchbanks (Cleo King), Hearst's personal cook, both make themselves at home. Alma brazenly attempts to orchestrate a business transaction with Hearst, while Bullock discovers the reality behind recent murders and puts Hearst "on notice." Wu (Keone Young), fresh from a trip to San Francisco, delivers some troubling news.
Episode 4 ("Full Faith and Credit"): Alma opens Deadwood's first bank while Langrishe pursues Joanie's now-defunct brothel as a possible location for his theater. Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye) and Hostetler (Richard Gant) return to town, hoping to settle up and be on their way; unfortunately, Bullock's intervention is required. Swearengen elects Adams as his representative in dealings with Hearst and Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe).
Episode 5 ("A Two-Headed Beast"): Featuring one of the most eye-popping fight sequences in recent memory, Swearengen's loyal henchman Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) and Hearst's right-hand man, Captain Turner (Alan Graf) violently settle scores for each side. After settling a debate about the ownership of the livery, Bullock finds himself taking matters into his own hands when another of Hearst's Cornish workers turns up dead; Trixie (Paula Malcomson) discovers Alma's possible relapse into bad habits. (Features commentary from actors Jim Beaver, Sean Bridgers and W. Earl Brown.)
Episode 6 ("A Rich Find"): Startled by Bullock's tactics, Swearengen pays a visit to the sheriff's home to inquire about the previous night's events. Aunt Lou's son, Odell (guest star Omar Gooding), arrives in camp, fresh from a stint in Liberia. Tolliver speculates about a possible angle on Alma's claim while Trixie confronts Alma about her descent into drug addiction.
Episode 7 ("Unauthorized Cinnamon"): A meeting of the town's powerful results in Bullock proposing an audacious move to shake up Hearst; Aunt Lou becomes worried about her son's life following his meeting with Hearst. The ownership of the livery remains a point of contention for two parties, while Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) struggles with his health.
Episode 8 ("Leviathan Smiles"): Wyatt and Morgan Earp (Gale Harold and Austin Nichols) blaze their way into camp, with tales of heroic feats looked upon skeptically by Deadwood's citizens. Hearst, suffering from chronic back pain, discovers relief from an unexpected source: Langrishe.
Episode 9 ("Amateur Night"): Hearst's hired muscle arrives in Deadwood, much to the concern of Swearengen and Bullock. The new arrivals immediately cause trouble -- be it pistol-whipping publisher A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) for his humiliation of Hearst in print or being shot by Morgan Earp after taunting the hot-headed gunslinger. (Features commentary from actress Robin Weigert.)
Episode 10 ("A Constant Throb"): Hearst takes (literal) aim at Alma while Bullock's away from camp; she finds refuge in a slightly unexpected place. One of Hearst's new henchmen is dispatched to unsettle the Swearengen establishment, but he resorts to old, reliable methods for getting his point across.
Episode 11 ("The Catbird Seat"): An emergency morning meeting determines the situations that will merit requiring Bullock's return from campaigning -- as expected, it's not long before he's being wired to come back; Hearst strikes again at Alma, hitting much closer to home this time. Trixie takes matters of revenge into her own hands while Swearengen dispatches Wu to leave camp and return with help to even up the odds.
Episode 12 ("Tell Him Something Pretty"): The Deadwood saga draws to a close, with voting opening up for the citizens of Deadwood. Langrishe delays the opening of his theater while reinforcements arrive to aid Swearengen. Hearst outlines his conditions for leaving the camp, but they come with a high price: Swearengen must step in where his associates cannot and bring the businessman's time in Deadwood to a bloody end. (Features commentary from series creator David Milch.)
Presented as originally broadcast on HBO in high-def, Deadwood's third season arrives on DVD looking impeccable; vivid, crisp and near-flawless in its 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, every speck of dirt, drop of blood and mote of dust is rendered with a clarity up to the standards of HBO's previous DVD season sets. No complaints here. The Audio:
As with the visuals, the aural component of this season set is more than acceptable; my only quibble with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is that during some of the quieter scenes, I had to crank the volume a bit to clearly make out the dialogue. Otherwise, it's a solid sonic representation that packs plenty of punch during the few action sequences. Optional French and Spanish Dolby 2.0 tracks are included, as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles (available only on the episodes themselves). The Extras:
HBO doesn't typically go overboard with its supplements, preferring to let quality trump quantity. As such, this third season includes only four commentaries (as noted above on the episode synopses), a pair of featurettes -- the 20 minute, 20 second "Deadwood Matures" and the 20 minute, 20 second "The Education of Swearengen and Bullock" -- and "Deadwood Daguerrotypes," a photo gallery of historic images. Final Thoughts:
Until the richly drawn characters of David Milch's peerless Deadwood have a chance to achieve some kind of dramatic conclusion, viewers are left with these 36 magnificent glimpses at a barbarous, grueling way of life that often deeply resonates with our modern existence. Despite a thin selection of bonus materials, the third season of Deadwood boasts sterling picture and sound, as well as 12 searing hours of television. A somewhat graceful climax to a masterful series and a set worthy of the DVD Talk Collectors Series honor.