Cranky out-of-towner in the breakfast queue: “Is it crowded in here, or does this town have a lot of fat fucking people in it?”
Charlie Utter: “either that or some lethal combination of the two”
We are watching season 1 of Deadwood on DVD from the video shop at the moment, and I’m really enjoying it. Well, I don’t know if enjoy is the proper word – it’s dark, it’s super-violent, every second word is cocksucker (or cunt), there’s a lot of mud, a lot of drugs, a lot of whoring and no healthy personalities.
It does, however, have one of the most excellent scripts I’ve seen on telly for a while – I’m finding the late 19th century lingo pleeeasing, when I’m not dodging cusses. Excepting hoopleheads – we’re liking the cuss hooplehead round here.
Deadwood is an American telly show set in the mythic Deadwood city from western lore. I have fond memories of Deadwood and sang every song from Calamity Jane I could remember* when we first starting watching the show. One episode later and I realised how innapropriate it was to sing about the joys of Deadwood city, as sung by an abstinant Calamity Jane.
The Squeeze isn’t really enjoying Deadwood – it’s dark and violent and depressing, though I’ve noticed that it lightened up after the first two episodes (the pilot?). There’s still lots of nasty violence (seems you’re likely to end up fed to pigs if you’re not careful – particularly if you’re the nasty bit of work Kristen Bell played one episode**), the women seem to be either dopefiends, whores, gimps, frighteningly ingnorant widows, con artists or some combination thereof.
But I like it. I like the dialogue and I like the complicated relationships between the characters. I’m interested in the way the town ‘has no law’ and yet still has an equilibrium maintained by the ‘upstanding’ members of the community – the Gem’s owner Al Swearengen, Cy Tulliver, the Hardware Boys (Bullock and Star), the unspeakably vile E.B. Farnum, etc etc etc. I’m interested in the development of Deadwood as a township, and of the USA as a federation of states.
I like the Doc Cochran’s complexity – he’s the most sympathetic and sensitive of the characters in Deadwood, though his sensitivity seems strange and excessive in this harsh landscape. He’s not as attractive (this is him – he’s the crazy science dood from Alien Resurrection) as Bullock, and while Bullock can be extremely, irrationally violent (NB the episode with the Indian dood, and the opening scene of season 1), he seems more appealing because he’s better looking and cleaner than the Doc. Which is, of course, nuts, because the Doc is (as I’ve just said) the ‘better’ person.
Bullock’s attraction to the Widow Garret is the best demonstration of Bullock’s dissatisfying nature – he’s attracted to this selfish, self-obsessed woman who chooses to stay in Deadwood to pursue her gold mine’s bounty, rather than taking the Metz child and Trixie to New York. Trixie is a whore from the Gem, Swearengen’s ‘woman’, and with a nasty history of laudenum addiction. Her incipient relationship with the eminently sympathetic Sol Star is quashed by her comment “I don’t want what I can’t have”, indicating the permience of class even in the ‘lawless’ Deadwood.
the Widow Alma Garret
The issue of class is dealt with in an interesting way by the program when Garret tries to send Trixie to New York by herself. Trixie cannot face a new life in a strange city by herself (as the Doc has to point out to ignorant Garret), but is keen to accompany Garrett to New York as a servant. Escaping Deadwood means escaping violence and regular beatings (ample of evidence of which is shown in the first episode and later, when Swearengen brutally knocks her down and stands on her neck to teach her a lesson for shooting a client who’d beat her nastily).
When the Widow Garret chooses to stay in Deadwood to manage her claim, rather than choosing a proxy, she commits the child Sophie Metz to a life Deadwood (she is the only other child we ever see onscreen beyond the Chinese quarter), and Trixie is forced to leave Garret’s employ as a nanny and return to the Gem, Swearengen and whoreing.
Trixie’s return to the Gem is made all the more blatant by her costume change – from ‘respectable’ women’s clothing (the costume she wears when Sol first meets her) of dress, corset, petticoats, coat, shawls, etc etc, to ‘whore’ costume of undergarments. Trixie’s character also changes as she returns to the Gem – she no longer smiles, she smokes more, she will not allow Sol to see her at work “like this”, though his interest seems to overlook this issue. She also returns to Swearengen’s bed, and we see her naked more than once. As Garrett’s servant and companion, Trixie is never naked and her confidence and knowledge of things like laudenum addiction give her strength.
Trixie and Garret share an uneasy relationship – Trixie has a better rapport with the traumatised Metz girl, while Garret seems cold and unable to relate to people – bound by her tight, black silk dresses and high collars, impeded by her utter ignorance of the reality of people’s lives in Deadwood, or outside her own priveleged class, despite her continual presence at her window looking out on the street – and that’s another interesting thing.
The importance of looking and surveillance in Deadwood – characters are always observing each other, and we are invited into this voyeurism by sharing their line-of-sight and through scenes such as Farnum’s ‘free touch’ from one of the whores at the Gem – she masturbates him in the main room and the spectacle is remarked upon by the observing Swearengen (and others).
Sex and whoring in Deadwood are not romanticised. There is a matter-of-factness about sex and the sex industry in Deadwood, and we often see women’s naked or revealed bodies, from full-frontal nudity to exposed breasts. The women who work in the Gem are also ”revealed’ and ‘exposed’ in the Doc’s regular trips to care for their health (which includes vaginal examinations). While they are apparently ‘comfortable’ with their state of undress in the Saloon and on the street, there is a marked contrast made between the clothed bodies of Garret and the Madame Joanie at the ‘better’ quality Bella Union Saloon, and the revealed bodies of the Gem’s whores.
There is also a distinction made between the ‘gimp’ Jewel and the other women she works with at the Gem – Jewel is not a whore but a ‘char woman’ (to use my nan’s phrase for a cleaning woman) and is also physically crippled, hence her positioning as an ‘undesirable body’.
I’m not sure how I feel about all these images of women. I’m inclined to the feeling that it’s a complex representation of gender, where we don’t see the madonna/whore binary where the madonna (Garret for the most part) is pure and virginal – she is not sympathetic and the whore (every other woman but Jewel) is evil.
The female sex workers in Deadwood vary in character from the ‘hooker with the heart of gold’ Trixie, to the lesbian Joanie in a difficult and maschistic relationship with Cy which echoes Trixie’s with Swearengen, but is perhaps more disturbing for its patina of ‘civility’. The least sympathetic ‘whore’ character was the Veronica Mars character who dropped in briefly then was murdered – horrifically – by Cy for stealing. This female character, while there were suggestions of vulenerability, was bloodthirsty.
As I said, I’m not sure how I feel about these characters – I’ve watched about 11 episodes and there are lots of characters with a range of story lines. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of unpleasant stuff (people shitting themselves, vomiting, pissing in public, having nasty sex, getting very ill, everpresent mud, disease, etc) which distracts me from much of the major character development.
If you get a chance to see it, and can handle the nastiness, tell me what you think.
*and that’s quite a few, as I was in the musical at school and loved the songs.
** the veronica mars site says she had a recurring role on Deadwood, but unless they get her back in via flashbacks, a la Buffy or Angel, then there’s very little chance that we’ll be seeing any more of that character beyond the tattered remnants of her dress half-buried in the pig pen’s mud down at Mr Wu’s place.