HBO // 2007 // 720 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ian Visser (Retired) // November 7th, 2007
Some fortunes are best left unclaimed.
Welcome to Deadwood, a bustling burg with a boom mentality. What's your pleasure? Drink, perhaps, or maybe something a bit more decadent? Whatever you want, you can get it here. Just mind the cost, and keep one hand on your purse and the other on your gun.
Civilization is coming to Deadwood. A victim of its own success, the once wild and uncontrollable town is about to be recognized by the South Dakota Territory and given proper incorporation. Heavy-handed Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, We Are Marshall) controls much of the illicit activity in the mining town, and has serious doubts as to the results. But Swearengen's mind is more occupied by one George Hearst (Gerald McRaney, Simon and Simon), who has come to Deadwood with a burning passion to control (or destroy) whatever lies in his path. Already a wealthy man, Hearst has mounted a campaign against Al for the spoils of the gold-rich camp, and each citizen will be forced to lay their loyalty at one doorstep or the other.
HBO provides all twelve episodes of Season Three on six disks. The episodes are:
"Tell Your God to Ready For Blood"
"I Am Not The Man You Take Me For"
"Full Faith and Credit"
"A Two-Headed Beast"
"A Rich Find"
"A Constant Throb"
"The Catbird Seat"
"Tell Him Something Pretty"
Viewers with a penchant for history know that Deadwood has never been less than a metaphor for the larger experience of the American West. The town, with its gold claims, swindlers, and wealth seekers, represents the story of the great frontier itself as it makes the transition from lawlessness to order, with all the victims and victors that came with such pacification. Once isolated and outlawed, the later years of the 1870s sees an increasingly modern Deadwood emerge, with democracy taking hold in the form of new elections. The town begins to become more "civilized" in Season Three, with a theatre group arriving, the establishment of a school for children, and the founding of Deadwood's first bank.
The main narrative thrust for Deadwood: The Complete Third Season is the on-going battle between Swearengen and Hearst for control of the town. As the two men engage in a mix of hostilities (both open and covert) the citizens of Deadwood are forced to choose between devil they know and that which they don't. Now you may be saying to yourself, "Major Dad as a twisted, manipulative mining baron? Really?" I'd understand your skepticism. But Deadwood's greatest asset has always been its inventive casting, and actor Gerald McRaney portrays his challenger to the throne with a subdued viciousness that threatens to explode at any moment. This season also sees the arrival of several new characters to the town, including real-life theatre-mogul/actor Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox, The Boxer) and Aunt Lou (Cleo King, Dreamgirls), the black cook and housekeeper for Hearst.
Much has been written about the show's raw language, its gritty setting, and the complexity of its storylines. All of these elements retain their high standards in the third season, and the blistering writing continues to stun (and that isn't too strong a word) in both its eloquence and vulgarity. One has to question if so many early Americans were really this flowery in their speech, but the language as it is presented still amazes with its creative turn of phrase. The downside is that following the events of the series requires a great deal of concentration on the part of a viewer. Deadwood is a show that refuses to suffer fools, and whether it's plot, historical information, or long-forgotten slang, so much information is presented that the show requires a great deal of attention to catch all the details. This level of maturity and complexity is a welcome change in today's television world, where the dumbest of plots tend to be stretched out just to fill time.
While many shows wane in quality as they progress through subsequent seasons, Deadwood: The Complete Third Season maintains the momentum generated in its first two seasons. Much of the viciousness that it has come to be known for is still present, including a street fight between Swearengen and Hearst's agents that results in an eye-gouging so grotesque that it sent my wife running from the room in horror. Rough stuff aside, the show still manages to surprise, whether it's detailing the intricacies of a frontier election or the establishment of a lesbian relationship between unlikely characters. Tension is a constant in almost each episode; viewers have no indication of where things will turn at any given moment, or when and how violence will erupt. As a result, Deadwood remains a show that is unpredictable and never dull.
The Deadwood universe of one of muted colors and dim lights, and the video image captures the mood of the show perfectly. The color balance is reference-quality, and black levels are deep and solid. The audio is a real treat: Dolby Surround 5.1 for English and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks for French and Spanish languages. All the tracks are well-executed, but the 5.1 option really brings the crowded camp scenes to life, plunging the viewer into the middle of what feels like a real environment.
Special features for Deadwood: The Complete Third Season are a mix of information, history, and recap. Most significant are the commentary tracks featuring creator David Milch, executive producer Gregg Fienberg, writer Mark Tinker, and cast members Robin Weigert, Jim Beaver, Sean Bridges, and W. Earl Browl. Present on four episodes, these are highly informative efforts, covering both the production and the history surrounding the real-life Deadwood. Also included is an overview of the relationship between characters Bullock and Swearengen, a period photography collection of the real-life town and its citizens, and a historical feature detailing events touched on during the season. Overall, these are solid supplements that build on the Deadwood legacy and provide some nice insight into the show.
The one weakness in the Deadwood series comes from actor Timothy Olyphant (Catch and Release). His Seth Bullock is supposed to be the character that the audience identifies with as the lawman who struggles to subdue the town (or at least rein in its wilder impulses). Unfortunately, Olyphant doesn't seem to have the chops for the job. His attempts at intensity largely result in a lot of squinting and hissing, and he's missing the gravity required during emotional scenes to make his work convincing. It's largely a matter of contrast: had the rest of the players not been as well-cast or effective in their roles, the comparison may not be as apparent. But considering much of Olyphant's time on-screen is opposite the forceful Ian McShane, it's difficult to see anything but the shortcomings on display.
I haven't touched too much in this review on individual happenings in terms of plot or character. Part of that is due to the sheer volume of activity that the show provides and the difficulty in summarizing it all in a cohesive manner. The other reason is that the best way to watch Deadwood is in near-ignorance, so that the labyrinth-like plot machinations can have their full effect on a viewer. The show really is so full of surprises and twists that not knowing what is coming is half the fun.
It is unfortunate that Deadwood concludes its broadcast run somewhat unfinished, but the end of the series does nothing to minimize the quality of this set. Deadwood: The Complete Third Season is freed from the gallows and escorted directly into a waiting stagecoach to freedom.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ian Visser; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 720 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Cast and crew commentaries
* Deadwood Daguerreotypes feature
* Deadwood Matures feature
* The Education of Swearengen and Bullock feature
* Official Site
* Official Deadwood TourismSite