Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A couple of awesome observations about Deadwood

I had to take some time away to deal with something for the last week, but I've dealt with it and now I've got my brain on straight enough to post something. I'd like to thank Buffy and Deadwood for helping distract me from the bad shit on my mind.

Although I loved the hell out of it, I haven't watched Deadwood for some time, but I recently listened to a Nerdist podcast with Timothy Olyphant that was absolutely enlightening. He spend about half an hour just talking about Deadwood and working with Milch.

I think most of us can agree that Deadwood was brilliant, and an unfinished work of art. There are so many great story telling lessons to be learned from that show. I want to talk about two of them.

SOILERS to follow for season one.

One is the development of Ian McShane's Swearengen. If you watch the pilot, Swearengen is a complete fucking asshole. He puts his boot on Trixie's neck for shooting a guy who beat her. He has a man killed because his presence is simply an inconvenience. The next couple of episodes, although you see some humanity in him, it's not much.

And then something happened. We saw him start to care about Trixie. We saw him give a shit about the camp. He came around to the idea that Bullock was an OK guy. And then he mercy killed the preacher.

All of these things softened him to the point that despite his consistency as an asshole, he became more likable. At first you might say, but why should he be likable? Cy Tolliver isn't likable and he's a great character. Let a villain be a villain!

That's what you might have said, but you'd be missing one big advantage of making Swearengen more likable, and that is the humor. As the show goes along, and we find ourselves more comfortable with the man, we find it easier to laugh at him. Ian McShane can play his eye rolls and reluctant sympathy for comedy. It works. Notice how even though they are cut from the same cloth, you never laugh at Tolliver. He's an evil piece of shit. You're never comfortable with him enough to laugh at him even if he makes some of the same jokes Swearengen might have made. But Swearengen - that motherfucker is hilarious. Watch the show. He isn't nearly as funny at the beginning of season one as he is by the end.

So the lesson there is, if you want to play your villain for laughs, he can't be pure evil. You can't laugh at a purely evil man. You have to like him at least a little.

The second thing I wanted to point to was the season one finale - which was a fantastic episode all around - and Alma Garret's relationship with her father. There is a lot of subtlety to be had on Deadwood, but probably never so much as in this one scene.

Alma and her father are along in her hotel room discussing whether or not she's going to give him any money. Alma's father touches her on the shoulder, on the temple, brushes her hair back - never anything else. But her reaction tells us she's extremely uncomfortable with his touch. When she suggests she'll only give him money if he goes away and leaves her alone, he simply smiles at Alma's adopted daughter, Sofia, and says he will do no such thing.

Even before Alma grabs Sofia and runs out of the room, we know exactly what he must have done to her. Nobody ever says Alma's father raped her. They don't have to. We know what he did. We see it all from her reaction and from his unstated threats.

You don't always have to spell shit out for your audience. Most people have seen enough stories that they can read the clues you give them, and they enjoy it a lot more when you lead them to the edge of the truth and let them get the rest of the way themselves.

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