I had to wait until I was done before I wrote documented my obsession.  But last week, it happened.  I finished watching Deadwood, the HBO series set in the South Dakota boom town in the 1870s.  If you haven’t seen it, just go watch it as soon as you’re done with this post.  Find it in your finest local video rental place, or find a friend with HBO, or just buy the damn thing (go here, now you have no excuses).  I promise it will be worth your time.

Deadwood is essentially a show about how a group of disparate people carve out a community out of nothing, and how that original community gets fundamentally altered when new members arrive.  It also subverts the traditions of the Western genre by involving almost no gunplay, containing nothing resembling a traditional hero, raw and unrepentant sexuality, and liberal amounts of the most lyrical swearing you’ve ever heard in your life.  Showrunner David Milch could teach courses on melodious and creative cussing, and we’d all be better for it.

Anyway, the town of Deadwood begins the series as an illegal settlement in Indian Territory, and as such there is essentially no law to speak of.  It’s also completely disorganized.  But over the course of the next three seasons (which covers roughly 2 years of actual time), several characters emerge as leaders within this community, who will guide and shape it according to their will, some protecting the town from the encroachment of others, and some trying to destroy what little order has been established to entrench their interests.  Each of these titans of Deadwood is, in his own way, a little like a baseball GM rebuilding his franchise, maneuvering his team to maximize his success.  And like the characters on Deadwood, they have varying degrees of success. 

Alex Anthopolous is Al Swearingen

Swearingen, played by Ian McShane, is perhaps the single greatest character in television history, in an incredibly close race with Ron Swanson and Jack Donaghy.  He owns the Gem Saloon, the center of camp life at the start of the series.  He offers booze, food, and women at his place, while operating road agents (essentially highwaymen) and selling bad real estate to prospectors on the side (taking advantage of noobs).  You’d think he’s a fairly terrible person, based on how he treats the women in his brothel, and how quick he is to kill.  But he’s not.  He’s a businessman, who just wants to wring as much money as he can out of town.  And to do that, he realizes over the course of the series that he needs to protect the town itself, and his interests in it.  So we see Swearingen evolve and eventually we see that, no matter how bad he may seem, he could be much, much, much worse.

Swearingen is also the central strategist on the show, formulating plans and driving action.  He sets people and events into motion, and is the hub around which Deadwood spins.  Frankly, he’s a bit of a genius, and watching him formulate ideas, usually while talking to a severed Indian head or in a soliloquy as he receives oral sex, is the best part of the series.  Indeed, we get a glimpse of how lost Deadwood would be without Al, as he is laid up with the most unpleasant dramatized case of kidney stones I’ve ever seen.  Every single character is adrift in those episodes, acting without guidance and generally screwing everything up for everyone they care about.

Similarly, I’ve come to realize that the Jays would be lost without AA.  He’s entering his third season in Toronto, and he’s built a very strong organization through the draft and by taking on players that other teams have thrown up their hands with.  Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie.  Like Swearingen, he realizes that everyone has a potential use, even if it’s not to him.  Like Mark Teahan, who was an simply a price to take on to acquire a player like Rasmus.  He also understands, as he did this offseason, that sometimes the best play is no play at all, but to simply sit back and wait for the right moment to act.  Sure, he could have gone after Prince Fielder.  But why?  Would Fielder have made the Jays into a playoff team?  Probably not, unless Travis Snider and Adam Lind both take big steps forward.  Better to wait for that perfect moment, and in that moment, to act decisively and devastatingly, destroying his opponents.  Now, if he can just get everybody else to do what he tells them to.

Terry Ryan is Seth Bullock

Bullock is a proverbial bull in a china shop.  He also, more than any other character, has a very specific idea of what is proper and moral.  He is an incredibly angry man whose life is working out, just not working out in the way he’d like it to.  He has a wife (his brother’s widow, who he married out of a sense of obligation) and a step-son/nephew.  He also falls deeply in love with the widow Alma Garrett, and has a passionate affair with her while his wife and son are still in Michigan.  The conflict he feels between what he wants and what is right makes him prone to rage and violence, and to acting without thinking.  All of which makes being the town’s sheriff a more difficult endeavor.  As such, he’s quick to force the hand of others and to ruin carefully formed plans with his recklessness.  He is a good man, but impulsive.  And that’s his downfall.

Terry Ryan, like Bill Smith before him, and Terry Ryan before him, has a very good idea of how he thinks his team should be run.  He likes home-grown talent, and he likes to keep that talent around for as long as he can then letting it walk.  And he’s incredibly bullheaded about what kinds of players he wants on his team, especially on the pitching staff.  Ryan insists on having control-heavy pitchers who don’t strike batters out and who induce contact.  And that’s ok when there’s a decent defense behind them in a park that’s not cavernous.

But such is not the world that Terry Ryan lives in.  Target Field’s gaps are huge, and his infield has been porous.  He’s also operating as though the Twins still have a pipeline of talent producing Big League caliber players.  They don’t.  Jeff Manship and Liam Hendriks are not prospects.   Kyle Gibson is hurt and, at his best, is a 3rd starter in the long term.  Aaron Hicks is stalling.  Joe Benson is questionable at best.  Ryan is trapped between two alternatives.  He doesn’t have anybody he can really trade to rebuild.  Nor does he have enough talent to compete in 2012.  Ryan is reacting the only way he can, a way that has to anger him to his core, bringing in Major League vets to fill holes, and hoping that with a rebound by Morneau and Mauer, the Twins can go from worst to first.  This is…unlikely.  One hopes that the GM is able to maintain his composure under the strain.

Dave Dombrowski is Cy Tolliver

Tolliver, played by the wonderful Powers Booth, is the main antagonist in season 1.  He arrives to Deadwood and quickly sets up his saloon to rival the Gem, the Bella Union.  Tolliver’s joint offers craps (which is new and exotic in Deadwood), nicer facilities, and prettier women.  Tolliver is just as ruthless as Al, but he’s got none of Al’s self-control or his gift for strategy.  But he’s opportunistic, and quick to ally himself with the other central power in town, who we’ll get to in a minute.

This, and his temper, end up being his undoing, as he’s double crossed and ineffectual, struggling to hold on to what little leverage he has.  And like Bullock, his rage at how he’s been played causes him to lash out in strange and destructive ways.

Like Tolliver, Dombrowski seized an opportunity created by an injury.  Tolliver is given free reign while Al is laid up with his kidney stones, and uses that to forge his alliance.  Dombrowski had a spot open up when Victor Martinez tore his ACL, and snatched up Prince Fielder to his ridiculous nine year contract.  Both moves seem very beneficial in the short term, as Fielder obviously gives the Tigers another thumper in the middle of their lineup, and Cy gets a cash and power windfall from his new association.  But in the end, this is probably going to bite Dombrowski, just like it bit Cy.  For one thing, because of the defensive machinations the Fielder signing required, the Tigers aren’t going to get nearly as much value out of his first season as everyone assumed when the deal went down.  For another, the Tigers are now locked into two players, Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, at superstar prices, who play the same position.  And neither is interested in DHing.  This will hopefully not induce Dombrowski to shoot anyone in the head or stab them in the femoral artery.

Jerry DiPoto is George Hearst

Hearst, played by Gerald McRaney, is a late arrival to the camp, showing up in the last episode of season two.  Hearst is the whirlwind that will change everything in Deadwood.  The first thing he does when he gets to town is to buy the hotel.  Then he takes a sledge hammer to the walls of the second floor, giving himself a suite of sorts, as well as a “veranda” (actually just a hole in the wall that opens onto the roof of the hotel porch).  Hearst is a famous prospector and geologist, “The Boy the Earth Talks To”, who only cares about finding and exploiting minerals, and eliminating everything that stands in his way.  He is the destroyer.*   He cares nothing for the camp or for others.  He orders the murder of his own workers who try to unionize, and of anyone in the town that opposes his goal. He bribes, bullies, threatens, and murders with impunity.  He’s a robber baron, and he knows he’s a monster, but he also can’t figure out why no one really likes him.  He doesn’t understand the community, but he will break it if he can.

*Fun side note:  The real George Hearst was also a US Senator and sired newspaper magnate William Randolph Heart.  So that’s two truly abominable people born into the same family.  Go figure. 

Jerry DiPoto is also pretty new around here and is a destructive force, although he is more interested in destroying his village in order to save it.  His is a creative destruction.  He sent Jeff Mathis packing, threw Mike Trumbo out of the 1B/DH spot, and dropped Tyler Chatwood altogether.  I can’t wait to see what he ends up doing with Vernon Wells.  To replace them, he brought in his own guys (like Hearst hiring the Pinkerton detectives), Albert Pujols, CJ Wilson, and Chris Iannetta.  DiPoto has been a force this offseason, succeeding everywhere that his predecessor, Tony Reagins, failed in the 2010-2011 offseason.  His Angels are incredibly well positioned to win in 2012 and, with their financial resources, far beyond.

Alas, we’ll never know whether and how Hearst would have completed his domination of Deadwood.  The series was cancelled at the last minute, just before it was to start filming its fourth and final season (although, most of the show’s fans know how it was ultimately supposed to end).  But maybe DiPoto can give us a clue.  True ruthlessness, backed by money and will, can overcome a lot of obstacles.

Comments (11)

  1. Ahh Deadwood. One of the greatest television shows ever made. But this question needs to be asked. If A.A. is Swearingen then who is Mr Wu?

  2. “I promise it will be worth your time” is not a convincing reason to watch Deadwood.

  3. Love this! Have only seen the first two seasons (they are so damn expensive) but it really is one of the greatest shows ever made. I wouldn’t mind if you expanded this and did a second one, who would be Sol the nicest guy in town who teaches a prostitute how to do math? Or Calamity Jane who tries to do good but gets drunk and screws everything up?

  4. Ron Swanson and Jack Donaghy are great but “the single greatest character in television history” is Omar Little by a fucking mile.

    • Respect. Apologies to Omar, who I pray to God isn’t coming for me. He’s clearly in the discussion.

    • Omar is a fine character absolutely. But Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen is beyond incredible. By sheer amount of screen time, his character is more layered and full and rich compared to Mike K. Williams Omar Little character. Deadwood is unbelievable good. Only personal preference separates which shows are the greatest ever between Deadwood, The Wire or Breaking Bad or Sopranos.

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