To celebrate the 10th anniversary of its award-winning & critically acclaimed series Deadwood, HBO had a marathon of all 3 seasons (36 episodes) on a weekend in March, and weeknights in April and May. Though we have the DVD collection, I hadn’t watched it since it originally aired from 2004-2006. What a mistake. Viewing it again during April and May, I realized just how magnificent a show it is. Even 10 years later, it was as exciting and fresh as ever.
Created, produced, and mostly written by David Milch, Deadwood explores the growth of Deadwood SD in the 1870s, before and after its annexation by the Dakota Territory. Previously, Deadwood was on land ceded to the Native Americans, so whites were on it illegally; once gold was discovered in the Black Hills, however, whites went there in droves while the government turned its back on any treaty violations.
The Cast & Characters
Great cast playing fascinating characters, some of whom were really in Deadwood SD, make Deadwood a standout series. The fictional characters are mixed with historical ones: Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane),
Hardware-store owner & Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, L) and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes, R),
Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine),
and Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert)
are just a few of the historical personages who interact with fictional ones in this great drama.
Most of the cast members have gone on to star in other important series and films. Dayton Callie, who plays Charlie Utter,
stars in Sons of Anarchy, Timothy Olyphant in Justified, Paula Malcolmson, who plays Trixie the whore, stars in Ray Donovan as his wife,
and Anna Gunn, who plays Seth’s wife Martha, went on to star in Breaking Bad as Skyler.
Some cast members were stars when they arrived, like Ian McShane as Al Swearengen — creator David Milch has said he wrote the character with McShane in mind — Powers Boothe as rival saloon/brothel owner Cy Tolliver,
Gerald McRaney as George Hearst,
Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran,
and William Sanderson, in the best role he’s ever had, as scheming sycophant E. B. Farnum,
while Deadwood propelled others to international celebrity status. The cast alone makes the show worth watching. I can’t think of another series, besides The Tudors, that consistently had such a stellar cast, all with outstanding performances.
Integration of Dramatic Elements
So many writers and shows fail because the dialogue, character development, and action are all presented as separate entities. Long monologues interrupt action. Character studies could be entirely eliminated or replaced by commercial breaks without losing anything. Not so in Deadwood, where the language and character development are not only integral to the action, but where the action itself evolves from the language and the characters themselves.
This scene, where Gem Saloon owner and brothel-master Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) insults Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Bullock) who is married (his wife hasn’t arrived yet) but is sexually involved with widowed Alma Garrett (fictional), whose gold-claim Al Swearengen covets, vividly demonstrates the integration of all three elements: dialogue, character development, and action (plot). When Al Insults Bullock.
The Language & Writing
Yes, there’s lots of obscenity on Deadwood, but there’s also language so poetic, it sounds like some of the best Shakespearean lines ever written. And the actors say it all so naturally. I guess that’s just what really good actors do. Still, the writing itself does allow the actors to ascend to the realm of poetry, even when they’re arguing. This clip contains a montage, and the first four minutes are mostly funny because it’s so many of the characters cussing, but then you get to see the poetry and beauty of the language in Deadwood.
Even in its most serious situations, Deadwood was filled with humor. Some of it made me laugh aloud, the first time I viewed it, and during the 10th anniversary marathon. I honestly don’t know how some of the actors did their lines without laughing through the entire scenes. This one, where Chinese “Boss” Mr Wu (Leone Young) is attempting to tell Al Swearengen, whom Wu calls “Swi-jen,” is one of the classics. Wu tells Al about the “CockSuckas.”
The show was cancelled far too early — after its third season — when, clearly, future seasons were planned by the creator/writer David Milch and by the actors. HBO gives various reasons for the cancellation, the most oft-cited is that “Deadwood, as a costume-drama, was too expensive to produce.” Ian McShane was known to respond to that by saying that his character wore the same suit and long underwear through all 3 seasons, while his whores wore basically nothing at all.
Bravo, Ian, for showing such a ridiculous cancellation of a fine series for what it was: A mistake. One which HBO still regrets.
As for me, I’m not waiting another 10 years to watch the entire series again. It’s going to become an annual ritual, at the very least. After all, I have the boxed-set of the DVDs.
In the past, villains were bad guys, without any redeeming features, and heroes were good guys, with no bad qualities, except maybe a bad wardrobe or hairdo. Then came the era of anti-heroes: heroes who had some less than stellar qualities or who’d made some seriously bad decisions or life choices that prevented them from being perfect, like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name (played to great effect by the late Peter O’Toole in the film, which is what made me read the novel in the first place, trying to understand Jim’s motivation).
Over the last couple decades, however, the villains have become sort of anti-villains, as books, movies, and television series show the villains as real human beings. No matter how bad, evil, or wicked the best villains are, they have some redeeming or interesting characteristics, whether it’s caring about women and children (limiting their violence to men, for example) or great senses of humor, or simply being absolutely faithful to their own moral codes, even if they’re criminal ones.
Here are my favorite film and television series villains, in no particular order. And it’s understood that, without the specific actors playing them in these roles, these fascinating and charismatic villains would simply not have been the same.
Hannibal Lecter Silence of the Lambs
Boy, did Sir Anthony Hopkins deserve the Oscar he won for his chilling performance of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the first film version featuring the character, Silence of the Lambs, from the Thomas Harris novels. Beginning with Lecter’s look — hairstyle and tightly fitted prison garb, which were Anthony Hopkins’ idea — to his voice, his facial expressions, and his threatening demeanor even when standing perfectly still, Hopkins’ Hannibal sent insomniac movie viewers into therapy because, though they were terrified by him, they were also fascinated. Ain’t that what makes a great villain these days? His very first scene, in the underground FBI prison cell, when Hannibal “The Cannibal” meets rookie agent Clarisse Starling (played by Jodi Foster) shows just a hint of how scary and charming Hopkins’ serial killer can be.
Boyd Crowder Justified
Walton Goggins, previously known for his role in “The Shield,” plays bad guy Boyd Crowder, the foil to and bane of US Marshal Raylan Givens’ (Timothy Olyphant) life. But the two grew up together, and their shared past, with divergent careers which are mutually exclusive, combined with the actors’ improvised lines in many of their scenes together, make Boyd a criminal whom audiences root for. In fact, Boyd was supposed to be killed at the end of the pilot for the show, but the initial screening audience chastised the studio so much for “killing” Boyd, that the pilot was rewritten. Despite “guest star” criminals each season, none has the fascinating personality or the chemistry with Olyphant’s Raylan Givens that Goggins’ Boyd Crowder has. This sequence shows his initial “Fire in the Hole” activity from the pilot (characters based on an initial story by that name and characters in subsequent stories by the late, great Elmore Leonard, who was an executive producer of the show till his death this year) as well as some other clips (interspersed by music that does not, unfortunately, come from the show, i.e., it’s not as good as the music in Justified). Still, the montage shows you some good examples of Boyd’s violent interactions as well as his humor and intelligence. Though nominated several times for an Emmy for this role, Goggins has never won: I hope they remedy that in 2015’s final season of the series.
Detective Norman Stansfield The Professional
My first introduction to Gary Oldman’s formidable acting was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Oldman played the title character. But when I began to seek out his other films, I found this one, which is one of Oldman’s best. His corrupt Detective Norman Stansfield “directs” Beethoven before confronting a drug-dealer who has stolen from him. Stansfield displays a wicked sense of humor, both in what he says and does. “We said noon” is a great introduction to Oldman’s villainous Stansfield in a gripping film that also stars Natalie Portman, in her film debut, as the abused daughter of the man who stole from Detective Stansfield and whom Stansfield is seeking, and French actor Jean Reno as the professional hitman, Léon, “hired” by Portman’s Mathilda to protect her from Stansfield while teaching her to defend herself from him as well.
The Archangel Gabriel The Prophecy
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Christopher Walken is one of the greatest actors ever. Comedy, Drama, Films, Theatre, Singing, Dancing, Hero, Villain — the man can do it all, and he does it all with consummate skill and amazing range. One of my favorite roles (and Walken’s, as he’s stated in interviews) is as the villainous yet deadpan-funny Archangel Gabriel in The Prophecy (Trilogy), where, in the Second Angel War, Gabriel is trying to steal the blackest human soul ever — which angel Simon has taken from the corpse and hidden in someone else’s body — to use that evil human soul in Gabriel’s fight to keep humans out of heaven. Gabriel uses some of the human characters, whom he calls “talking monkeys,” to get things he can’t obtain himself or to travel (he can’t drive). He uses humans who were either suicides or criticially ill & dying patients, “reviving them” (or as Walken’s Gabriel describes it to Adam Goldberg’s character in the first film, “letting them die slower”). This montage, showing clips from the first two films in the trilogy, show his menace and his deadpan-humor. His scenes with Adam Goldberg (not included here), Amanda Plummer, and the late Brittany Murphy are among some of the best moments in the films. Walken’s Gabriel combines his fearsome portrayal of villains with his comedic talent, to great effect.
Tony Soprano The Sopranos
Though marred by some uneven writing in a few of its seasons, the ground-breaking HBO series The Sopranos introduced us to New Jersey mob-boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. And, boy, did Gandolfini play him to perfection. Totally loyal to his own criminal code, Tony Soprano was nevertheless a lying, philandering (unfaithful to both wife and mistresses), murderous criminal. The very premise of the show — a mob boss entering therapy because he’s having panic attacks — was part of its charm. Tony Soprano’s crush on his therapist, played by Lorraine Bracco, as well as his anger at her refusal to be anything but his psychologist and her insistence that he examine his “feelings” were among the show’s highlights. Gandolfini’s Emmy win(s) as Tony Soprano were well deserved for his consummate acting in this role. This “If you lie” scene, when Tony is attempting to uncover the identity of an FBI informant, show’s Gandolfini’s Soprano as his most fierce and most vulnerable.
Sheriff Little Bill Daggett Unforgiven
Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t like guns or violence in his town of Big Whiskey, despite or because of his own past as a gunslinger and killer. Played to Oscar-winning perfection by Gene Hackman, Little Bill is cruel and ruthless, but is building his own house (though he ain’t no carpenter) — Hackman’s idea — and a born storyteller, especially if he’s discrediting an old arch-enemy like English Bob (one of Richard Harris’ best roles) in front of his biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Repeatedly calling English Bob’s biography, titled The Duke of Death, the “Duck” of Death, and referring to English Bob as “The Duck” — another of Hackman’s improvizations, which, according to director and co-star Clint Eastwood, caused the entire cast and crew to break out in uncontrollable laughter when Hackman first said it — Hackman’s Little Bill is wickedly funny without ever cracking a smile. At the same time, he’s deadly serious about the fact that he will be the only one doing any killing in his town. After he’s viciously beaten and kicked English Bob for carrying firearms within the town limits, then lying about it, Little Bill dares the biographer Beauchamp to try to shoot the sheriff (but not no deputy), then offers the gun to the imprisoned English Bob. The “First, You Got to Cock It” scene reveals Hackman’s Little Bill at his fiercest, bravest, psychologically cruelest, and most complex, and, ultimately, honest.
Al Swearengen Deadwood
If you’ve never seen HBO’s Deadwood — with its multi-star cast, superb writing, outstanding storytelling, fascinating characters, and historical accuracy — then you don’t, as they say, know what you’re missing. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon/Brothel and one of the “founding fathers” of Deadwood SD while it was still a territory illegally on Native American land, makes him the classic villain for all time. Foul-mouthed, violent, sarcastic, murderous, and otherwise cruel to the point of sadism, McShane’s Swearengen is nevertheless also empathetic, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, and frequently hurt by those whom he believes he can trust (though he usually reacts in anger to betrayal). Creator David Milch apparently created the role with Ian McShane in mind, and McShane’s performance as the vicious yet vulnerable Al make him one of the most memorable and oft-quoted villains in history. For the 10th anniversary marathon weekend showing of Deadwood, which is also playing serially weeknights on HBO Signature, numerous blogs imitated Al Swearengen’s voice — not that of any other character. No one scene could possibly show you McShane’s range as Al. Ian’s subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and glances alone demonstrate more ability and talent in this role than some actors display in their entire careers. The fan-made montage “Al Talks the Talk & Walks the Walk” displays just some of Al’s villainy and McShane’s talent (one of the “murders” shown is actually a mercy-killing of a severely afflicted and dying character, which Al had to be persuaded to assist in, since no one else — not even the camp’s doctor — was willing to help end the character’s intense, progressive, and incurable suffering).
(Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You)
If you’ve missed any of these brilliant actor’s performances as one of these top villains, you can rent them (or, even better, often view them for free, on HBO GO or with Amazon Prime), you’ll want to catch them when you’re in the mood for some fine acting, fantastic characters, and even some occasional dark, villainous humor.
And if your comments aren’t too villainous themselves, you can nominate your own top villains. If I’m not familiar with them, I’ll put them on my “To Be Watched” list.
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Copyright 2012-2023 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman, Ph.D. All rights reserved. No content may be copied, excerpted, or distributed without express written consent of the author and publisher, with full copyright credit to the author. Please, don’t support the piracy of Intellectual Property.
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