The Idea of the End of a Thing

Curator's Note

We demand a lot from art.

Sometimes we demand a lot at the beginning, as demonstrated by the astonishing tidal wave of identity-politics criticism directed at the first installment of Lena Dunham’s Girls. But pilots cannot and should not solve the problems of the world. Pilots are rough sketches, vague ideas about what and how a story might become; they are experiments in thought and action.

Sometimes we demand a lot at the end, as demonstrated by the objections to the conclusion of Lost, or to the non-conclusion of Deadwood. As David Milch articulates in this sequence from a DVD extra, there exists a bizarre belief that the finale, or even worse the final moments, of a series are somehow that series’ justification, or its pure essence. If the end fails, the series fails, and the viewer’s long investment dissolves into wasted time. How does The Odyssey end? With an anticlimactic return to conflict, a conflict that is interrupted before it can really begin—a stuttering finale that would have been insta-trashed on Twitter. How does Great Expectations end? One hundred and fifty years after its publication, no one knows how Great Expectations ends. The Odyssey and Great Expectations; what a waste of time.

A three-season series is not a limerick. Our principles for evaluating its final gesture cannot plausibly replicate those we would employ for evaluating the rim shot of a joke.

Serial storytelling, at its most interesting, is about the present tense. It is about the precious feeling of a moment suspended between past and future, a weekly performance separating the history that cannot be changed and the possibility that can only be imagined. By accident or design, Deadwood’s suspended closure keeps the series perpetually in the present, in a world that is, rather than a world that was or a world that will be. Al Swearengen was scrubbing blood off the floor of his office…and then something else happened. Or didn’t happen. Later in this wonderfully melancholy return to the set of the show that did and did not end, Milch asks viewers “to accept the part of the story which we take to have been untold as residing in the realm of the untold.” The realm of the untold: Deadwood, a series about how and why and at what cost we claim territory, made the land that does not exist one of its defining geographical features.


I adore this typically sensitive, nuanced and original writing by Sean and it made me wonder about our craving for an ending as something understandable (rather than a mistake) as well as a source of melancholoy, especially in art when an ending  forces us to leave the fictional world. The best film endings are staged partings where characters prepare to go away -  think of Rules of the Game or Letter from an Unknown Woman; but in Deadwood or NYPD Blue or John From Cincinnati the characters hang around in the same place and it is we who are forced away by their stopping. Perhaps serial television is just not hospitable to endings (or beginnings) in the way that films and novels tend to be? A week ago I read Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending and was pleased with how perfectly that short novel was able to conjure a world and infect the reader with its lingering melancholy mood. So I think 'short' art like that wants to project itself into our lives  - and the ending can be a mechanism for that - while longer works (like The Odyssey and Great Expectations) by contrast wish to absorb us into them...

I like this post very much, Sean.  One thing I find remarkable about Deadwood’s representation of a kind of perpetual present is that while the events of the story seem to approximate some version of “real time”—each episode picking up more or less right where the last one left off—days become nights and nights become days, but there seems to be little or no sign of the passage of seasons, of one year into the next (does it ever rain in Deadwood?).  Milch says in his interview with David Thorburn that he envisioned each season of the show as representing one year in Deadwood, so perhaps we are meant to understand that the natural seasons pass by unseen between the television seasons, but the overall aesthetic effect is a kind of eerie (almost imperceptible) sense that the people of Deadwood are always stuck in the same day (“suspended between past and future,” as you put it) while in fact the future and the modern world encroach upon them with a startling and supernatural swiftness—as if it takes but a few hours for crude shanties to become hardwood structures, windows to be filled with glass, gold panning to become full scale industrial mining operations, and bicycles, cameras and telegraph lines to be freighted into the middle of everyone’s lives.

These are very suggestive responses.  I embrace Sean's fine insistence that we savor the achieved Deadwood and recognize that however it might have ended, those outcomes have been prefigured and dramatized in the stories we have.

It's also truly illuminating to make us think about what a serial story is, how the sense of patient ongoingness is inherent and central to the experience.

But there's a difference between a story that ends abruptly or open-endedly and one that's unfinished.  Everything that Sean, Jacob and Martin say here about Deadwood rings true to me, but I still mourn the lost fourth season.  The Odyssey ends abruptly in a deus ex machina, but the themes and human stories at its center are in some sense completed or at least thoroughly developed.  Ditto for the Dickens.

But think of the way Deadwood in its second and third seasons began to explore the lives of its women more deeply, how the prostitutes Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and the widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker) developed intricate relationships of love, dependency and (for Trixie) fear with male characters we had come to know well.  Or think of the way the introduction of the theatrical troupe late in the story promised to complicate and enlarge our understanding of Deadwood's halting murderous emergence from savagery.

These rich themes and stories, and many others I've not mentioned, were set in motion in the Deadwood that survives.  But they were unfinished, not fully explored, incomplete.  It's important to acknowledge this, I think, especially in light of the cancellation of both John from Cincinnati and Luck.

Is Milch the Orson Welles of our era? A maker of memorable stories that remain unfinished, more compelling in their damaged grandeur than most stories that find their necessary endings?

Thanks, everyone.  I really like the idea of Milch working at the intersection of Renoir and Welles (cherry-picking two of Jason and David's citations), especially as this ties in with my comment on Jason's post about Milch's constant negotiation between realism and artifice.  And Martin's attention to the promise/threat of change rightly captures the "thunder" (Wild Bill to Alma Garret) that threatens both the town and narrative of Deadwood--as signaled by the telegraph lines at the start of season 2.  

Your responses prompt me to try to refine the topic of my post, in terms of terminology, category, and effect.  In the clip, Milch touches on at least three conditions that are often treated as synonymous but are in fact at variance: ending, conclusion, and destination.  It is the last two with which Milch quarrels, a quarrel that I am happy to join; conclusion and destination, as operative terms, are taken as "fixing the meaning" of an experience in a way that privileges a narrow and dull teleology.  As Milch says, in serial television "every episode, in some way or another, is the end of things"; so ending is systemic and recursive rather than delayed and privileged.  An audience, he continues, "gets the sense of an ending" throughout--channeling Frank Kermode and anticipating Jason's reference to Julian Barnes.  

Finally: I too mourn the fourth season of Deadwood, not to mention the fifth to which Milch elswhere alluded.  But I am perverse enough to be enticed by the overstuffed and rough-edged third season messiness, as exempllifed by the Langrishe thread that David invokes.  The chilling tableau of Hearst's triumph is as sharp a premonition of futurity as any series could hope to enact as its leave-taking.

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