Monday, August 20, 2007

King Of The Cocksuckers

Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) - Deadwood, 2004-6

'Swearengen's swarthy brute-ness and intelligent charm clearly relates him to some famous literary figures, most obviously Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff but also Oliver Twist's Bill Sikes. In casting McShane, Deadwood acknowledges this heritage physically: compare him, for example, with Robert Newton or Oliver Reed playing Sikes in Oliver Twist (Lean, 1948) and Oliver! (Reed, 1968). However, these figures, while not exactly one-dimensional, do not have the complexity of Swearengen. As David Ellison argues, it is important to acknowledge that Swearengen represents a "fusion of characteristics that Dickens could only distribute across characters. In other words, Swearengen is Sikes in all of his brute menace but he is also Fagin - a super-adaptive, improvisational opportunist with a dab line in self-parody." In this way, one of the major achievements of Deadwood lies in Milch's discovery of McShane's ability to nuance a British kind of villainy: one that references but also transcends (Americanizes?) the binary tic of Victorian psychology that opposes, say, Heathcliff against Edgar, Jekyll/Hyde, Picture/Dorian, Jack the Ripper/Prince Albert. [The] fortuitous casting of McShane Swearengen (the real Al was born in Iowa) allowed David Milch to articulate and realize a depth to Swearengen that not only enhanced the vividness of a real historical character but was also to overcome one of the pervasive oddities of nineteenth-century British literary characterization....Al Swearengen, as played by McShane, is a philosophic intervention into the nature of characterization itself.'

From Al Swearengen, Philosopher King by Jason Jacobs.