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Deadwood would not be made today – they wouldn't even look at the script Turkey's new permanent crisis: is Erdogan abandoning the West?


NewsHubI think that it has become clear that the golden age of television drama – we might even say its classical age – was finite. It extended from season one of The Sopranos through to season seven of Mad Men. There is increasingly a deadening slickness about the output, from the cod-Gothic, neo-noir soap opera of Bloodline to the sphincter-loosening sumptuousness of The Crown , and there has been a tonal move towards the middle ground and towards safeness. Deadwood , which ran for three seasons until 2006, now looks a little jerry-built, a little shonky around the edges, but in the imaginative reach of its language and the ambition of its vaulting narratives, it seems, in contrast to contemporary shows, positively Shakespearean.
I bring the Swan of Avon into this advisedly: much has been made of the largely Elizabethan register that Deadwood ’s show-runner and lead writer, David Milch, used for the language of the series. It is utterly inauthentic to the show’s setting – the eponymous gold rush town in South Dakota in the 1870s – but its layered cadences, its jivey poetics and its mad lurches between the sacred and the (very) profane seemed to give to Deadwood a sense of deep, almost uncanny emotional truth.
It helped greatly to have magnificent, scene-chewing performances from the likes of Ian McShane, as the saloon and brothel-keeper Al Swearengen, a hard Machiavel with a mouth on him like a glorious sewer, and Paula Malcomson, as the magnificently dead-eyed prostitute Trixie. But more than anything else, Deadwood was carried by the megalomaniacal force of Milch’s verbal energy; he may be the greatest dialogist alive and his brand of inky, night-black comedy is savagely appropriate to our era.
Deadwood is about uncomfortable things: the birth and death of capitalism, the queasy insistences of greed and ambition and the orgiastic sex charge of ultra-violence. Unlike most contemporary film and television productions, it is not afraid of words. There are mad swaths of dialogue, just reams upon reams of the crazy stuff, and it’s almost all wonderful, so funny and tragic, so sad and true.
Deadwood would not be made today. The executives wouldn’t even read the scripts – they would just see all that writing and run a mile. It may be the last great TV show to run on the engines of purely literary technique. It may be one of the last great expressions of televisual eloquence.
Turkish newspapers were not a pretty sight in the days after the New Year’s Eve attack on an Istanbul nightclub that left 39 dead. We didn’t even know the identity of the gunman who rampaged through Reina, a glitzy venue on the European bank of the Bosphorus, but the blame game had already begun. “The prime suspect is America,” one conservative, pro-government paper declared. An ultra-critical opposition title blamed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for tolerating “fundamentalist propaganda”. This response was no surprise to anyone in Turkey. Last year was a disaster, a long string of bombings, escalation of an internal conflict with Kurdish militants and a coup attempt.
In a country where rival political and social camps seem to expend much energy on loathing one another, each calamity provoked another bout of bitter argument. As 2016 drew to a close, many were already long worried that Turkey – a member of Nato, a key Western security partner and technically still a candidate for EU accession – was falling apart. The Reina attack, claimed by Isis in a crowing statement, aimed to give the country another kick even before 2017 had got going.
Foreign observers often blame Turkey’s woes on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the rabble-rousing president who has dominated the political landscape for the past decade and a half. He has not helped with his fiery anti-Western rants, or his provocative outbursts about women and religion. A huge crackdown after the failed coup in July has focused not just on those with clear links to the plot but also critical journalists, activists, Kurdish opposition politicians and civil rights groups. Yet despite his reputation as a strongman, Erdogan at times seems more like the daredevil driver of a speeding go-kart whose brakes have failed.
Perhaps the single most important factor in the new state of permanent crisis here is the Syrian conflict, which has raged for close to six years on the southern border. It has been deeply destabilising. Ankara’s opposition to Bashar al-Assad, and its support for those who took up arms against him, have left the country increasingly isolated. Kurdish militants in Turkey were emboldened by the successes of their Syrian counterparts. The war sent vast numbers of refugees across the border and spawned Isis. For a time, Turkey was criticised by Western security agencies for failing to take the threat of the jihadis sufficiently seriously. But it has since tightened its borders, cracking Isis cells on Turkish soil and launching military operations against the group in Syria. The country has slowly shifted in the eyes of Isis – from being just one target in a long list of enemy states to its latest primary focus. In mid-2015, the bombings began.
The attacks appear calculated to exploit Turkey’s weak spots. Suicide bombers have targeted Kurdish political gatherings and struck at the heart of the tourism sector. With the attack on Reina, where women in short skirts hit the dance floor clutching glasses of champagne, Isis has amplified tensions between Turkey’s socially conservative Muslims and its secular liberals. The mass shooting also exposes the cracks and contradictions in the stance of Erdogan’s AKP, which rallies supporters with Islam-infused rhetoric but has not shut down or banned venues such as Reina.
By targeting a nightclub, Isis is “taunting” the government, says the Ankara-based analyst Selim Koru. “Isis has the luxury of calling them out and saying: ‘You’re compromising. We’re not,’” he says. “There are these existential questions about what Turkey is. Isis attacks just that spot.”
In public, the country’s leaders prefer to sidestep the Isis problem. On 22 December, when the group released a gruesome video that claimed to show two captured Turkish soldiers being burned to death, the government imposed reporting restrictions and throttled access to YouTube and Twitter. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal was detained for two and a half days after sharing a tweet about the clip. The crackdown on freedom of speech is one of many knee-jerk measures that have made European leaders increasingly critical of Turkey (though not sufficiently angry to cancel a €3bn deal with Erdogan to stop refugees from turning up on the EU’s shores).

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