Welcome to fucking Deadwood!
Despite extensive critical acclaim and a healthy haul of primetime television awards which included no fewer than eight Emmy Awards and a well-deserved Golden Globe for the acting of Ian McShane, the HBO show Deadwood was prematurely cancelled after three riveting seasons, leaving several plot lines insufficiently resolved. The reasons for this are vague and mysterious, with suppositions about the creator David Milch’s mental state, the sheer cost of the show’s production, and some problem with signing much of the cast on for another season being just a few examples. At any rate, as McShane himself has said, ‘Deadwood is dead’, and we can only reflect on and admire what the show actually achieved.
And what an achievement it was! From even before the conception of the Western locale of the prospecting camp of Deadwood, the intent of David Milch was to illustrate via a television series the organization of human society from infancy, focussing on how human order overcomes the chaos of the natural state. While the original idea involved the Roman era, Deadwood in its own way represents an excellent scenario for this transition, allowing the writers to portray the first stages of society in the rough edges of a miner’s camp, devoid of law & order, all children, and almost any woman who is not in the service of the pimps who run the saloons; there is also the fact that Deadwood was initially an illegal settlement, existing beyond the official jurisdiction of the American federal government, and of any state besides.
This is the foundation upon which Milch builds, developing the society slowly, patiently, into something resembling what we might almost call a proper ‘town’. He does this through many avenues, by the appointment of a sheriff, by establishing a newspaper, the introduction of children and of a school, the proper elections of various officials, and so forth. There are two other, deeper themes in connexion with this development that continually re-assert themselves, particularly in the second and third seasons; these are, namely, the annexation of Deadwood into either the state of South Dakota or Montana, and secondly the approach of an extremely wealthy gold-baron who seeks to simply buy out the entire camp, and to therefore terminate the almost feudal organization hitherto instituted by the settlement’s founders.
The second overarching plot that is half-resolved in the third season is particularly interesting in that the gold-baron, George Hearst, allegorically represents the system of American capitalism. As a workmanlike millionaire who is domineering, callous, incredibly competitive, and interested only in ‘the colour’ (gold), Hearst is indeed the model figure of the Protestant work ethic in practise, and of the American economic leviathan that grips the nation in its flesh-less embrace. The activity of the camp’s leaders in the third season suddenly becomes more organized in their opposition to this arrival which threatens their existence in multifarious aspects, and the viewer is angled to support the careers of men who are often portrayed as vicious bullies otherwise.
'Gold is every man's opportunity.... Our agreement that gold has value gives us power to rise above.... Gold confers power. Power comes to any man who has the colour.' ~ George Hearst
To call Al Swearingen merely a ‘bully’ is, however, to be cruel and unjust; much like the iconic anti-hero of The Sopranos, Tony, there is a myriad of different elements to his character that make the descriptive or moralistic category of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ obsolete and completely ineffectual. While he clearly has no problem with killing a man who stands in the path of his interests, and while he certainly does have the nefarious attributes of the town’s foremost ‘Mafioso’, there is also the idea that he really does care about the welfare of the camp, and of (some of) its inhabitants; it is Al, after all, who, at no apparent material advantage to himself, appoints the various officers of the camp and their duties, including the honorary mayor Farnham, who is very much his servant, and it is Al who is the mastermind behind the salvation of the camp against the encroachment of George Hearst and his capitalistic machinations.
‘When he ain’t lyin’, Al is the most honourable man you’ll ever meet.’ ~ Silas Adams
It is through Al Swearingen that David Milch puts his best lines forward, making him, in his own brutal, foul-mouthed, buccaneering way, arguably the show’s most loveable character; he is beloved not only by us, however, but by those who serve under him, most notably by Dan Dority, who is jealous of ‘co-worker’ Silas Adams’ good favour with Al, which eventually culminates in an uneasy alliance. There is also the example of the whore who works for Al telling him that he will not vote for Bullock as Sheriff, since ‘he yells’ at Al. The show does not stop at profanity (his favourite word being ‘cocksucker’) either in terms of the vulgar and the base – Al apparently thinks best either when he is getting a blowjob from one of his whores, or when giving monologues to the stinking, heavily decomposed head of an Indian chief killed in the early stages of the first season.
While there is not an astounding amount of fighting (most of the bloodshed coming from throat-slitting and back-stabbing and back-shooting), the few instances of more or less honourable fights are extremely well-done. The fight between Al’s henchman Dan Dority and George Hearst’s bodyguard Captain Turner, for example, is one of the most intense, grisly, painful hand-to-hand fights anyone will ever see; the depth of dirt, grime, and blood involved is more than sufficient to convey both the utter desperation of either fighter to kill the other and the pure will-to-live on the most elementary, most animalistic level.
Besides its premature conclusion, the only significant complaint we can lodge against this series is the homosexual relationship that develops between two of the female characters; this is firstly due to our moral sensibilities, secondly to our sensibilities in terms of good taste (there is not much that is filthier on this good earth than the activities of homosexuals of either sex), and thirdly due to the priority that this relationship receives in the show. The first of the three other notable heterosexual love affairs in the show ends tragically for reasons of honour and of practise over love, and the third one is a quirky, amusing, yet ultimately unfulfilled partnership between a man in love with a whore who does not know how to be a woman instead, and the third one being the hopelessly unrequited love of a saloon owner with someone ‘swinging for the other team’, so to speak.
Beyond everything else, however, beyond the rich, intricate storylines that weave seamlessly within each other, beyond the revealing allegories of a hungry capitalism against the humble ambitions of small-time individuals, and beyond the overarching theme of constructing order from chaos is the fundamental reason why any intelligent person should love Deadwood: the way that they talk. David Milch is clearly at his best when it comes to script-writing, as the dialogue between the characters illustrates in an enormously satisfying way (it comes as no surprise that Milch is a former English Lit professor). The metaphors, the mythological, classical allusions, the terrific paronomasia, the splendid imagery – it cannot be stressed enough how much this comes across as a Shakespearean drama. From the ribald humour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the profound, self-investigative monologues of King Lear, Deadwood mimics them all with outstanding success.
Jarry: Perhaps then, rather, at this moment you are Socrates to my Alcibiades, taken it upon yourself to edify me.Hearst: Are you saying you want to fuck me?Jarry: What?Hearst: Well, you keep calling yourself Alcibiades to my Socrates, are you proposing some sort of homosexual connection between us?Jarry: I forgot that part of the story… But, if I were courting you, Mr. Hearst, I claim no allure of my own, suggesting only the mutuality of our interests concerning the upcoming elections grants my suits some small virtue. As you gaze upon me, sir, recall that some unions of convenience may outlast those conceived in passion.
It is a magnificent joy to watch this series and be relieved of the tired, formulaic interplay between characters, who say the same things the same exact way as every other show, and with the same stolid attempts at wit; Deadwood really is witty, and it is in this if in no other category that this show inherits the Shakespearean spirit, most particularly in terms of insults, as the reader can see below in two highly indicative samples of Milch’s profound invention when it comes to spewing filth in the direction of another party.
Farnham: Could you have been born, Richardson, and not egg-hatched as I’ve always assumed? Did your mother hover over you, snuggle-toothed and doting as you now hover over me?Richardson: I loved my mother.Farnham: Puberty may bring you to understand, what we take for mother love is really murderous hatred and desire for revenge.…Richardson: My father didn’t liked me much.Farnham: I’d like to use your ointment to suffocate you.
Swearingen: ‘Well, I won’t wish you luck, ‘cause I can tell that you ain’t the type who needs it. Sol Star, that’s a Jewish name. Mine isn’t, but nice to meet you son, huh… marked you for an earner the moment you came in. Jew bastard.’
Deadwood is a proud member of the pantheon of modern television legends, sitting there alongside Rome, The Sopranos, The Wire, and the premonition of the legend-to-be Boardwalk Empire. It is the perfect synthesis of mob film and classic Western, superimposed on a timeless theme of order against chaos, civilization against savagery, and on the contemporaneously relevant theme of the capitalist empire and its foundations. Watch this show, cocksuckers, watch this show! We leave you now with Steve the Drunk, the charmingly endless conveyer belt of Negro insults, the best of Al Swearingen, and with the best 'Strong Womyn' character in all television history, Calamity Jane… enjoy!