Since reading was tough with both hands full, I set about catching up on TV series I’d missed over the years. More recently, I finished Mad Men, which… well, I’ll save that for another post, but before that it was Deadwood. After devouring all three seasons, I found myself a bit shocked that I’d missed it when it was brand new.
Well, maybe not: I’ve never been a big fan of cowboy stories, after all. The Lone Ranger was about the only one I dug as a kid. (When I was in elementary school, we lived in a tiny town with only one free TV channel. On Saturdays, the only thing they aired that was fun was an episode of Rod Serling’s original series The Twilight Zone, followed by an episode of the original Star Trek series. When they finished their run of Star Trek and started following up The Twilight Zone with some faded old Western series—I think it was Bonanza, but I can’t say for sure—I started switching off the TV after Serling wrapped things up.)
It’s not that I hate Westerns, mind you. I just don’t usually see what everyone else seems to see in most of them. With exceptions, of course. But no, those exceptions don’t include Firefly. Cowboys-in-space (who are explicitly cowboyish, I mean) has always been the most baffling subgenre of SF as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t get it.
Anyway, whatever I think about most Westerns, I definitely enjoyed Deadwood: I devoured all three seasons in about a week and a half, mostly while nursing little Noeul. If I were terribly worried about him picking up and using new cuss words, I suppose I’d be happy I picked that time to watch it: he’s too little to pick up anything except a case of hiccups at this point, but the show definitely has changed the way I cuss at the idiots I encounter driving on the streets of Jochiwon daily, and rather decisively, too.
Still, while a lot of the pixels I’ve seen spilled about the show relate to the foul language used on it, I found myself wondering about what it was in the the series that hooked me, what the series was fundamentally about, and how the tension and dynamics of the over-arching story actually worked, both as a fiction unto itself, and as a piece of historical fantasy.
This was something I found myself thinking about in part because the characters in the show, while based on historical personages, are very different, in ways that suggest more’s at work than poetic license. For example, Calamity Jane mocks the idea of working in a whorehouse on the show, but in real life she in fact did work as a prostitute in real life, Seth Bullock was a little less moral than the show lets on, Hearst was not quite so evil as the show suggests (though I suppose he’s tainted by association with his son), and Swearingen—the most interesting character in the show—was much more of an unredeemable prick in real life. (In the show, he has a heart of gold, and cares somewhat about the women who work for him, and about the community: in real life, he was a monstrous thug who probably ought to have been shot dead in the street for the good of everyone else in town.)
When people take those kinds of liberties with historical figures, I always wonder why, and in this case, I think it reveals a lot about the show and about TV as a vehicle for ideology.
What I liked about the show, though, was how it made some of its characters make very hard decisions, and stick with them. I liked that it didn’t really shy away from the pervasive racism, but—while presenting one case of histrionic, bile-spewing bigotry—also tried to present it in context.1 I liked how so many of the characters made horrible decisions, or ultimately refused to make decisions, or (sometimes unwittingly) made decisions so horrible that they ultimately led to their own destruction.
In Deadwood, the outside world is hostile, economics is built on hostility, the earth itself is hostile, and even one’s own body is hostile to one’s own interests (whether in its fertility, or the diseases and injuries that lie in wait with our mortal flesh): there’s just no getting away from the fundamental hostility of the universe in this series, and yet people somehow make lives in the shadow of all that, find meaning and hope and a reason to keep fighting on, pushing on, or, even trudging on. I guess it helps that pretty much every actor more than pulls his or her own weight: I don’t remember too many performances that I found unsatisfying, not even from characters given very little screen time, or very little to work with. Keone Young’s Mr. Wu has a mere three word English vocabulary for the first couple of seasons (and he only gets one more in the third, if I remember right), but he burns with purpose and agency whenever he’s onscreen.
And at the far end of the writing spectrum, Swearingen—a character who mostly curses, snarls, and grunts through the first episode (as noted in an article that rightly notes the complexity of a lot of the dialogue on the show), ends up with Shakespearean soliloquies by the end of the series, whether he’s musing aloud while being serviced by one of the girls in his employ, or talking to the decapitated head of an Indian he keeps in a box. 2 A lesser actor might not have been able to deliver those soliloquies, but Ian McShane does a wonderful job on them, never breaking character or missing a mannerism no matter how cerebral or (momentarily) compassionate Swearingen becomes.
To focus on those two actors is a disservice to everyone else on the show: pretty much every actor on the show brings his or her character to profound life, filling the town with distinctive personalities who are all a little off-putting, scary, and terrible… who have to find a way to coexist so they don’t kill one another, and who also manage to be surprisingly human just when you least expect it. (The reactions to an unexpected death in the third season make for one of the series’ most surprising and best episodes.)
It’s that struggle to find a way to coexist that I think makes the show work, by the way. I’ve seen writeups claiming that Deadwood is supposed to be a great narrative about the problematics of peaceful coexistence, about how a random collection of people in the wilderness form a community and then impose order on it, and defend it both against the wild, and against threats from outsiders… but as I read it, they’re also fighting their way through the contestation of what kind order should be established within their community: the process of figuring out the nature and type of order they can all live with, and the regime that enforces it, is where most of the tension actually comes in. What I’m saying that it’s the internally contested nature of what sort of order needs establishing that makes the show work so well.
(Indeed, if the show loses steam in the third season—I feel like it does, even though I found the third season compelling too—it’s probably because the gears have shifted from internal contestation, to a more familiar (and simpler) struggle against an interloping outsider, in the form of George Hearst.)
I think that dynamic of narrative-as-debate over what sort of order is tolerable is actually a lot of the reason why the show departs from history. I don’t mean the likely-anachronistic cursing, which a lot of people obsessed about. No, I was more interested in the specific decisions made while fictionalizing its historical figures. Hearst and Swearingen had to switch places with their historical analogues: by which I mean, in real life Hearst was a tough businessman but (unlike his son, or so I’ve read) was fundamentally decent, while the heart-of-gold tough guy Swearingen of the show was, in real life, more of a hardened thug and a monster in real life, unrepentant about human trafficking and tricking girls into sex slavery and an early death. This switch was, I guess, necessary in order to make the show work: you couldn’t have Hearst (an outsider) be the innocuous one, and Swearingen (the local, the insider) be the unmitigated monster.
Well, you could, but it’d be harder, and you’d have to make a very different kind of show. The question for me is whether the show’s creator, David Milch, made the change for the sake of a better story, or for ideological reasons. (Milch very much seems, in his writing and in accounts of his stated agenda, to want to make an argument that gold—as a symbol or an idea—had a kind of almost magical power to cause people to group, form community, organize, and create order in the amoral wilderness.3 The historical Swearingen confounded this thematic commitment: he was both a insider in the historical Deadwood, and an unrepentant source of conflict and disorder. The Swearingen in the show is half-reformed, usually walking the line between self-interested embrace of a certain kind of limited order: he gets that absolute disorder benefits nobody, not even a murderous pimp and drug trafficker.
Which is to say that an antagonistic Swearingen, someone who kicked and screamed against mutually-beneficial order all the way along, would probably have gridlocked the show. (The few people I’ve known who were anything like the historical Swearingen—incapable of committing to any shared interests, and probably sociopaths—were not the kind of people you want in a TV show: the best villain is not a sociopath, but simply an uncompromising person with radically different interests than oneself. It’s just too hard to tell the story of a community in which a bullying prick with no redeeming qualities is also an insider playing an active role in the community. But I suppose that’s why Hearst is the least interesting character in the show: he’s just a big mean sociopathic jerk and everyone could be saved a lot of trouble if he’d just been “accidentally” shot in the head early on.
Of course, edgy as HBO might be, the summary dispatching of predatory, community-destroying psychopaths is probably just too far for an American TV show to go… even if there’s plenty of precedent for such an outcome in American history. I suppose the image of the posse killing the trouble-making interloper is just too much like the image of the lynch mob for people to be comfortable thinking about it now? (As if forgetting one is sort of license to forget the other, maybe.) Or maybe it’s just that the preoccupation with “justice” as necessarily being a legal process has forced that older, vigilante approach to justice off into the margins of memory. 4
I suppose what I’m arriving at is the usual observation about historical drama: that it necessarily involves warping and distortion that reflects the anxieties and passions of the time. It shouldn’t surprise us that a show like Deadwood, that seems so unflinching about the brutal and ugly realities of the past, does so… but it’s interesting to dig deep enough to figure out where. I guess that’s all I have to say about the show, for now anyway.
A couple of things I’ve read about Deadwood, and enjoyed:
- WIRED Summer Binge-Watching Guide: Deadwood
- Sean O’Sullivan’s Reconnoitering the Rim: Thoughts on Deadwood and Third Seasons
- “The Real Men of Deadwood” over at history.net: though it is, as the title suggests, mainly focused on the men, it discusses Calamity Jane as well
- The Black Hills Pioneer, a newspaper in the area of the real Deadwood, has a more thorough comparison of historical facts with the show’s fictions.
Oh, and the biggest lost opportunity? That the Gem, in real life, was actually the Gem Theater: they had not just prostitutes and booze, but stage shows of all kinds. Imagine a vaudeville show in the TV show’s version of the Gem, and the house packed with an enthusiastic audience who turned up for the dancing, singing, and other performers!
The show’s handling of racism is interesting, but I don’t know if I have time to get into it, really. I will say that I thought it was handled well, but I’m a white middle class guy, albeit one who has lived as a racial minority for years in a place where the norms and social standards for racial sensitivity and respect for difference are somewhat comparable to those in Deadwood.↩
You just know Hamlet would’ve done with Yorick’s skull if he could have.↩
In fact, in writeups of the show from that time, it’s often brought up how Milch had pitched a drama to HBO set in Nero’s Rome, focusing on how the new underground religion of Christianity functioned the same way for some Romans. When he discovered that HBO was already committed to doing Rome, he reputedly decided to explore the same dynamic in a Western, gold-rush setting.↩
But then, I’m the guy who wonders why Batman doesn’t just kill the damned Joker and be done with it.↩