The last episode of the HBO series "Deadwood" ran on Sunday evening, bringing to an end one of the most unusual and absorbing experiments in historical storytelling ever attempted on the small screen. The network’s decision not to continue the program is understandable (it was very expensive to film) if by no means easy to forgive.
Set in a mining camp in the Dakota Territory during the late 1870s, "Deadwood" belongs to the sub-genre of the “revisionist Western” -- a skeptical retelling of how the frontier was settled, one grittier and less prone to melodrama than B-movie versions. Among the people finding their way into town are historical figures who have long since become part of the Western mythology: Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, the brothers Earp. Most of the other major characters can also be found in chronicles of the real-life town of Deadwood.
A few others were imagined into existence by David Milch, the show’s creator -- but not quite ex nihilo. I’m pretty sure that Alma Garrett, the genteel widow who sets up Deadwood’s bank, wandered into the show from one of Henry James’s notebooks. The refined sociopath Francis Wolcott -- the (fictional) geologist employed by the (very real) mining tycoon George Hearst -- might well have felt at home in William S. Burroughs’s transgressive Western novel The Place of Dead Roads.
And while the unctuous hotel proprietor and mayor E. B. Farnum is based on an actual person who lived in the South Dakota town, he also comes by way of Charles Dickens. E.B. is the American cousin of Uriah Heep, if ever there were one.
Such literary allusions might all exist solely in my imagination, of course. But probably not. Milch, the show’s executive producer and head writer, was a student of Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at Yale University in the 1960s. Interviews reveal someone whose mind turns easily to questions of literary form and verbal texture.
The scripts Milch has written for television -- in the early years of "NYPD Blue," for example -- exhibit an interest in how a group of people who live and work together create an argot capable of infinite subtleties of inflection, depending on the circumstance. His years around Warren and Brooks (founding fathers of the old-fashioned New Criticism) must have drilled into Milch the idea that literary works are characterized by irony, tension, and paradox. He seems to have taken this insight to the next step -- listening for how those formal principles can shape the rhythms of ordinary conversation.
With "Deadwood," the Milchian penchant for conveying the stylization of speech broke new ground -- thanks to HBO’s freedom from the conventional restraints of broadcast television. The characters delivered intricate arias of Victorian syntax and repetitive obscenity. It sounded like some hitherto unimaginable blend of Walter Pater and gangster rap. It was often exhilarating, if sometimes farfetched. You felt awe at the power of the actors to memorize their lines, let alone speak them. The combination lent itself to parody but it is difficult to imagine its like ever being heard on television again.
Milch’s tendency toward stylization bothered some people, who found it mannered and arch. I don’t agree, but will leave the show’s defense in more capable hands. Instead, let me use this chance to discuss another element of the language of "Deadwood" that has passed largely without comment, although it usually proves far more bracing than the familiar obscenities.
I mean the epithets. The women who work in the saloons of Deadwood are called “whores.” Nobody blinks at the word, least of all the women so addressed. The Sioux Indians are more often referred to as “dirt worshippers.” The town’s Chinese laborers live in “Chink Alley.” One of the owners of the hardware store is the entrepeneur Sol Star, better known simply as “the Jew.” (He teaches his girlfriend Trixie, a former whore, how to do bookkeeping. In moments of frustration she calls it a “Jew skill.”) A black drifter arrives in town wearing an old Civil War uniform. If he has a given name, it isn’t mentioned twice. Everyone refers to him as the Nigger General -- in part, because that is what he calls himself.
Often enough the words are used as weapons. But sometimes the insults flow so casually that the offense barely has time to register. And there are moments when they carry no more charge than a “damn” would. It is all a matter of context.
But it is a context in which racism, for example, is naked and unashamed. "Deadwood" takes this for granted as a fact about the world it is presenting -- a reality scarcely more worthy of comment than the mud in the streets.
One citizen of Deadwood in particular is prone to loud and resentment-fueled tirades about the honor that is due him as a white man. You see that most other characters find him disgusting. But that isn’t a matter of his attitudes, so much as his demeanor. After all, he is universally known as Steve the Drunk.
The language proves jarring -- for the television audience, anyway -- precisely because it is treated as ordinary. The charge of symbolic violence can be taken for granted, just like the fistfight taking place out in the thoroughfare at two in the morning. Its cumulative effect is powerful and eye-opening. (Or maybe “ear-opening,” rather.)
While reading Eric Rauchway’s new bookBlessed Among Nations -- the subject of last week’s column – I found that the ambience of "Deadwood" was almost always at the back of my mind. But only after interviewing Rauchway did it occur to me to ask if he watched the program. Not surprisingly, he did. I asked if he had any thoughts on the show, now that it was winding down.
“There's an overall story arc of the transition from wilderness to civilization,” he responded, “and the major plot lines have to do with the circumstances under which civic institutions evolve. But it's not Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier – or if it is, it's a decidedly modified Turner.”
It might be worth mentioning here that, of all the historians of the Progressive era, Turner has probably had the most contradictory posthumous career. It’s been a while since any scholar wholeheartedly endorsed his thesis about the closing of the American frontier. But it remains a landmark -- if only the kind used by later generations for target practice -- and I doubt a non-historian can watch "Deadwood" for very long without reinventing some approximation of Turner’s notion that the national character was shaped down to its cells by the Western edge of expansion.
Anyway, as Rauchway was saying, before I so digressively interrupted....
“There's some evidence that [the show’s characters] are safety-valve types. They're people who say, as Ellsworth does, that they might have "fucked up their lives flatter than hammered shit, but they're beholden to no human cocksucker".... But they're not, Turner-style, out there to get an opportunity to civilize themselves. Which is to say, they don't go West because only there can they get a patch of land and settle, Jeffersonian-like, into civilization.”
Rather, people finding their way to the mining town are looking for a new start -- often because the economy has destroyed their other options.
“In several conversations on 'Deadwood',” notes Rauchway, “we've been told that these people have bumped into each other in other boom towns, before those booms went bust, and now their predilections have brought them here. And we can infer that soon they'll move on again. If they're the advance agents of civilization, they're doing that work unwillingly.”
And the civilization they create reflects that restlessness. The first two of "Deadwood"’s three seasons told a story about people slowly -- almost unwittingly -- establishing a social contract. A swarm of disconnected and sometimes violent individuals created a rough semblance of order (with the emphasis in “rough”). It was not so much a matter of coming to trust one another, as learning the limited utility of constant suspicion and fear.
This past season led up to the town’s first election -- an initial step toward the eventual incorporation of the territory into the United States, proper. But that bit of progress only comes at the cost of sacrifice: the destruction of that order we have watched grow over time. A new regime emerges, now under the control of a consolidated mining operation.
The final image of the series really did sum it up perfectly. It shows a man on his knees, scrubbing a pool of blood off the wooden floor.
Another character, Johnny, has just asked for some reassuring words about the event that led to the giant stain. Johnny leaves, and the man with the brush gets back to work. "Wants me to tell him something pretty," he says.
It's not a rebuke, exactly -- just a reminder that, as someone once put it, every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.