Deadwood (TV Show)

Deadwood (Created by David Milch)/2004-2006

Deadwood is a misunderstood show. It is the brilliant, precocious bad-boy of the HBO catalogue. Deadwood ran for only three seasons and was shunned by people who failed to see past the surface-level whirlwind of swear words. One can watch Deadwood without grasping what is being said due to the deep philosophical reflections hiding behind what appears to be simple and crude language.

The language is symbolic of the show. At first one might assume Deadwood is a brutally violent western show: a show for people that like violence and swearing. However, as it progresses we realise that Deadwood is a genuine presentation of the better and worse sides of humanity, and a compelling thought experiment of what humans become in times of lawlessness and desperation.

Deadwood is a violent mess of a town existing outside any kind of government control. Its time period pre-dates the existence of the United States of America. As the show proceeds  Deadwood increasingly becomes under the influence of central government for better or worse. Many in Deadwood have found solace in the isolation of statelessness and fear the emergence of government and civil society. 

The setting provides the perfect scene for a thought experience.  It involves exploring how society would function without any legislation or enforcement to ensure behavioural compliance. What we get is the most physically powerful and violent characters taking control and establishing their own interpretation of what morality is.

The most electric and addictive character is the seemingly tyrannical brothel owner Al Swearengen. Al and his followers essentially take over the role of government. They decide who can buy property in the town, what shops can be set up and who can live or die. They have their own code of conduct and expect others to comply.

As the show progresses it starts to question who is truly moral in Deadwood. Al is violent and temperamental but also shows concern for prostitutes and a disabled woman that lives with him. He is a man with a very dark view of human nature, but knows how to operate in an environment of extreme brutality. We learn of his victimisation as a child and begin to understand, if not accept, who he is. He is brutal, but only as needed. He also helps the more vulnerable additions to Deadwood adjust to its severity.

As the show advances we are introduced to progressively eviler characters. Cy Tolliver buys another casino/brothel across the thoroughfare from Al’s. Cy develops as more malicious than Al. Cy seems to enjoy inflicting pain on others, but at the same time is more willing to demean himself in order to get what he wants. Al's staff actually take pleasure in being with him and many in Deadwood begin to admire him; however, no one loves nor even likes Cy: something he knows and resents.  

Eventually the most deplorable person arrives in Deadwood: George Hearst. Hearst is a man addicted to power. It is slowly revealed throughout the show that Hearst feels cut off from his fellow humans and has sought pleasure in life by dominating others. Unlike Al, who will inflict pain on others to avoid pain being inflicted on him, Hearst hurts others out of pleasure.

When Hearst arrives in town Cy slowly turns himself into his slave. In this relationship we find a common theme throughout Deadwood: individuals being dominated by those that are stronger and taking their frustration out on those that are weaker. Whenever Cy demeans himself out of fear of Hearst, he inevitably takes his resentment out on his staff. Al on the other hand never grovels or puts himself under the thumb of another and therefore never hurts others out of the shame of being bullied.

With too many memorable characters to mention, I will refrain from analysing them all. However, I will mention two more as they stand out as somewhat different from the rest.

Doc Cochran is the Deadwood doctor. He is an instantiation of Camus’ ethics and plays a similar role to the physician in The Plague. Living in an environment of savagery, death and madness, Doc Cochran devotes his entire existence to his calling of helping others. Regardless of how he feels about his patients, or what they have done, he will attempt to heal them. He moves between the warring cliques, and is respected by all. In usual Deadwood fashion he is  also not a person without flaws: he is prone to alcoholism and fits of rage. He is however a very good human being.

The final character I want to focus on is Alma Garret. She is the most successful woman in Deadwood and is the only female businessperson. She has acquired power through wealth: the wealth allows her to purchase the muscle that keeps her above the plane of violence which would otherwise destroy her. She is admired by the prostitutes that represent 90% of the woman in Deadwood. She is prone to opium addiction, at times cruel to women worse off than herself, but is incredibly strong.

Given the position of women in Deadwood it raises the question of whether this show is more suitable for men. In response to this, I would argue that the context dictates the presentation of women in this show. Deadwood is a historical show that attempts to be true to its environment. Moreover, it has no qualms about pointing out how horrific life was for women during this period, and the freedom that the emergence of government and law provides women. Deadwood is a show for anyone interested in history and reflections on how goodness and evil is in us all.

The other thing I thought about was whether it was OK to like Al. He is a murderer, prone to violent outbursts and aggression. However, it is through the contrast with even worse characters that I started to admire Al. It is as if the show distorts one’s conception of what is acceptable so that even small gestures of kindness take on great meaning. This is the problem one faces whenever one views history through the modern context, or war time actions through the lens of peace. If it is too much to say context is everything, it can certainly explain the affection many Deadwood viewers eventually feel towards Al.

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