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A Law Beyond Law: Life Together in Deadwood

Deadwood Cover

The Black Hills of Dakota in the 1870s may seem like an unlikely place for a dramatic narrative pursuing themes of justice, service, and community, but that’s exactly what the audience gets in compelling fashion in HBO’s recently concluded series Deadwood. When creator and executive producer David Milch first pitched the idea to HBO executives, the setting was in fact ancient Rome.

Speaking of Deadwood’s setting, a mining camp, Milch says, “This was an environment, as was Rome in the time of Nero, where there was order but no law whatsoever.” The character Merrick, who runs the camp’s newspaper, the Deadwood Pioneer, observes in the first episode that the camp is officially and formally “outside law or statute.”

Set against the mythic landscape of the American West, Deadwood plays out the timeless political and social themes that have confronted every formative culture: the conflict between tyranny and liberty; the call of the conscience in matters of justice; the very human longing for order in a wild and lawless land. Deadwood, like all Westerns, may be viewed as a commentary about the particular time in which it was produced -- America in the 21st Century. (HBO’s characteristic use of nudity and extensive profanity may make this series even more “contemporary” to some.) Ultimately, however, Deadwood poses a question that transcends history: Can a raw and bloody town in the grip of gold rush fever overcome its own violence, greed and materialism? Can it shape a destiny and find meaning outside of the idols of brute force and sudden fortune?

A Sense of Justice

Hickok and Bullock
"Wild Bill" Hikock (left) and Seth Bullock (right)

It’s through the character of Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant), a former lawman from Montana, that we are introduced to the show’s leitmotif of law and order.

As with most of the main characters in Deadwood, Milch has based the players on real-life figures, although he has toyed with the historical facts where it suits the story. So while Wild Bill Hickok and Seth Bullock never met in real life, they become fast (albeit brief) friends on the show. Bullock, along with his partner Sol Star, leaves service as a lawman in Montana to seek his fortune as a purveyor of mining equipment and hardware in the fast-growing Deadwood camp.

But the life of law enforcement isn’t so easy for Bullock to leave behind. As he works on building the frame for the new hardware store, Bullock has an illuminating exchange with Hickok, who himself is a former lawman. Wild Bill notes that soon there will be peace with the Sioux, then “pretty quick you’ll have laws here.” Seth replies, “I’d settle for property rights,” to which Bill asks astutely, “Would you?”

Indeed, it becomes clear that given his character, disposition, and temperament, Bullock cannot just “settle for property rights.” A man driven by conscience, ideals, and an innate sense of justice, Bullock eventually, and grudgingly, assumes the role of sheriff in Deadwood. His natural sense of equity provides an element of needed stability in the camp.

In a later conversation with Wyatt Earp, another former lawman of some repute, Bullock admits, “I took the badge off myself once, without losing my impulse to beat on certain types.” The decisive shift for Bullock, moving him into service to the broader community as sheriff, comes in a conversation with General Crook, who seeks brief respite in the camp from fighting the Sioux.

Bullock complains to Crook that the town’s sheriff, whose position had been created for political purposes and had assumed a largely ceremonial role, was corrupt and inept. To this Crook responds, “In a camp where the sheriff can be bought for bacon grease, a man, a former marshal, who understands the danger of his own temperament, he might consider serving his fellows…. We all have bloody thoughts.” Bullock’s calling from General Crook is to put those retributive instincts to the greater good of the camp.

Service and Vocation

If Bullock’s contribution to the Deadwood camp consists largely in the administration of justice, the vocations of other figures are much more diverse.

When he recognizes that she has the gift of caring for people, the camp’s doctor calls on Calamity Jane, the friend of Wild Bill Hickok, to assist with an outbreak of smallpox. This gift, belied by her rough carriage and not-so-functional alcoholism, ends up being a constitutive reason why the camp is able to survive such a dangerous outbreak.

Alma Garrett, whose husband’s untimely death leaves her in control of a bonanza gold strike, is determined to open a bank in Deadwood “for the good of the camp.” Her second husband, a gold prospector named Ellsworth, calls Alma “a financial powerhouse,” praising her for her “service to the camp, turning her mine into houses and the like getting built, businesses begun, some for people that will never know her name.”

In a glimpse of the absurdity that sometimes marks life in Deadwood, barkeep Harry Manning runs against Bullock for sheriff in the camp’s first elections, not because he wants to be sheriff, but because he wants to be first deputy, in case Deadwood ever creates a fire brigade. Tom Nuttall, who employs Manning, points out the flaw in his man’s thinking.

“I should cut your salary 20 percent, based on time you’re absent campaigning…. Your plans are idiotic. You’re running for sheriff to be a fireman,” says Nuttall. “Why not build a firewagon that you then rent out to the camp?” When Nuttall offers to loan Manning the money (in the form of the aforementioned salary deduction) and help him build the wagon, plans are agreed upon to pursue an entrepreneurial venture that will provide the camp with a critically important public service. In Deadwood, when people get together, social life becomes rationalized along economic lines, people seek ways in which to specialize their service, and the social life of the camp moves, sometimes in fits and starts, toward peace.

Given the nature of the “Wild” West, however, Deadwood wouldn’t be complete unless there were some more nefarious elements at work. Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) runs a brothel called the Bella Union, and is a primary competitor of Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) who helped found the camp and runs the Gem Saloon (and whorehouse).

Tolliver is a masterful manipulator, who at every opportunity attempts to turn his leading pro Joanie Stubbs to his will. While simultaneously offering Joanie the chance to venture out on her own, he tries to entice her back to the Bella Union to continue running women. Cy tells the suicidally-depressed Joanie, “What brings a gun to the temple is lack of gainful occupation and of being useful to others. I don’t see you trying to kill yourself here. All you do here is good for the girls and me too.”

When Joanie tells him that she “don’t want to run women no more,” Cy avers, “that’s turning from your gift and your training.” Joanie concludes with stunning clarity that when Tolliver propositions her in this way, “I feel it’s like the devil talking.”

Camp and Community

The main story arc that spans the entire series of Deadwood is the conflict between tyranny and liberty, the former personified by the archetypal robber baron, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). From afar Hearst exercises decisive influence on the development of the camp in the first two seasons, and in the final season, his personal presence brings even greater pressure to bear on the camp.

Swearengen, Bullock, and Dority
(left to right) Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, and Dan Dority

In a fit of frustration, Swearengen complains of Hearst to Bullock: “Running his holdings like a despot I grant has a [certain] logic. It’s the way I run mine, it’s the way I’d run my home if I had one. But there’s no practical need for him to run the camp. That’s out of scale. It’s out of proportion and it’s a warped, unnatural impulse.”

But even Hearst’s will to dominate the life of the camp has its own rationalization. Hearst fancies that he is doing his fellow man a service in his devotion to mining gold, to acquiring “the color.” Speaking with Odell, the son of his cook affectionately named “Aunt” Lou, Hearst says, “Before the color, no white man, no man of any hue, moved to civilize or improve a place like this had reason to make the effort. The color brought commerce here, such order as has been attained…. Gold is your chance. Gold is every man’s opportunity.”

In a rare show of sensitivity, Hearst continues, “That is our species’ hope, that uniformly agreeing on its value, we organize to seek the color…. I hate these places, Odell, because the truth that I know, the promise I bring, the necessities I’m prepared to accept make me outcast.” Time and again Hearst puts aside his instinct to react rashly to offense or effrontery, and each time Hearst forestalls out of the greater interest in pursuing the gold.

When Bullock confronts Hearst over his disregard for the law and Alma Garrett resists his attempts to consolidate her claim into his holdings, Hearst encounters just these sorts of frustrations. Speaking to Cy Tolliver, whom he has placed into his service, Hearst confesses that “just this afternoon such displeasure brought me near to murdering the sheriff and raping Mrs. Ellsworth. I have learned through time, Mr. Tolliver, and as repeatedly seem to forget, that whatever temporary comfort relieving my displeasure brings me, my long term interests suffer.”

But in order to efficiently realize the acquisition of the color, Hearst is unwilling to allow any threats to his dominance to exist. Hearst’s obsession with what Charlie Utter, a friend of Wild Bill and Bullock, would call “amalgamation and capital,” moves him to have murdered those who would oppose him, such as workers who would organize into labor unions.

Knowing that even with their combined efforts they cannot oppose Hearst by force, the leading citizens of Deadwood, including Bullock and Swearengen, cast about for a strategy that will not conclude with Hearst taking “this place down like Gomorrah.”

In a moving scene in which the camp’s leadership palavers, they decide to publish in the newspaper a letter from Sheriff Bullock to the family of one of the murdered union organizers. Comparing the letter favorably to the beauty of the social conventions present in the Declaration of Independence, David Milch says that the letter testifies to basic human decency: “You respect the guy’s humanity, you’re kind to his family, you honor him in his passing.”

Jack Langrishe, a flambuoyant theaterman and friend to Swearengen, affirms the wisdom of such an indirect, but unmistakable, course of rebuke to Hearst. In the aftermath when Swearengen expresses doubts about the prudence of publishing the letter, Langrishe wonders why Al might doubt “that proclaiming a law beyond law to a man who is beyond law himself, its publication invoking a decency whose scrutiny applies to him as to all his fellows” is appropriate.

Despite Al’s ostensible projection of himself as a rugged individualist, the image is seen for its superficiaility by Langrishe. Speaking of the Deadwood camp to Swearengen, Langrishe asserts, “A thing of this order you’d as soon not see ruined or in cinders.” To this Swearengen agrees, “I will if I have to, avoiding it, if I could,” unwilling to see the camp exist under the sway of Hearst’s tyranny.

In Deadwood we have the birth of a community in the unlikeliest of places: a gold rush camp where everyone is there first and foremost to seek “the color.” When economic order and social institutions arise organically, even in the face of great evil, Christians recognize God’s providential work through the means of natural law, self-interest, and charity. The struggle between Swearengen and Hearst represents the conflict between the liberty arising from spontaneous, organic order and the tyranny of authoritarian domination and oppression.

As Augustine wrote, “In this universe even that which is called evil, well ordered, and kept in its place, sets the good in higher relief, so that good things are more pleasing and praiseworthy than evil ones.” In Deadwood we see both the way in which evil can limit evil, and how God’s preserving grace is manifest in works of pure self-interest and authentic charity.

While the profuseness of obscene language will undoubtedly prevent some viewers from appreciating the show (numerous expletives have been deleted from the direct quotes in this piece alone), as with Milch’s approach to dialogue, which prefers gritty realism to conventionally styled conversation, the violence and sexuality of Deadwood is far more likely to evoke pity and compassion, and ultimately a recognition of the personhood of the characters, rather than to titillate.

Deadwood’s narrative is so complex, compelling, and engrossing that at the conclusion of each episode, my wife would look to me and say hopefully, “More Deadwood?”

More Deadwood, indeed.