A reasonable approach to history requires a certain sophistication, that is to say, an ability to hold in the mind more than one thought at a time.
David Milch’s Deadwood is a rarity among our prestigious TV series for reviving questions about the American founding. The series places it not in 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, but instead with the foundations of American wealth and commerce in 1876. The setting of Deadwood, South Dakota matters because it depicts the bloody borders of American civilization, and seeks to demystify how Americans really conquered the West. On HBO, Milch shared this vision of American life in a show that ran for three seasons (2004-6) before getting canceled. Now, Milch returns to HBO to conclude his story with Deadwood: The Movie.
To understand Milch, we should start from Tocqueville’s contrast between the egalitarian Puritans who founded communities on the doctrine of Christian equality, where freedom meant self-government, and the other, more unprincipled foundations in the American South and elsewhere in the New World. These were colonies based on slavery or love of gold and silver, where freedom meant having one’s own way. Like these earlier colonies, the town of Deadwood is decidedly piratical. Whereas the Declaration talks about self-evident truths, our shared human nature, Milch presents instead “a lie agreed upon,” and he shows us a community built upon violence and wickedness, as well as the ways people must conceal that truth from themselves in order to go on with life.
Since we can say the Puritans were primarily about equality as a natural and divine gift to all human beings, we see immediately that the pirates are about freedom without equality. The town of Deadwood is run by Al Swearengen (played by the great Ian McShane), who runs The Gem, a saloon, gambling house, and brothel, and owns much property. He and his crew murder, beat, and torture their opponents. Swearengen is also the star of the show, the last free man in America, and speaks like an amateur Shakespearean, as do many others around him. We are supposed to recognize the inescapable force of necessity over human life and admire Swearengen’s tyrannical willingness to do what it takes to survive.
Progress in Darkness
Swearengen is heroic in comparison with the real tyrant in Deadwood—George Hearst, father of the famous publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Back when our stories insisted on moral edification, Hearst would have been portrayed as a self-made man with little in the way of formal education who grew up in a log cabin in Missouri. We would have been shown a man who had to provide for his family as a young adult after his father died, and then went on to make a great fortune for himself in business (mining) and contribute to the wealth of the nation. All this is true: Hearst died in Washington, honored, having been elected a Democrat Senator from California.
Nowadays, however, our stories insist on moral correction, so in Deadwood, Hearst is portrayed almost exclusively as a moral monster who has people murdered who get in his way, concealing all this evil behind pretenses of respectability. Such allegations were indeed made against Hearst, but they are now the whole story. More, he uses his wealth and eventually his political office to exploit everyone in sight. He comes to Deadwood, however, not like a plague, but wearing the mantle of Progress. America’s destiny itself requires the destruction of piratical freedom in favor of the organized crime of robber barons.
Hearst champions the arrival of the telegraph and telephone—instantaneous communications which tie Deadwood to America. He already has control of the already corrupt political establishment of the Dakota territory and hopes to gain more power with the arrival of statehood in 1889. Thus, the miners who founded Deadwood on land stolen from the Lakota Indians—an American pattern, in a way—have their own freedom stolen when the federal government and the modern economy come around. Freedom is itself in danger and Swearengen is freedom’s champion.
This is a fundamental conflict and although our entertainment is now supposed to be more sophisticated and full of nuances, it is in fact shockingly moralistic, presenting historical figures in a light that is not merely decidedly judgmental, but which bespeaks agony. Hearst stands for the opinion that justice is merely the advantage of the stronger. He is shown to go from success to success on a path of bloodied corpses. No one could respect justice if Hearst embodied American authority. But then no one would be outraged by Hearst if they didn’t love justice. This is the paradox of progressive piety. The sophistication seems fake.
Commerce from Chaos
Deadwood itself is partly fake, but partly history. There really was a gold rush town that briefly thrived and then was quickly forgotten. Most of the story’s central characters are based on historical records, but of course Swearengen is Milch’s own Machiavellian hero, with the wit of Falstaff and the ruthless violence of Henry V. Milch wants us to see America through his eyes: our freedom means, at bottom, making a living. You work or make others work for you, and the laws don’t matter—only what you can get away with, and on the frontier, you can get away with a lot. And here is the Machiavellian element: Milch’s characters recognize that it would be beautiful to be moral, but also that it can often be deadly. Necessity is a better guide to conduct.
People kill each other over money in Deadwood, but more often do business. They’re shameless and it almost goes without saying there is almost no religion there. What organizes the lawless chaos is what caused it in the first place—the desire to make a fortune. The American promise of success seems therefore to be pre-political and to favor organization without questions of citizenship, rights, or even the reciprocal duties of justice. For a brief time, we see a vision of fully privatized public life, fulfilling the American longing to do away with all authority. This is so attractive it makes Deadwood an object of nostalgia and a rival myth to other famous Westerns.
The Western’s Skepticism about Progress
Deadwood is a late Western, but still part of the literature and cinema of America’s Western expansion, and therefore the national mythology. Skepticism of Progress is not new in Westerns, however. John Ford, the greatest poet of the Western, shows us the town of Shinbone, Arizona in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), both in its lawless days and in the quiet days after statehood. The former is obviously more humane, more community-minded, and more attractive, for all the poverty and danger. Peace is very melancholy. Nevertheless, he insists that for the sake of women especially political progress is necessary and the Declaration must be the basis of all education.
Sam Peckinpah, the greatest Western director in the generation after Ford’s, showed in The Wild Bunch (1969) that progress—commercial, scientific, technological, and political—is an unmitigated disaster for human dignity. Progress puts rich men (railroad magnates) in charge of everything, including the police power of the state, to the point that the last noble men are all criminals and the only innocence they can find is South of the border. America is no longer defensible, in Peckinpah’s eyes—freedom has been fully forsaken for the sake of commerce and safety.
Milch takes these great directors as his point of departure, but he radicalizes their skepticism toward progress while also reversing their judgment on the importance of nobility. From his point of view, the old Western’s veneer of honor conceals the bleak reality of American expansion: it is just a noble lie told by men like Ford, one which men like Peckinpah oughtn’t to have believed. American progress necessarily flows from unpunished acts of rape, robbery, and murder on the frontier. And people got along without legal justice, in favor of a rougher sort, one often imposed by more powerful criminals on everyone else. Ford offered a picture of American justice alongside nobility, Peckinpah showed us nobility without justice, and Milch offers neither. Freedom is the theme for all three men, but Milch goes so far as to divorce it from justice and equality.
As much as Ford or Peckinpah, Milch looks at the America around him when he tells stories about America’s past. Good Westerns try to explain the logic of political change in America with a view to the common good. They are guided by something like prudence, not merely the pleasure of telling persuasive stories. Milch especially presents us more of a future than a past—what America might be if public institutions collapse, from law to religion. That’s the ultimate in skepticism of Progress and makes Deadwood more realistic than its classification as a “period piece” would suggest.
The new Deadwood movie concludes by adding a degree of ceremony. We see a marriage, a birth, and a death. These solemn occasions seem strange in Deadwood and signal the end of the fantasy of unchecked freedom. A gentler, more regulated future awaits, fit for normal people, without larger-than-life characters. The myth is over, and also most of the violence. Eventually, mortality catches up to even the proudest; then the world changes. It seems the promise of lawless freedom is partly deceptive; something beyond mere individualism is required to make a community. One expects far more Puritanism—and far less piracy—would follow.