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When HBO declined to pick up the fourth-year options in the contracts for the cast of Deadwood, word spread fast through the American mediascape. Predictably, campaigns to save the show popped up over night. Critical reactions have focused on the network and speculation as to what this decision signifies about the direction of HBO’s original programming. HBO’s reasons for letting Deadwood lapse relate to time and money, in that producing the show requires too much of both. Such a calculation seems more typical of the traditional broadcast networks, and not the one that has long proclaimed itself to be more than mere TV. Perhaps HBO is forsaking its commitment to television as art above television as commerce. Or maybe this is just a slight bump in the road (one might note, for example, the strange lack of public fight from series creator David Milch, or that he recently pitched another show to the network, something about surfing and a guy from Cincinnati).


In either event, from a menu of shows with notable casts, high production values, and higher than average costs, the first season of Rome broke into six digits, HBO chose to let go of the one series on TV, maybe ever, that relentlessly interrogates the historical idea of “America” and the myths on which that idea is based. Wherever HBO heads from here, the loss of this annual interrogation is profound, particularly at a moment when American politics seem to revolve around simplistic oppositions and an insistence on moral absolutes.


The Western, Deadwood‘s inevitable frame of reference, may no longer enjoy the prominence it once did in American popular culture, but its tropes and conventions continue to permeate public life in the U.S. Sometimes the allusions are direct. Examples would be John Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and George W. Bush’s declaration that Osama Bin Laden is, “Wanted: Dead or Alive” (this image was recently revived in Fox News’s coverage of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death). More often, though, the influences are deep and subtle.


The classic Western, for which Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) is the archetype, creates clear lines of demarcation between right and wrong, good and evil, civilized and uncivilized. In this world, right-minded men are expected to choose right, good, and civilization over their opposites, even when the rules of society would restrain him from doing so. Indeed, society is inherently suspect, and in need of good individuals to keep it honest and on the right path. The choice of gender here is deliberate, as it is white men who are the genre’s heroes. The Western underwrites American predilections for plain talk and action over philosophical debate and deliberation. It provides a ready-made and familiar pool of images that can be deployed in justification of unilateral military actions around the world even in the face of international opposition (indeed such opposition becomes part of the justification).


Indeed, when used as a lens through which to view world politics, the Western transforms the American social body into the right-thinking hero licensed to make the world safe for democracy. It defuses talk of American Empire by denying the very possibility of such a thing. The Western, in other words, nourishes a belief in American exceptionalism. While it may be dangerous and wrong for other countries to have weapons of mass destruction or to intervene in the affairs of other nation-states, it is not only acceptable for the U.S. to possess and exercise such powers, but it is America’s duty to do so in the name of freedom and justice. Unlike Europe during the colonial period, the U.S. exerts its will on the world for the greater good of humanity, not its own wealth and aggrandizement. In creating this special place for America in history, the Western also cultivates either/or views of the world (red or blue, with us or against us, love it or leave it). It contributes to the masculinity and white-ness of received histories about the founding of the nation, and plays a role in struggles over attempts to reassess that history, i.e., the Culture Wars, wherein one must declare fealty to either a mono-cultural America or a multicultural one.


It is no accident that the Western lost its popularity not only through over production, but from the introduction of more complex artistic interpretations of the genre. The Western hero has always posed a paradox. While he may be on the side of right, his capacity for violence places him on the line between savagery and civilization. He belongs on the Frontier, not in society. This is why so many Western stories end with the hero riding off into the sunset or otherwise leaving town and even the country. This paradox has provided writers and film makers with space to explore the darker and greyer sides of the genre, and, therefore, of America. During Vietnam, the social movements of the 1960s, and the Nixon era, outlaws and anti-heroes, men with hinky moral compasses, emerged as popular protagonists. The history of frontier colonization and settlement was reexamined such that white people were no longer, as a matter of course, in the right or the noble bearers of civilization. Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, and Clint Eastwood are examples of film makers who participated in the revisionism of the Western. Contemporary Westerns, as infrequently as they appear, continue to work the darker corners of the genre, blurring the clear lines of demarcation between right and wrong, etc. that define the classic form.


What makes Deadwood different from earlier revisions is that it not only that it blurs the lines of right and wrong, good and evil, but erases them entirely. William Munny, the protagonist of Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), may have been a bad man, a cold stone killer, but the killing he does in the film is in response to wrongs committed with the sanction of a corrupt society. The film begins and ends with the possibility of his being able to shed the evil that he has done. Revisionist Westerns make it difficult to determine who exactly is on what side of the line, but the line is still there. In Deadwood, all ethics, all morals, are situational. The line, in any absolute sense, ceases to exist.


At the very beginning of the series Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) seemed to be set up, respectively, as villain and hero. However, as the series develops, that dichotomy quickly proves inadequate. Swearengen turns out to be not so much evil as Machiavellian, always calculating the effects of this or that move on his own wealth and power. This is made clear in the second episode, “Deep Water,” when Al backs down in a confrontation over the fate of a young girl, Sofia Metz (Bree Seanna Wall), the only survivor of a massacre perpetrated by agents who have done work for him in the past. Rather than incur the hostility and resentment of resistant town residents, Al chooses to dispatch the agents himself, and subsequently allows the child to live on under the care of Alma Garret (Molly Parker) and a host of other townswomen. As Henry Fonda taught us in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the true Western villain would hardly allow even a child to stand against his interests. However, Al has a town to consider. Most importantly, he has his position to protect. Such maneuvering calls to mind late 20th and early 21st century politicians more than it does classic Western antagonists.


Even beyond his decision regarding Sofia, the moment that demonstrates Al Swearengen’s complexity, and the shifting moral and ethical lines of life in David Milch’s Deadwood, is his euthanization of Reverend H.W. Smith (Ray McKinnon) in the final episode of season 1, “Sold under Sin.” Smith is suffering from a brain tumor of some kind, which causes him to descend into rambling hallucinations and seizures. Al is clearly moved by this suffering. He allows the Revered to be tucked away at the Gem, and then he puts Smith out of his misery by smothering him with a cloth. Al’s ruthlessness enables him to do what no one else is will. At this same time, this act reveals a decency that even the sparing of Sofia did not uncover. Indeed, Al’s decision to house the Reverend and to then bring his life to an end is preceded by bouts of melancholy drinking. The employment of Jewel (Geri Jewell), the physically and mentally disabled woman who cleans the Gem, also suggests an affection for those afflicted with conditions beyond their control (which is not to say that Al’s verbal abusiveness towards her doesn’t also suggest an unease with this affection).


Euthanasia, especially active euthanasia, is an issue that necessarily raises questions about the morality of killing, the definition of murder, and the meaning of a human life. It is an issue where absolute positions on either side are invariably subject to critique by exceptional cases. Those who wish to ban it must allow that certain individuals will have to suffer horribly to sustain the prohibition. Those who wish it to be practiced without restriction must allow that such freedom will be abused by those who wish to kill for reasons other than to relieve suffering. If nothing else, most people, even those who oppose euthanasia on principle, can no doubt sympathize with the desire to end someone’s suffering, particularly a loved one. Al’s euthanization of Reverend Smith serves as a metaphor for the slipperiness and shifting grounds of life in a town whose mere existence is questionable both legally and ethically (the camp was erected on a site formally recognized as Indian land). In such an environment one cannot afford to live by absolutes.


Swearengen’s tolerance and even affection for the infirm and disabled leans in the direction of Western heroism. True Westerners, like Wister’s the Virginian and John Wayne’s Ringo Kid (Stagecoach, 1939), always distinguish themselves by judging people on their actions, not their birthrights. However, neither the Virginian nor Ringo would have taken Reverend Smith’s life into their hands; and they certainly would not have threatened to murder Sofia. Thus, Al swings back in the direction of Fonda’s black-hearted Frank. Neither position—noble hero, ignoble villain—adequately holds him in place.


In much the same way as Al Swearengen cannot be viewed simply as “villain,” Seth Bullock cannot be seen simply as “hero.” At turns he displays the character of a true Western hero, as when he and Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) take it upon themselves to find out the truth about Sofia’s family, but he is far too compromised to be the unerring man of principle in the mold of the Virginian. In revisionist Westerns, the hero or protagonist is often given a dark past and filled with regret about things that he has done. What distinguishes Bullock is that his compromises are ongoing and everyday. They are not things he is trying to live down. Indeed, like so many, he is drawn to Deadwood by its very illegality. He desires to leave the law behind in pursuit not of redemption, but the dollar.


At the end of Season One, Bullock relents to the largely unspoken pressure from Al and others to assume the role of Sheriff. In a scene that echoes the closing moments of High Noon (1952), Bullock reacts to Con Stapleton’s (Peter Jason) abuse of his office in the service of Al’s rival at the Bella Union, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), by ripping off his badge and throwing it on the ground. At the episode’s conclusion, he conferences with Al and consents to take over as Sheriff. This can be seen as an act of nobility, as standing up for right over wrong, and even, given his reasons for being in Deadwood, as selfless. However, agreeing to be Sheriff under these circumstances does not simply mean wiping away Cy Tolliver’s corruption. It means siding with Al in his power struggle with Cy. In fact, his first act as Sheriff is to ignore evidence of a murder committed in Al’s office. In Season Two, Bullock remains conflicted by his role, prone to exacting extra-legal forms of justice, and continually drawn to fulfilling his dream of being a shopkeeper rather than a law enforcer.


Of course, many a Western protagonist has ended their story by heading off to settle down as a shop owner, farmer, or rancher. It is notable, however, that this is usually at the end of the story. The hero is put out to pasture (sometimes quite literally). With the titanic confrontation between civilization and savagery having been won by civilization, the hero has nothing left to do but retire. On Deadwood there is no grand battle to retire from. Savagery and civilization do confront one another, but on a quotidian, not an epic, scale. As with virtually every character on the show, Swearengen and Bullock are constantly negotiating between their “better” and “worse” natures. The simultaneity of the savage and the civilized on Deadwood is clearly signified by the series’s distinctive language, which weaves together Victorian formality and thick strands of profanity, not to mention casual threats of violence.


That Bullock cannot and does not emerge as a right-thinking individual set on putting the world back in order points to one of Deadwood‘s most radical implications: the necessary engagement between society and the individual (indeed, the Season Three trailer takes this as its central theme). The Western is built on the idea of the individual being able to stand ethically and morally outside, even above, society. On Deadwood, choices are always made in relation to: others, an individual’s sometimes petty desires and agendas, and the exigencies of time and place. No one gets to stand outside to judge and act alone. There are always consequences and repercussions to be addressed after a choice has been made. This is no different for the “villain” than it is for the “hero.”


This yoking of the individual to the social body divests the Western hero of his exceptionalism. By extension, it does the same for U.S. history and our understanding of Westward expansion. Seen from the vantage point of life in and on Deadwood, America has no Manifest Destiny. We only have people, imperfect people, making choices. As alluded to previously, deciding to reside in Deadwood is already a morally and ethically ambiguous choice. Everyone who settles in Deadwood is guilty of leveraging white racism against Native peoples for their own benefit. However, even in this inherently compromised place, some people will choose to sacrifice themselves for others, not everyone will immediately resort to violence to get what they want, and some will even seek to act according to high moral principle. To be sure, there is no shortage of people who only look out for themselves, have no compunction about violence, and little belief in a higher moral order, but all of these qualities, “good” and “bad,” exist in everyone and in the choices that people make. In any given circumstance, everyone is capable of both right and wrong, and no one preternaturally exists on one side or the other.


People who refuse to watch Deadwood tend to cite the coarseness of the characters and the roughness of their language. Both are viewed as sullying the traditions of the Western (Joseph Rose, ‘Deadwood’ puts ‘that word’ on lively display, The Sunday Oregonian 11 June 2006). Others see the series as essentially “nihilistic,” presumably due to its lack of a redemptive, or even a discernible, meta-narrative (Verne Gay, ‘Deadwood’: Sworn to a Short Life, Newsday.com, 9 June 2006, nihilistic). Whether either or both of these reactions influenced the executives at HBO to select the show for cancellation is hard to say. However, there is not much question that Deadwood‘s narration of “America” runs against the cultural grain of a moment wherein the American President seeks to convince the world of the rightness of U.S. power regardless of reason. The present view from Washington D.C. seems to demand Will Kane and High Noon or Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke rather than Seth Bullock and Deadwood. After all, if Deadwood is America, then George W. Bush is closer to Al Swearengen than he is to Gene Autry. It is this very out-of-placeness that makes Deadwood so vital and is what will be missed when it’s gone.

Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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