David Milch’s ‘Deadwood’

HBO’s Deadwood concluded last month with a two-hour film, thirteen years after its original cancellation. Its creator, David Milch, once described as television’s first genius, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He may never write another script. Until he releases his autobiography as promised, here is an opportune moment to remind ourselves of why Deadwood remains the best and richest of all television dramas.

In the age of streaming and bingeing, we are all somebody else’s bore about our favourite television show. ‘You must watch X!’ goes the fanatical mid-binge pitch. ‘It’s only seven seasons. You have to watch at least the first six episodes before it really picks up, but then you’ll love it. The fifth season is really dull – nothing happens in it – but if you don’t watch it you won’t be able to follow the finale of season seven. I once watched the whole thing in one weekend – all sixty hours of it!’

Life is simply too short to risk it. Besides, the majority of such shows are overrated. Plotting is arbitrary, often driven by the whims of the online ‘fanbase’, and dialogue flatly serves the requirements of exposition. Even the best among the major television dramas, The Sopranos and The Wire, titans of their time, have acquired rougher edges of late, perhaps as a consequence of their contemporary settings. So I know how I sound, reader, when I push Deadwood on you. And yet it is one of the few productions of television about which its debt to literature – maybe even its significance as literature – is worth considering.

This is because David Milch, who earned prestige as a writer of cop dramas in the 1990s, is less interested in Western movies than he is in competing with Dickens and Henry James, and aspiring to the rhythms of Faulker and Twain. He excelled as an English student at Yale, where he later taught and worked with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, among others, in the writing of textbooks on American literature. The show’s dialogue thus possesses a literary flair, introducing the viewer to a world in which language is worth hearing for its own sake. Welcome to the Gem Saloon:

Ellsworth: (Drinks a shot) First one today with this hand. (To Al) And pour me another, my good man.

Al Swearengen: Here comes another.

Ellsworth: Now, with that Limey damn accent of yours, are these rumours true that you’re descended from the British nobility?

Al: I’m descended from all them cocksuckers.

Ellsworth: (Raises his glass to Al) Well here’s to you, your majesty. I’ll tell you what. I may ‘a fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker. And workin’ a payin’ fuckin’ gold claim. And not the U.S. government sayin’ I’m tresspassin’ or the savage fuckin’ red man himself or any of these limber dick cocksuckers passin’ themselves off as prospectors had better try and stop me.

Al: They better not try it in here.

Ellsworth: Goddamn it, Swearengen, I don’t trust you as far as I can throw ya, but I enjoy the way you lie.

Al: Thank you, my good man.

Or, if you prefer, Tom Nuttall’s No.10 Saloon:

Con: Hey, you ever hear, Tom, (stands) the Chinese whore has a’ ancient way of milking you of your sorrow, your loneliness, and that awful feeling of bein’ forsaken?  

(Pause.)

Tom: Seems to me that’d leave you with nothin’.

Deadwood is set in the Black Hills where, towards the end of the 1870s, gold was discovered; ‘gold you can scoop from the stream with your bare hands,’ as one prospector puts it. Formerly the land belonged to the Sioux, as agreed in a treaty with the US government; after the discovery of gold, the white man returned to the Hills, wiped out competition and illegally set up camp. The residents, made up of drunkards and gamblers and criminals looking for a fast way to make money, exist in a kind of limbo, without the protection of the US government or the permission of the Natives. The flare and poetry of the language, along with the intense profanity, is symbolic of the freedom of the Old West; freedom not only from government and law, but from the social mores that swaddle us in more civilised arrangements.

The town was notable for drawing in mythical figures of the Old West, Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, who staked their stories in its shack-built taverns and its muddy, bloody thoroughfare. But Milch’s show, while rigorously authentic, is more interested in truth than in fact. Deadwood, as he tells the story, became an American town through the machinations of the crime-boss Al Swearengen, as opposed to the more agreeable figure of Seth Bullock, the town’s first sheriff. As well as being a pimp and drug-dealer, grudgingly renting lots to newcomers, Swearengen runs the Gem Saloon and keeps tabs, either from his balcony or with planted spies, on competition in town. He is murderous and profane (he is in camp having fled a murder warrant in Chicago), but in his compromises with law and order, and in his reluctant grants of mercy, he embodies the whole theme of Deadwood, which is to imagine how order emerges from chaos. One of the few gentle figures in town, the epileptic Reverend Smith, quotes St. Paul as a way of reminding his fellow citizens of a responsibility they have to one another, one that goes beyond prospecting and profiteering: ‘For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?’ When one resident of Deadwood suffers, the show implies, all the residents suffer with him.

The story of the town, then, is how a group of largely selfish and criminally-minded individuals come together as one community: the body politic. They are faced with assassinations, plagues, fights to the death, weddings, funerals, and, worst of all, the harassment and bullying of a gold tycoon, George Hearst, seeking to monopolise on all the gold claims and turn Deadwood into a ‘company town’. It is the final taming of Deadwood that manifests the show’s tragic dimension: the crushing forces of progress that won the Old West.

Yet while Deadwood is brutal and bitter, moments of selflessness and kindness are more profound for all that. It is truly a show that warms the cockles of the heart. (Milch is fond of quoting Robert Penn Warren’s poetry to his cast and crew: ‘This / Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness / May be converted into the future tense / Of joy.’)  The uneasy relationship between Swearengen and the Reverend is one instance of this. At a camp meeting, the Reverend falls into a fit. Swearengen, showing bravado, reveals that he had a ‘fuckin’ brother given to that. We’d make pennies off it when it’d come over in the street’.

Yet he knows not to put a spoon between his teeth, as one his goons attempts to do, but something softer. Later, Doc Cochran pleads with Al to give the minister a safe, quiet resting place in his final hours. ‘I get the bag of shit,’ says Al. ‘You get to care for a human being in his last extremity,’ replies Cochran. ‘A human being in his last extremity is a bag of shit’. But he relents; the bravado, as it often seems, is a front. The culmination of this storyline is deeply moving, and it has to be earned by the patient viewer.

These lengthy expatiations are by way of getting back to the writing. There are so many marvels in it because Milch is generous enough to grant a kind of eloquence to characters of every significance. To use St. Paul again, the uncomely, in Milch’s world, are in fact abundant in their comeliness. Take E.B. Farnum, the hotelier and ‘titular’ town mayor. A grotesquely obsequious and habitual opportunist, he survives the travails of camp life by attaching himself to the ruling power: at first Swearengen and later George Hearst, to whom he sells his hotel. He has damp palms, betraying anxiety, and his frilled shirt cuffs are belied by the broken seams of his jacket (all of Deadwood’s characters have memorable physical attributes). But beyond his Dickensian comic villainy, he has a strange inner life that occasionally we glimpse at in nonsense speech. An actress staying in town descends the hotel staircase as Farnum watches her from behind his reception desk. He remarks on her elegant appearance: ‘Trailing clouds of glory’, he says. At this she turns to him.

‘Do you read Wordsworth?’

‘No, madam, why do you come to ask?’

‘You just quoted him’.

‘Well, I have a digest from which I memorize, suppressing the authors’ names. Enjoy your supper’. 

It is left up to us to wonder, at this passing moment, whether he memorises poetry from a digest because he likes poetry or because he wishes merely to appear erudite. To my mind, it is also because he shares in his creator’s love of language. In another scene, Hearst’s snooty geologist looks disdainfully on the stale look of the oatmeal in the hotel kitchen. ‘In a camp like this,’ excuses Farnum, ‘one draws one’s menials from a small and brackish pool’.

How often do we get to chew over the meaning of a line of dialogue in a television show? And Deadwood abounds in them. If an author or creator is a God, then Milch is one that makes himself almost invisible. He is indulges in ambiguity, and doesn’t always seek to make sense of things. Al Swearengen, for example, tells a whore three different versions of his own childhood, each inconsistent with the other. Milch’s best characters are free artists of themselves, as Hegel once described Shakespeare’s tragic heroes.

In one of many instances, Milch is much like his greatest creation, Al Swearengen, who notes that ‘specialists’ visiting his brothel – that is, men with discreet fetishes – always pay a premium, ‘and they never cause any fuckin’ trouble, Sometimes I imagine in my declining years runnin’ a small joint in Manchester, England, catering to specialists exclusive. And to let ‘em know they’re amongst their own, maybe I’ll operate from the corner, hanging upside down like a fuckin’ bat…’

If Deadwood possesses a Shakespearian quality, as its dialogue has been so often described, then it is not so much that characters speak in soliloquies (Swearengen to a whore, or to a decapitated Indian head; E.B Farnum to a puddle of blood; the widow Alma Garrett to her mute orphan-child), or that it uses arcane or obscure words (what other television show uses words such as ‘atrabilious’ and ‘bailiwick’ so casually and without explanation?), or the wisdom disguised as conversation (‘Every day takes figurin’ out all over again how to fuckin’ live’). It is because Milch, like a bat, recedes into the dark and permits them to speak for themselves, allowing for nonsense, accidents, errors of speech. It is an illusionist’s trick, of course: Milch is doing all of the voices, which is remarkable.

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