Last summer, out in Oregon, my best friend introduced me to the HBO series Deadwood.
I needed exactly one episode to become addicted. Thanks to Netflix, I quickly watched the whole series. I’m now watching it again.
For those who haven’t seen it, Deadwood is a Western with a difference. Running from 2004 through 2006, in three seasons of twelve episodes each, Deadwood set standards for excellence in writing and acting seldom seen on television.
To be sure, it also set standards for vile language – which probably explains why many people haven’t watched more than one episode.
But for those who can get past the language, Deadwood is a marvel.
The first season begins with historical fact. In 1876, shortly after Custer’s Last Stand, Deadwood was a gold-rush “camp” in the mountains of what’s now South Dakota. At the time, it stood on Indian land, which meant – since the Indians couldn’t expel the camp – that it was under no jurisdiction at all.
Into this lawless settlement rode Wild Bill Hickok, with his companions Charlie Utter and “Calamity Jane” Cannary. There, while playing poker, Wild Bill was shot in the back by a low-life named Jack McCall.
So much is essentially true. But by the time you reach Wild Bill’s murder, in Episode Four, a great deal has happened – based largely on real personalities, somewhat less on historical fact. You’ve met two dozen colorful characters – each pursuing opportunity in something our Founding Fathers would have described as the “state of nature”.
No law. No institutions. Extraordinary levels of violence. And yet…
Deadwood is a story about how people come together to create society out of chaos – usually in response to challenges which they cannot face alone.
In a camp inhabited largely by men who pan or dig for gold – and women who see to their needs - it becomes necessary to create rules for the ownership of claims to promising real estate.
When a figure of international fame is murdered, there must be a trial.
When smallpox strikes, the sick must be tended and the healthy vaccinated.
In the course of three seasons, the personalities of Deadwood – led by real-life figures such as Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock, and invented ones such as Alma Garret and Joanie Stubbs – create a town government and institutions, negotiate for recognition of their claims by the Dakota Territory, and confront a “hostile takeover” by gold tycoon George Hearst.
Deadwood is a Western which takes place, almost entirely, in town – and there’s a reason for that. Series creator David Milch had wanted to do a series based on early Rome – which also began with the gathering of lawless outcasts from various backgrounds. Because another series was already in production dealing with Roman history, Milch settled on Deadwood.
Now, I imagine my readers asking, “What’s the point?” After all, Deadwood was cancelled six years ago. It’s a Western, written in language so purple that many readers will find it unwatchable.
Yet, for those who do, Deadwood will likely prove addictive. The writing is on a par with The West Wing, which I’ve long regarded as the best dramatic series in TV history. As a story of the West, Deadwood has no rival but Lonesome Dove.
Besides, Deadwood makes a vivid point which modern Americans should consider seriously. In Deadwood, every newcomer is a fugitive from civilization – an individual choosing to try his luck in a place with no laws and almost unlimited opportunity.
Seth Bullock – a real-life lawman who led Teddy Roosevelt’s 1904 inaugural parade – gave up a marshall’s badge to open a hardware store in Deadwood. Al Swearengen, ruthless owner of a saloon and brothel, lived by a code of violence that would appall modern gangsters.
In the show, the two begin by hating each other – and end by collaborating as “founding fathers” of the town.
Which makes Deadwood, to my mind, a parable for modern Americans.
Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve watched our country slowly embrace the idea that each of us can pursue our personal interests – or the interests of some small group – without regard for the common good.
Rich, poor or middle-class – conservative or liberal – we’re nearly all infected with an excessive degree of individualism.
You can see it in every political campaign. No one studies public proclivities more assiduously than politicians – and this year, their message will be all about “what I can do for you” and “what the other guy wants to do to you”.
When I taught History, I suggested to my students a simple way to improve our political system: Whenever a politician starts telling you what he intends to do for you, raise your hand and say: “That’s fine, sir. But would you tell us what do you intend to do for our country?”
The citizens of Deadwood learned to understand the difference. When we modern Americans start thinking that about the common good, we’ll be able to start rebuilding our own civilization.