"Deadwood” – The HBO series, directed by David Milch, 2004-2006
If you caught this series when it first aired or as it exists now in digital suspension, it stood out for several very important reasons. Most people are drawn in by the characters that appear on television programs or in books. You either love or hate them, are amused by them, admire them, are bored by them, wish they were dead, etc. It is all about a personal, emotional attachment to an imaginary human being, or a fictional recreation of a real person. In this series for instance, the hotel owner Farnham is a servile toady, creepy and greedy and ultimately sad. But riveting in his own way. Yet ‘character-driven’ stories end up somewhat meaningless, as what is of real import is the framework in which the ‘characters’ labor.
The real Deadwood itself exists now as a cheesy and cheap casino town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its main legend besides gold is the murder of ‘Wild Bill’ James Butler Hickok at Saloon #10, and the graves of both Hickok and ‘Calamity’ Jane Canary on ‘Boot Hill” just up from town. This is what might make you tune in at first. In the series, Hickok is a somewhat admirable but deeply troubled character who haunts the rest of the series after being shot in the back in the first season. Jane and his companion, Charlie Utter, never forget him.
What becomes obvious is that this is first of all a story of small businessmen. Every key character runs a saloon, a bordello, a hardware store, a livery, a transport business, a hotel, a newspaper or a bank in this booming gold town, saturated in mud and whiskey. These owners also predictably run the town as an informal group that gather at the GEM saloon. We are supposed to admire them. This is not so much different as the control small businessmen still have over real small towns in the U.S. The proletarian miners and the entrepreneurial individual claim owners – the ‘hoople-heads’ as they are referred to by Al Swearengen, the key saloon and whore-house owner – are mostly invisible. Bit players. Background scenery, even though they are the overwhelming majority.
Given his name, Al swears a lot, as does almost everyone else. ‘Fucks’ fly (over 4,000 times) and ‘cocksucker’ is the biggest insult – giving homophobia and anti-woman attitudes a constant mantra. Women are mostly represented by abused prostitutes, until a rich woman and a wife come into evidence. The buck-skinned drunk Jane ultimately finds solace with another woman. But the language that really captures the ear is the archaic and formal way with words used by everyone in 1876 – even in a frontier town where you’d think only grunts and a vocabulary of 150 words would be appropriate. The language alone – as in T.C. Boyle’s books ‘Water Music” and “World’s End” – is a treat to hear and follow, especially spoken at high speed. This is a version of American Shakespeare on the frontier. But again, the language is another layer on a deeper cake.
What lies behind the murders and scheming of the town’s small businessmen are even bigger businessmen – the “Comstock Syndicate” and representatives of the big mining owner, George Hearst, another real person, as were many other lead characters. Appropriately, Hearst’s key man in Deadwood is a bright psychopath and sexual deviant. And working with this Syndicate are crooked representatives of the ‘government’ of Dakota in Yankton, which plans to work with Hearst to steal mining claims by creating a panic about ownership of those claims. The Black Hills, while taken from the native Americans, had not yet been taken from the placer miners or the town’s leading citizens.
Dead people die without much problem while the ‘holy’ hardware store owner and appointed sheriff Bullock deals with the obvious and sometimes avoids the criminal. After all, he’d have to arrest at least 3 or 4 of the town’s businessmen if he enforced all the laws. Even the murderer of Hickok is declared innocent in a farcical trial. So what we have here is what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ – fortunes built on violence, law-breaking and fraud. As one person said, this is really the story of the founding of America.
‘Chinks’, ‘niggers’, Jews and Native Americans are merely problems for the mostly white and male Deadwooders. The series shows the bigotry of some of the white population, with exceptions of course, as Swearengen has his own Chinese guy named Wu who he is allied with. One drunken loudmouth gold-claim owner, Steve, instead of taking out his anger against the real suspects behind the scheme to invalidate claims, ultimately directs it at a helpless black man in town. He keeps up his absurd racism until the end. He's certainly not an accidental character.
Being this is the U.S., 'elections' are a required part of the political stew. Hearst wants a sheriff elected who ignores his bold-faced killing of 3 Cornish union organizers. Accompanying this plan is the stuffing of election boxes with imported soldiers who vote the way they are told, the way Hearst and Yankton want. This makes it clear that election theft is a long-time tradition in the U.S.
Hearst wants everyone in the ‘camp’ under his thumb, even every other businessman. So it’s ‘war’ between them. And so we get to the real ‘framework’ of the characters – money and capitalism. Or ‘amalgamation and capital,’ Hume and Marx, the pursuit of capitalist monopoly in the face of small enterprise; the conflict with labor; the bloody monopolist Leviathan in their midst.
Inevitably the anti-union and violent Pinkerton’s make an appearance on Hearst’s side. With their help Hearst wins his bloody fight to seize all the valuable gold claims through murder and intimidation.
Later the Deadwood and Lead area became a stronghold of the Socialist Party and the IWW, and had its own widely-read Socialist papers because of the strength of the miners’ union. However, this series ignores the miners all around. The camp’s businessmen failed to recruit them in the fight with Hearst - something that could have made sense. Instead a motley collection of hired ‘guns’ arrive from Cheyenne, as well as armed Chinese – all too late. The capitalist Leviathan wins because the miners are not brought into play, even in the smallest way.
(Other long-series reviews below: “Game of Thrones,” “The Wire.” Use blog search box, upper left.)
September 14, 2016