Song of the Outpost

The classic recent TV series are Western genre shows. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Sons of Anarchy are basically Westerns. (Vince Gilligan drew on the same Sergio Leone movies as did Stephen King for his Dark Tower epic.) And the classic show that’s actually a Western isn’t a Western. Deadwood is not about Western type themes – confrontation, masculinity, pride, solitude and anger (although it is about these things too) it’s about relationships between people and how societies grow.

Take the gold in the black hills that brought everybody to Deadwood. People get killed over claims and counter claims. Fortune seekers rushed to the Dakotas in 1876, just as they rushed to California in ’49, and later to the Klondike in 1890. History is full of these periodic migrations and stampedes. They continue today. In the 2010s, people returned to the Dakotas for the oil and the fracking boom. I can’t recommend enough journalist Maya Rao’s Great American Outposts, in which she chronicles the searchers and drifters who gravitated to North Dakota for oil money driving rigs and hauling water. People from all over America rushed for black gold, many leaving behind criminal records, bad credit histories and child-support claims. Rao’s subjects are not all dissimilar to the ‘hoopleheads’ Al Swearengen used to serve in his Gem Saloon.

The gold itself is valueless. As the Patrician says in The Colour of Magic, if you gave everyone a bag of gold the result would not be that ‘we’d all be rich’. The gold would depreciate in value, because its value rests on scarcity. Smart operators like Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver, the second wave of Deadwood settlers, they know that you can make a better living selling booze and sex to prospectors, than from spending hours in a creek panning for precious metals. It is not the metal but the perception of the metal and how perception itself can be mined for coin. In his book of the series, showrunner David Milch says that ‘Something in us that is specifically human has the capacity to endow a symbol with a special meaning.’

Swearengen is the lynchpin of the show – the camp evolves under his wary gaze from the balcony of the Gem. Al is a brutal cutthroat, and an exploiter of women, but he faces outwards and cares about the future of the camp. He takes an active part in the bewildering politics of accession and annexation that characterised the US in the 1870s. He hosts town meetings at the Gem, at which he serves cans of peaches, just as Gustavo Fring offered platters of sandwiches in sitdowns with cartel bosses he despised. (Milch writes: ‘And in the electrical force field created within that meeting, the presence of the peaches has significance as a gesture.’) With his fierce intelligence and grandiloquent, corrosive speech, Al runs rings around commissioners and politicians, dodging murder warrants and turning potential enemies.

But things are changing. Retired sheriff Seth Bullock goes back to the badge, and his duties go from cleaning up murders to sorting out the kind of petty property disputes that neighbourhood policing teams would recognise today. The lovable A. W. Merrick sets up his newspaper. Alma Garrett quits laudanum and founds a local bank. There are weddings, and funerals. Taboos are created and enforced. The brothel becomes a schoolhouse, and then a theatre. Telegraphs go up (and in the movie, railroads and telephone lines). There are elections locally, then regionally. And as the camp develops into a town, Swearengen faces more formidable enemies as well as his own weakness and mortality.

Milch also writes of ‘complicated manipulations and distortions of money produced by people who understood there were realities at the level of the symbol that you could fuck with.’ In season two geologist Francis Wolcott arrives and begins spreading rumours, depreciating the value of the claims so that he can buy up the claims at cost price on behalf of his employer: gold tycoon George Hearst, the boy the earth spoke to. There is a fine scene where Wolcott writes to Hearst about the growing operation, and his narration of the letter is spoken over a montage of workers driven hard at the goldmine, then stripped and frisked for stolen metals. Wolcott is a wretch and a killer, but he is just a harbinger of his even more sinister boss. When Hearst sacks Wolcott over his murders of several sex workers, Wolcott hangs himself; without Hearst he is nothing, a weak degenerate who even old man Charlie Utter can take in a fight.

David Milch describes Hearst as ‘the monstrous abstraction of the symbol made flesh.’ Hearst tells us frequently how much he hates the camp, and is obviously happiest prospecting alone in the field. In Milch’s world that’s not meant to say anything good about his character. Hearst represents the third wave of corporatism and commodity fetishism. He kills miners who try to unionise. While Al consults, Hearst only gives orders. Elections ‘ratify my will, or I neuter them,’ he says. Season three becomes a lengthy Mexican standoff between Hearst and the rest of the town. Deadwood’s resistance fears attacking him because to do so might destroy the camp. As Al says: ‘And as to us and him, if blood’s what it finally comes to, one hundred years from now the forest is what they’ll find here. Dewy morning’s lost its appeal for me. I prefer to wake indoors.’

Wake indoors, and face outwards. Milch has said in interviews that a lot of the thinking on Deadwood came from his time in AA where survival meant giving up the I for the we, and in going through the motions until they became natural. That becomes the show’s story – a lie, or illusion, agreed upon. People have to compromise their personal selves to get along, and the we isn’t always kind. Seth Bullock is in an arranged marriage to his late brother’s wife: he begins an affair with Alma Garrett, a New Yorker widowed between the murder of her husband Brom Garrett and her later platonic marriage to the noble old prospector William Ellsworth. She and Bullock are soulmates, but must sacrifice their love to the greater stability of the town. Alma says of Ellsworth, in one of the show’s more heartbreaking lines: ‘He is a good man. And he whom I love is here as well.’

It’s about the making of a community, and not the nostalgia authoritarian state of which today’s communitarians dream. It’s a we made up of hundreds, thousands of dancing Is, hoopleheads, prospectors and fools. When Bullock first stands for election, he is overwhelmed by the hustings and forgets whatever rhetoric of justice he had planned and instead simply says: ‘I’m glad we’re in the camp, even on the sorriest of days.’ And I think, watching the show and the movie, that this is how we all felt – it was over too soon, but all the same, we were glad to be in the camp. The Deadwood movie is as good as the series and gives us one last look at the legendary outpost, I recommend watching it with a bottle of rotgut to hand – and perhaps a can of peaches.

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