My Favorite Westerns: The History of Deadwood

Deadwood’s a historical show, with historical characters – but it always puts dramatic sense ahead of historical accuracy. The real Al Swearengen for instance, was an undeniably nasty fellow with no redeeming values, unlike the complex character in the show. But Seth Bullock really did become sheriff (and later friend to Theodore Roosevelt) and Sol Star really did become mayor of Deadwood, all of which are, somewhat, faithfully portrayed. While Deadwood isn’t historically accurate, it feels historically accurate. The appropriately ornate Western dialogue, the excellent costumes and amazingly detailed sets, and the general gray and brownness of it all go a large way to achieving that feel. But Milch and his writers also have something to say about history. Like The Wire, Deadwood is a show with a message (The Sopranos certainly had messages, but seemed more like a complex character study most of the time), and that message is about a part of America’s past that has been romanticized into a fantasy. Deadwood peels that fantasy away to show the rot within. Today, all be writing about three historical themes that run through Deadwood and show how the Wild West – or the Victorian Era – wasn’t exactly a nice place to be.

When Deadwood starts out, there’s no law at all. The place is lawless, an illegal settlement existing on Indian land. Gradually, American law reaches out to take over Deadwood, but while lawlessness lead to violence and gives Swearengen time to run his swindles, the law isn’t exactly any better. The American government at this time, and for most of American history, was nothing more than a corrupt instrument of getting wealth for the people in power. Swearengen, who paid off the Chicago police after a murder, only to still have a warrant out for his arrest, knows this. During the trial of Jack McCall, his major fear is that the government will think Deadwood is trying to be independent and will divvy the town up to their ‘ne’er do well cousins and brothers-in-law.’ Bribing public officials for Swearengen is a matter of course. It needs to be done. When the government does actually show up, in the form of Commissioner Jarry, it’s just as eager for profit and to work with the villainous Wolcott and Hearst as Swearengen suspected. Swearengen tells Bullock about the warrants and Bullock replies simply ‘it doesn’t have to be like that,’ but the show constantly proves him wrong.

In many ways, this sort of corruption is historically accurate. While America was supposedly a democracy, political machines and bosses, of the Tweed and Prendergast variety, controlled everything. Bribery, nepotism, and general corruption were the order of the day, whatever the Founding Fathers happened to say in their documents. You rarely get a look at that in historical fiction – at least until Deadwood came along and changed how we look at the past.

Another part of the past we don’t like to talk about is how it was appallingly, undeniably racist. Deadwood captures that in the language alone, where racial slurs are bandied about with all the profanity. Deadwood is an ethnically diverse place, with Chinese, Black, and Jewish residents – and they all face difficulty in trying to fit in. A lesser look at the past might lump the persecution faced by these people into one category, but Deadwood provides a more nuanced look at the past and the effects of racism on the town’s residents. Sol Star may have his Jewish heritage mocked by Swearengen and others, but it doesn’t stop him from remaining optimistic and helpful, and eventually becoming mayor. An entirely different level of hate is directed at the Chinese and Black characters. When Mr. Wu, the leader of a local Tong and Swearengen’s ally, tries to go in through the front door, it outrages most of the guests. Chinese lives matter very little in Deadwood, and it’s pretty obvious why Mr. Wu and his people try to keep to themselves and look after each other, instead of dealing with treacherous and cruel white people. The show’s black characters, including the stableman Hostetler and Samuel ‘The Nigger General’ Fields, don’t have that luxury. They are frequently insulted and attacked, which leads to tragic consequences and some of the most harrowing parts of the whole show.

But Deadwood also shows hope for a kind of racial unity – even if it is formed from necessity and violence. Swearengen and Mr. Wu have a genuine alliance and friendship, even if they can’t speak the same language. They team up against a ruthless more Westernized Tong leader from San Francisco, who thinks nothing of importing Chinese slaves. Meanwhile, Calamity Jane and Samuel Fields strike up a friendship – a sewer-mouthed drunk woman is ostracized from society, just like Fields. And of course, Star and Bullock remain friends. There’s even a disabled character, the ‘Gimp’ sweeping up the Gem Saloon, who is insulted by Swearengen, but still protected by him, and in one of the most touching scenes, dances with Doc Cochran after he makes her a leg brace. Even though racial hatred is still there, it’s heartening to see Deadwood’s characters overcome it.

I said earlier that Deadwood is a show with a message and like The Wire, that message is rooted in capitalism being a destructive and exploitative force that brutalizes the poor in the name of profit. Wolcott and Hearst are icons of capitalism and Hearst is the bellicose avatar of evil – he cares only about ‘the color’ – getting his gold – and seems to like nobody apart from his cook, Aunt Lou, until he has her son murdered in the interests of profit. Hearst busting up unions, murdering Cornishmen who dare to organize, drive much of the plot in Season Two and Three. The Hearst Combine’s major foe is the prospector Ellsworth, perhaps the most decent character in town. Ellsworth, usually placid and kind, has a hatred of capitalism that comes not from political leanings, but from experience. He’s seen the greed behind the Hearst Combine, which led to sending miners into unsafe tunnels and to their deaths. Ellsworth battles against the Hearst Combine throughout the Third Season, which leads to his final death at the hands of Pinkerton goons.

Throughout Deadwood, capitalism is shown to be a cruel, destructive force. Hearst’s sins are many and varied, including the fact that he, like American capitalism, wins in the end. It seems a little odd that such two great critiques of capitalism, The Wire and Deadwood, both popped up at the same time, and appeared on the expensive HBO network, but it’s a welcome appearance of genuine social commentary in genre works. Through El Mosaico, I’ve tried to do the same. El Mosaico, Volume 3: Hellfire pits patchwork bounty hunter Clayton Cane – who has faced vampires and monsters – against a powerful corporation, the greatest foe that Cane has ever faced. It’s nowhere near as great as Deadwood, but I hope I did my best to tell an entertaining, and still insightful story.

That’s all I’ll say on Deadwood – for now. There’s tons more that I missed, including gender and the transition behind frontier and civilization, but there’s plenty other Westerns that need attention. Keep on a riding, partner. We’ve a ways to go yet.

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