Monday, January 6, 2014

The Oracle at Deadwood

I have this little holiday tradition of my own which I observe without fail every year.  It's a kind of sanity break from the raging consumerism that we have so lamentably embraced as normal; an escape from the insanity of black Friday and everything after.  I simply refuse to be told how to feel, and when; 24 hours a day, for a "season" which grows longer every year.  The only way to evade & avoid the fulltime assault on the senses by the prophets margin and motive, is simply to tune out, totally.  My personal sanctuary from the annual full court press of commercial blight, is total immersion into a different kind of sensory overload altogether.  Each year I select a few box sets of  high quality series programming as a steady holiday diet for my DVD player.

This year, my choice was the highly acclaimed HBO series Deadwood, an exemplary production from the David Milch team.  With intentional irony I selected a story about a lawless frontier town trying to survive the height of the gold rush, at the end of one era and the beginning of another, a time of rampant and unprecedented change.  Set in the late 1800's the series is the story of a real life town, and real life characters from the historic old west.  More than this; it's also an exceptionally rich visual tapestry of the human condition, and a compendium of personality & character studies as the players struggle with an approaching future they don't understand.   
In the past, Hollywood has of course done a fairly poor job of depicting the American west the way it really was, well, Deadwood certainly sets the record straight, and from many perspectives.  The series depicts daily life at the time the original mining camp was growing into a legitimate town, a time as described in the opening scene as when "There's no law at all in Deadwood."  Basically the camp is one large den of human depravity of nearly every sort, with a membrane thin veneer of civilization kinda draped over it.  The kind of place where scoundrels, cutthroats, road agents, and bottom feeders all attempt to fleece everyone, and the price of an insult is often the death penalty.  For me, the main attraction here was the story of how good hearted, authentic humans struggled for Right to prevail, even in this most sinister of environments.  Kinda like real life!

Don't Eat the Bacon in Deadwood

Wherever humans gather out of greed there's always a pecking order, just like in any chicken coop; and here the undisputed cock of the walk was the ever-snarling riverboat cutthroat Al Swearengen, who ran the town from his personal emporium of decadence, the Gem Saloon, strategically located near the center of camp.  It was Swearengen who along with his loyal minion Dan had cobbled the camp together under his iron willed rule.                                                                               
Now if you blinked, you'd miss it; but Al does have a soft side to him, evidenced by his employ and protection of Jewel the Gimp, whose jobs include cooking, sweeping and taking constant verbal abuse from her boss.  In the deadwood ecosystem, the slow, the stupid and the terminally annoying left this world via the digestive tract of Woo's pigs more often than not; a public service of sorts.                       

Unlike the rote Hollywood westerns where everyone spoke in brief, monosyllabic if not illiterate parlance: the dialogue between characters in Deadwood is not only quite literate, but very sophisticated, however frequently seasoned with profanity sufficient to make mariners cringe.  That so many spoke with both a mastery of the English language and its profanity was a constant enjoyment, despite the cultural whiplash that inevitably ensues.  Communication between the players was as much a co-star as the sudden & brutal violence of daily life.  This auditory feast was well matched visually; as the authentic period props, and everyday items filled every part of each set so realistically as to make one think they were there.  All that was missing was a scratch & sniff  feature on the DVD!

"I wouldn't trust a man who didn't try to steal a little"- Al Swearengen

From the high and mighty, down to those ranting & raving at their reflection in a main street mud puddle, Deadwood mirrors back to the viewer a clear, if not sometimes frightening portrait gallery of humanity in all of it's complexity and tragedy.  Just as the remora survives on crumbs from the shark's mouth, thus survives the character of  E.B. Farnum, the ever-groveling, Shakespeare quoting, owner of the Grand hotel.   Weasel-like in every way, Farnum is a grotesque & cowardly; incurably corrupt whiner who describes himself as a born follower.                                             
Another of self-imposed tyrant Swearengen's minions, Farnum's existence is justified by snooping and meddling into everyone's private and business affairs, then ferreting said information back to his boss in a timely fashion.  Naturally, as the camp attempts to become a town, Farnum asks to be mayor, and is appointed such by Swearengen.

"I'll preside over the meeting, as I have the list of bribes" - Al Swearengen

Where the Gem Saloon is in every sense a den of inequity with hand drawn signs and all the atmosphere of a fetid swamp; across the street shines the polished and prim Bella Union owned by Swearengen's slick viperous rival pimp, Cy Tolliver, the best dressed psychopath in Deadwood.  The bitterness of the rivalry between these titans of temptation is as epic as any between present day symbolic counterparts, the Republican & Democratic political parties: pimps, cutthroats and whores, the whole lot of them! 

The hardness of this life is etched upon every face, be it Joanie Stubbs, the madam at the Bella Union bordello who wants to become more than what men say she can...or the road map on the face of Wild Bill Hickok; who just wanted to be left to go to hell the way he wanted.  As I watched this story unfold I kept getting a certain feeling...seeing so many parallels to modern day life; and that is the feeling that nothing ever really changes here in this place! 

"To work for crumbs to keep from the lash...says maybe a slave is what you are."
                                                                                        - Al Swearengen

Are we today so very different than those in Deadwood who just wanted to live their life, have their little piece of joy, all the while avoiding the tyrant's wrath?  Aren't we also too afraid to stand up for what is right, reluctant to pay the price? Just hoping to keep what little piece of joy, or sanity we might have found?  What's that they say about life imitating art, or is it the other way this real, or Memorex?  Like some protestors have recently taken to doing, Deadwood holds a mirror up to us so that we may see what truly complex creatures we are; and perhaps to better judge that which motivates us in our behavior upon this planet, and towards one another.
Perhaps fittingly, the writers certainly seemed to give a lot of the best lines to Al Swearengen over the three seasons the show aired.  Always the brooding sage of the sagebrush, Al came up with some real gems in the Gem saloon.

Dan: "Well I'm older now, and a lot less friendly to change"
Al:  "Change ain't looking for friends.  Change calls the tune we dance to."

As the tune called by change becomes less & less to the liking of Deadwood's resident tyrant, Al feels his influence threatened by the endless corporate greed of George Hearst (Patty Hearst's Grandfather) when he arrives to industrialize gold recovery in the black hills...under his ownership.  A ruthless and sociopathic robber baron with political clout in Washington DC, Hearst wastes no time in maiming Swearengen and establishing himself as the dominant force to be answered to.  Although played to menacing perfection by actor Gerald McRaney, I could not help but see Dick Cheney in every aspect of this greed driven real-life character study.

"Elections cannot inconvenience me; they ratify my will, or I neuter them."
                                                                                             ~George Hearst~

These vile darker characters of Deadwood stand out as such owing to the contrast provided by the more luminous souls who move among them, seeking to in some small way act as counterbalance to the excesses of tragedy & greed which feeds every appetite  from the bribe to Woo's pigs.  There is Seth Bullock the quintessential knight, a man of duty, honor and above all, loyalty who not only confronts the evil he sees, but also the evil he does.
Bullock is the quintessential one legged man stomping out a forest fire as he attempts to thwart the evil machinations of Deadwoods version of the power elite, and as with us in real life, he finds that the game is rigged from the top to circumvent any possibility of the good guys actually winning.  Still, he charges ahead, undiminished, knowing he stands for Right

"Every day takes figuring out all over again-how to fucking live" - Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane finds herself in Deadwood, drifting between the world as it was, and how it is becoming.  As the industrial age catches up to the west it consumes her way of life as an Indian scout for the army, leaving her a rambling drunk; and a pure soul who wears the "cactus jacket" to keep anyone from getting too close to her.  Only when defending a helpless child does she again find a purpose for someone such as herself.                                                                       
If I was forced to pick a favorite character from Deadwood, it might just be Calamity Jane because she was the one person who never showed guile, deception or ulterior motive in her dealings with others, and because when pushed, she stood up to her greatest fear. 

Another favorite portrayal was that of prospector Whitney Ellsworth, a true "salt-of-the-earth" type who was a man of unwavering principle and loyalty.  Despite drastic increases of fortune which draw him right into the center of the power struggle for gold;  Ellsworth remains true to the man he is, and his friends, without changing or being tainted by greed.  A truly luminary soul in the darkness of human nature at it's worst.

Perhaps no soul in camp is more tortured than "Doc" Cochran who got his medical training on civil war battlefields...and is nearly overwhelmed by the constant flow of gunshots, stabbings, beatings and murders.  His knowledge out of date, his days numbered, still Doc soldiers on, doing the very best he can while making no excuses.  An example many of us could well emulate today; don't wait for the perfect situation which may not come...jump in NOW with both hands and do the very best we can.  

Try to do some good every day; to counter the torrent of evil surrounding us. 

Overall the story of Deadwood is not that different from our story today.  In both worlds the battered & the beaten mingle among the hopeful & disenfranchised...hoping to make it through yet another day of greed and corruption running the show on every level.  In both realities; the Deadwood of 150 years ago and society today, good hearted people of every type seek not to end, or topple such corruption...but just to find a small piece of joy to call their own.  They know the game is rigged and the fix is in from the top down and tyrants are in charge.  Just like in Deadwood, we scurry like mice, going about our lives hoping to not be noticed by all the rampant evil; hoping to keep what small joy we may have; as a darkly uncertain future unfolds all around us.

Until Next Time ~ Be Good to Each Other

Out-takes from Deadwood:
(Language Alert!)


  1. Just more programed drivel TV, get a life, live life, don't watch the circuses while eating your bread.

    1. Saf~ Well I suppose I knew someone would say that, especially after my post "Blow up your TV" a while ago. Fact is, yeah, I sometimes watch TV, deal with it. Although the drivel far surpasses truly creative, even educational stuff, I have found some very worthwhile things, the trick is, you have to use something called discrimination. Some exceptionally brilliant material is offered in TV & movies, just as in books. Would you refuse to ever read again just because some books are just hateful, pornographic trash?? What an exclusionary existence that would be.

  2. Deadwood - my favorite TV series of all time.

    1. With 17 wins and 48 nominations (overall awards), a whole lot of hoople heads agree with you!

  3. Methinks I would have got out of town, fast! Good heavens, if that's what's on TV I'm sure glad I haven't had one for a very long time. I did start to watch the referenced clips, but couldn't continue. I find it appalling, sad, and somewhat frightening that this is apparently a depiction of the 'real West' and I can certainly understand why Calamity Jane got drunk now and then! The question is, have we progressed or have our 'cactus jackets' just gotten thicker? Love, Althea

    1. Althea~ Actually, Jane was drunk, to one degree or another, pretty much all the time. For a time, we tried to stretch that thin veneer of civilization down tighter, at least for appearances sake; but alas Babylon - it's now back to being flung over our darker nature, looking much as a gum wrapper trying to hide a Sumo wrestler. Indeed the headlines on any given day seem to indicate a return to the decorum and civility of Deadwood is not too far off, nor that much of a stretch of the imagination. As for the video clips...those were the tame ones! :)

  4. Chautauqua I've long tended t'be highly dismissive o' TV but recently me an' me brother started watchin' reruns o' Kung Fu an' we were shocked how much a show we last watched on British TV as kids in the early Seventies'd almost hard wired itself in our nervous systems if not DNA t'the degree it affected/effected both who we became an' who we continue to become.

    1. Illusion and Reality are interchangeable.

    2. Illusion and reality are interchangeable? That doesn't seem quite right to me. I would say illusion and reality are often mistaken one for the other. The person making the fewest mistakes is often the least confused.

    3. Hugh~
      ...and the farther north you go the more things you will find that can eat your horse. The point is, we don't really know how to perceive, therefore are incapable of seeing anything clearly, especially considering we can only see 2% of the visible spectrum, and about the same in the acoustic spectrum...all the while using roughly 10% of our potential brain power. I stand on the comment that Illusion & Reality are interchangeable because reading this just now, you think you are in a waking state, but really, you're not...that happens when your body sleeps.

  5. good stuff! i too counter the holiday madness with distraction to drown out the din of the hypnotized wandering around stores with that look of seriousness 'what should i buy this person?' as if it really matters or will be remembered except by the accountant to the establish they buy from and the shareholder who gets and extra penny from their purchase.

    1. Many years ago, at Christmas time, two buddies and I pooled some 'disposable income' together and came up with a hundred one dollar bills. We then proceeded to the mall, and at the main intersection; we began handing them out...without a word. It didn't last very long, but it was a real education in human nature. Everyone is in a good mood till ya run out of singles. Cheap thrills!