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,
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
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 around...is 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
, 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. Washington
"Elections cannot inconvenience me; they ratify my will, or I neuter them."
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.
Until Next Time ~ Be Good to Each Other
Out-takes from Deadwood: