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How Firm A Foundation?

John-Paul McCarthy

 

Deadwood: Complete HBO Seasons 1-3 (12 Disc Box Set), £44.99

Scene One

Wild Bill Hickok has been shot in the back in the No 10 saloon, having fallen to poker of a certain morning in Deadwood high up in the Black Hills of Dakota in the year of grace 1877. A droop-eyed, semi-literate drifter named Jack McCall did the deed in plain sight, and he’s tried by a hastily assembled jury in the nearby Gem Saloon. McCall is miraculously acquitted and he’s looking to celebrate. He turns brazenly to the Gem’s presiding genius, Al Swearengen (played by Ian McShane as a kind of Lovejoy from hell), and demands whisky in exchange for an autograph from the man who put Wild Bill in a box. Swearengen, clad in long-johns which are barely concealed by a sharp pin-stripe suit, will tolerate a languid murder or two in the course of a day without demur but he draws the line at the thought of subsidised drinking in his own joint. He ejects Jack post haste. Swearengen turns tenderly to his henchman as he watches a terrified McCall run for his life. “Remember this, Dan,” he says, “when you run your own joint.”

That type guy hanging round gets people agitated ‑ forces them to take a position, one side or another. And while that kind of agitation brings a slight bump up in whisky sales [he pauses here to glare awhile at his gaggle of idle and punctured whores] sale of cunt on the other hand plummets. That’s why I sometimes wonder if I should take that fuckin’ portrait of Lincoln down.

And here the camera’s eye climbs slowly to a spot above the amber pyramid of stacked whisky bottles on Swearengen’s bar, where it lingers for a moment on Alexander Gardner’s luminous portrait of the sixteenth president, taken a matter of weeks before his murder by another drifter on Good Friday 1865.

Scene Two

The sheriff’s adopted son, William Bullock, is trampled to death by a horse who escapes from the Nigger Hostetler’s livery, right in the middle of Deadwood’s teeming thoroughfare. Kind hands cradle the boy as he is pronounced dead in the shack of the camp’s doctor, Doc Cochran, a former Civil War surgeon whose battle wounds are no less awful for being invisible to the naked eye. William’s funeral service is preached by Andy Cramed, a cardshark from the Mississippi river boats who found the Word as he lay dying in a whorehouse from the pox. The town gathers gingerly around the self-ordained minister in the battered stove-pipe hat. The whores of the Gem wear their Sunday best and avert their eyes. William’s parents stare up at a beautiful western sky, the Reverend Cramed fumbles for the right passage, before he finds the psalmist’s balm. A black blot in his minister’s rags amid a sea of bright mourning colours, Cramed gropes for the larger hope over the din of the mother’s sobs. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” he intones softly. “My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth. The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.” William’s mother allows the mourners to see her son in the coffin that is made from the same wood as his parents’ house. All are bid to enter the Bullock home as she finds some relief in the vast dilution of the town. Miraculously and silently, the reeking mass of pan-handlers, elk-butchers, bar-keeps and prospectors form a neat line. Each offers a wreath to young William Bullock before disappearing into the afternoon sun. The will of God has prevailed.

Scene Three

Al Swearengen likes to survey his competitors from a purpose-built balcony attached to his Gem Saloon. It’s mid-morning, but cold enough still that the steam from the butchers’ stalls in the thoroughfare can be clearly seen. Al is drinking from a large bottle of whisky, as his attention is caught by a scarecrow-like figure who is shambling along underneath his balcony, clutching a book and talking rapidly. Reverend Smith, an ecstatic preacher who buried Wild Bill, is suffering from a terminal brain tumour and he has been reduced to explaining doctrine to the camp’s animals and vegetable stalls. This cross-eyed and shivering pastor inspects two large oxen as Swearengen looks on. Suddenly Smith stretches his arms wide in exaltation as he expounds on Paul of Tarsus. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” he cries out to the more placid ox. “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” he asks the other. Al drains his whisky bottle up on high to hide both his distress and the tears that are forming in his unwilling eyes. In his candlelit chambers later than night above his saloon, he explains to a teenage whore why this minister must die. When Al’s brother started behaving like that, they had him perform in the street for pennies until he couldn’t walk anymore. But this minister is “making a fucking jerk of himself”. The terrified whore nods as Al stumbles over to the bed.

The above are just a random sample of scenes from David Milch’s astonishing HBO series Deadwood, which was tragically cancelled after just three seasons but which is now available as a handsome box set in all fine DVD stores. Though the show came to a sudden and much mourned end, Milch did not need more than three series to prove that he could infuse the standard Western epic with a new kind of magic. True he had to work within an unusually obstinate framework, one which has a series of near obligatory boxes which must be checked. Gold-hungry charlatans? Check. Cameos by the wily, stealthy, scalp-hoarding Redman? Check. Tarts with hearts? Check. Solitary drifters seeking their rights as Americans under the Homestead Acts? Check. Milch tips his hat to these standards, but by the end of the third series of this programme, it is clear that far from enjoying a ramble down familiar trails we have been taken on a terrifying journey to some far-off land which will never look quite the same again. Milch’s extraordinary attention to detail and his intense rhetorical commitment conjure up a world that manages to be simultaneously familiar yet viscerally alien. To the reassuring archetypes in all Westerns, Milch adds a few of his own, including a serial killer-cum-gold-geologist who has a grisly taste in doll-like prostitutes (Mr Walcott); an obese miner who is almost killed in a bar fight and finds redemption standing sentry outside a children’s school (poor Mose Manuel); a Bowie-wielding orphan turned saloon keeper who dies penniless in the Denver stockyards (Swearengen).

Deadwood speaks not just to the obvious historical arguments about western expansion during the last great continental gold craze or the myriad reasons for the emergence of America as an industrial behemoth after the Civil War. Milch has sought much bigger quarry in asking his audience to think for a moment about the extent to which the past can ever really be known or assimilated to our irresistible urge to carve out reassuring patterns and continuities from the historical record. Far from celebrating the frontier mentality or the creation of a modern industrial nation at the end of the Reconstruction period, Milch’s Deadwood makes us ask one crucial question over and over again: did the American Republic emerge out of this?

Deadwood began life on Indian land, and is beyond the reach of the Federal Government during the period covered by this series. There is no formal law here, no federal courts, no salaried constable except for Seth Bullock, a seething former lawman from Montana who wants to make a new life for himself as a hardware retailer out west and who reluctantly agrees to police the camp. Milch’s series has us asking in each episode whether in fact Thomas Hobbes was precisely wrong. Life has a funny way of trundling along in Deadwood, with or without the government. Humanity needs no nod from the Leviathan to do all the things humanity insists on doing in more refined territories way out east. Saloon keepers and pimps like Swearengen are as diligent capitalists as anyone on Wall Street, that very same institution which shuddered badly during General Grant’s shambolic administration from 1868-1876 and whose unreliability in this decade made a Bank of Deadwood an absolute necessity by season three. Just desserts are administered with equal alacrity on Indian land as they are in Chicago or Ohio, though Al’s preferred way of dealing with recalcitrant customers tends to be more expeditious than the standard Yankee recipe. (“Don’t I yearn for the day,” he says on one occasion when confronted by a rival who can’t be bought out, “when drawing a blade across the throat made swift fucking resolution?”) The camp does not need a New England-style town charter to show it how to build a school, or a town dump, or to teach it the necessity of communal effort when the plague arrives. To watch the camp develop like a kind of mad, whisky-fuelled coral reef over the three seasons of the show is to experience the heady thought that Rousseau may well have been right. Maybe man is born inherently good, or at least with a kind of caveman rectitude, and does not need the encumbrance of mere government or “society” to tutor him in the ways of civilisation. Or as Al wearily tells the town’s Falstaff, the fawning, craven mayor EB Farnum after he complains about the diversion of town funds from political bribery to administrative tasks, “That type shit’s inevitable, EB.”

Deadwood provokes even more complex thoughts. Milch’s superb dialogue prompts us to wrestle with one of the most difficult historical questions about nineteenth century America. This is the challenge of understanding how life can be carried on at such an astonishing rate in a society that was saturated in a culture of death. The dull thud of the Brothers’ War can he heard in the background of every episode in Deadwood, “the mighty scourge of war” which Lincoln said was sent by a vengeful God who willed that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”. Reverend Smith recalls the epic slaughter of 1861-65 as he preaches humanity’s common ruin at Wild Bill’s unbearable funeral service, which Milch set to the music of the moving hymn How Firm a Foundation, itself a fitting rhetorical question in a town stuck in a legal and moral limbo. Sheriff Bullock’s lovable, garrulous deputy, Charlie Udder, grumbles one night amidst the whisky bottles of the evening thoroughfare that “the goddamned War had everyone all over the damn place”. Samuel Fields, a wily black livery assistant, dresses in the dregs of a soldier’s uniform, complete with Union Army insignia and refers to himself with only modest irony as The Nigger General Fields. Doc Cochran begs the God of War to release Reverend Smith from his agonies in the same clinical way He gathered 600,000 boys into the fold before the end of 1865. Each of the war’s victims in Deadwood show the same stoicism which Louis Menand diagnosed as the root of modern American pragmatism in his book The Metaphysical Club.

Life stumbles on amidst much casual sadism. Deadwood is the scene of the horrific murder of two teenage thieves in an unforgettable scene in season two staring Kirsten Bell. A plague extracts a fearful toll at another point, as does the deliberate starvation of hundreds of Chinese prostitutes brought to town to service the immigrant workers in the gold mines. The toll is also regularly nourished by the nightly bar fights in Swearengen’s Gem and in the more high-class saloon across the thoroughfare, Cy Tolliver’s Bella Union, which boasts “Girls! Girls! Girls! Chicago-style!” Milch is here offering a dramatic version of the cultural phenomenon assessed in Mark S Schantz’s moving book Awaiting the Heavenly Country: the Civil War and America’s Culture of Death, an analysis of how evangelical Protestantism so saturated nineteenth century American life and how it created a powerful culture of death which actually provoked and sustained the war. He provocatively suggested that an antebellum “vision of heaven that literally restored bodies to wholeness may have been powerfully compelling to men” who were asked for the last full measure of devotion in the 1860s. A great curtain of death hangs over Deadwood. But there are drinks to be served. And “the colour” makes an excellent mistress for any man willing to dig into the hills for her. Mourning is a semi-permanent state here. And, as such, it is a manageable distraction from the great business of the day.

Deadwood subjects the Republic’s cult of civic virtue to merciless interrogation throughout. By the end one is left to wonder how the republican doctrine survived in the nineteenth century, considering the hatreds and divisions that disfigure this one small town. Al Swearengen may be able to take in the entire camp by craning his neck over his balcony, but even a place so compact seems riven to its very atoms. Whither the Founders’ vision of the Augustan Republic in this warped and perished society? Milch’s Deadwood is a suppurating cauldron of division, more brackish pool than melting pot. The view from Al’s veranda may look soothing to us, but he sees nothing but a parade of horribles. The “celestials” of Chinks’ Alley – “the degenerate gamblers of the races” ‑ only barely justify their existence by working for him as opium couriers and disposers of corpses, especially since their leader, Mr Wu, refuses to learn English, and thereby provokes an electrifying exchange with Swearengen when “His Chink Highness” tries to explain to Al how a subordinate was robbed and murdered by two whites. (Al: “Who stole the fucking dope? Wu: “Wu?” Al: “No! Who? Not Wu ... Who!?)

Then there are the Squareheads (anyone from Scandinavia) who clog up the trails on their way home to Minnesota with their cumbersome wagons. (They do make choice pickings for Swearengen’s band of pitiless road-agents however if they can be ambushed after dark.) The sons of Africa remain bondsmen and beasts of burden in Deadwood, despite the oracular claims of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US constitution passed between 1865 and 1870. (One senses that John Bingham and Charles Sumner were probably barred from the Gem. For life.) Dirt-worshippers like Crazy Horse and his companions suffuse the camp’s nightmares since Custer’s scalping at the Little Big Horn is still an open wound in Deadwood, though one that later treaties between the US government and the various Indian nations would go some way to mitigating. The Cornish miners who are killed in cold blood in the Gem in one episode are hated by the gold tsars of the Comstocks for being ‘high graders”, that is prone to unionisation and the secretion of extracted gold nuggets into their orifices, and for speaking their own language.

If one listens carefully to this particular episode in season two, it is bracing to realise that they are speaking modern Irish, which Milch took the trouble to research. The fallen high graders are mourned by their comrades with the phrase “Tá sé marbh anois.” Milch seems to have some soft spot here. The character John Langrishe, a queenly actor of vague Irish extraction, comes to town in season three at the head of a travelling circus. He is played with such bravura flourish by Brian Cox that one feels that this is how Daniel O’Connell must have sounded at full gallop in the 1830s. Greeted at the door of the Gem by his old friend Al’s observation that “You look well, Jack”, Langrishe replies, just as King Dan might have: “It’s the learnin’ fuckin’ nothin’ Al that keeps me young.” He later berates another character for trying to thwart “expedition of one’s life’s disarray” having toasted the health of Al’s whores. (“Lovely smile ...”)

Hibernian hilarity to one side, the viewer is still left somewhat breathless by the end of each series as we are left to count the sheer number of rivalries and enmities in such a small town. As Conor Cruise O’Brien reminded us in his posthumously published study of George Washington’s presidency, First in Peace, nearly all the major personalities in the founding generation entertained grave doubts about the long-term viability of the Republic. Jefferson and Washington agreed on the likelihood of civil war and probably partition as well as early as the 1790s. The dark, even lurid colours in which Milch wreathed his Deadwood illustrate the ethnic divisions which spawned these doubts with rare aplomb. It’s anybody’s guess by the end how the wider Republic extricated itself from these pathologies. The New Frontier never seemed so far away from the real one.

The sheer rhetorical and emotional power of Deadwood defy easy analysis. Emphasising the sumptuous costumes, the stunning skyline or the quasi-Shakespearean dialogue gets us some way to the emotional core of Milch’s masterpiece, but doesn’t quite meet the challenge. Whether we take an evening’s drink on Al’s veranda or listen to the town newspaperman echo de Tocqeuville’s doubts about American democracy as his vast bulk is framed by a torchlit election, we are in the realm of the sublime. Edmund Burke once defined the sublime as a form of pain that crucially is experienced at a distance from the viewer. “Terror,” he suggested is a kind of “passion which always produces delight when it does not press too closely.” This insight helps us understand why Deadwood packs such a punch. We instinctively understand the dilemmas of each of Milch’s characters. There is nothing fundamentally new or surprising about the sorrows he chronicles here. We can nod in sympathy when a terrified prostitute puts the Derringer to her temple. We can cry with Doc when he falls to the ground in exhaustion. We revel in Al’s attempts to keep pace with the bigger capitalists who steamroll into Deadwood’s hills at the head of a private army of detectives. (“I don’t like the Pinkertons. They’re muscle for the bosses. As if the bosses ain’t got enough fucking muscle.”) But all of these finely judged scenes acquire their real lustre because they come to us at a palpable distance, just as Burke observed, obscured by the nagging feeling that somewhere and somehow modern America had to emerge from this chaos and that we should be able to predict the plot far more confidently that we actually can. “The sublime,” Burke wrote “is an idea belonging to self-preservation.” And this is Deadwood in a nutshell. Al is holding the ring against Tolliver’s Chicago girls. Tolliver is trying to fend off cheap Chinese prostitutes. The poor Cornish devils are bracing themselves against the arrival of the Carnegie-Morgenthau approach to industrial relations. And Mayor EB Farnum’s simple-minded manservant, Richardson, finds his position threatened with the arrival of a new black cook. (EB consoles him with the observation that “I too have seen the Ethiop. Who in fact could miss her?”) The effect of these innumerable contests is riveting.

There is no obvious ending to Deadwood, and there is nothing remotely close to a resolution in any one of the episodes. Some of the characters are permitted some minor triumphs however. Simple, childlike Richardson grows to love the Ethiop cook, Aunt Lou, and she tends lovingly to him like an errant child. Al just about manages to avoid being murdered by the malevolent gold magnate George Hurst who threatens to “take this place down like Gomorrah” unless all local mining operations are surrendered into his empire. The Nigger General recovers from a horrific assault involving a pot of boiling pitch and a local mob keen on revenge for Lincoln’s draft. Like another soldier whom he claimed constantly as a wartime peer, this general finally starts his own march to the sea, though his heart is set on San Francisco Bay rather than the Georgia coast where Sherman’s chastening swathe finally ended in 1865.

But Milch is equally attentive to the needs of the mere privates in Deadwood’s junior rank of characters. Al’s maid is a twisted cripple named Jewel, played here with extraordinary dignity by the American comic actress Geri Jewell. She is ashamed of her inability to walk without “dragging that fucking leg of yours” as Al taunts her each morning. Doc Cochran knows a thing or two about tending to mangled limbs, and he works his magic. One night, Al hears the tinkle of his new piano in the saloon beneath his room. He opens the door of his chamber and peers down over his bar. Doc is holding a newly braced Jewel in the midnight gloom, and she is teaching him to dance by candlelight. Beaming, she whispers to Doc: “Say I’m as a nimble as a forest creature.” “OK,” says Doc, “you’re as nimble as a forest creature.” “No!” Jewel replies, matching the piano’s chorus with all the new-found confidence of a Bella Union showgirl. “No, Doc. Say it about yourself!” Al watches them transfixed, no doubt thinking if only for a moment that solidarity can be more than a mere invented phrase. Even in the Black Hills. Even in Deadwood, where the daily route to be traversed was the roughest one of all, the one which seemed always to be leading backwards into nothingness.


John-Paul McCarthy is completing a PhD on William Gladstone’s intellectual life at Exeter College, Oxford.

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