Dec 3, 2009
David Milch’s Deadwood lays bare the dynamic and discursive construction of subjective experience with unrivaled felicity, clarity, and skill. Capturing that experiential complexity is a feat in any art form; but television, and especially network TV, is unusually bad at it, tending toward the simplification of whatever needs simplifying for the sake of cohesion, commercials, censors, and so on. Milch’s characters emerge, shimmer, and recede too frenetically for us to pull back and examine them as complex wholes. We are instead absolutely stuck, with Deadwood’s inhabitants, in a state of constant, potent experiential flux. Radical contingency reigns, making moments of inexplicable terror and moments of astonishing grace equally likely and equally unpredictable.
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is proprietor of the Deadwood Camp’s Gem Saloon: whorehouse, showhouse, locus of local business legal and illegal. He is paterfamilias and crime boss, as apt to politely upbraid you for bad manners as he is to slit your throat. Near the conclusion of the second-season episode “Complications” (online here), Al emerges from a long period of convalescent recovery after a near-death run-in with Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the camp’s sheriff, and protracted difficulties with a number of kidney stones. In the weeks he’s been out, Al has been unable to monitor and intervene in the various political negotiations with outside forces attempting to annex the camp into their territory, deliberations volatile enough to require Al’s constant, steady, pragmatically unlawful hand on the tiller.
The immediate necessity at the moment Al becomes alert is protecting Commissioner Hugo Jarry of Yankton (Stephen Tobolowsky), the administrative seat of the Dakota territory, from the murderous mob of claim-holding gold prospectors and uncouth, drunken hoi polloi (“hoopleheads”) incensed at a public notice, issuing from Jarry’s pen, calling the ownership of the Deadwood’s claims into doubt should the camp be incorporated into Dakota. Al would readily see Jarry slaughtered under other conditions, but his death now would disadvantage Al’s interests, and so disadvantage the camp’s. It’s not advantageous, either, though, for Al’s men to be seen protecting Jarry from at least a score of bloodthirsty hoopleheads.
So despite their recent death match and his wounded pride, Al has summoned Sheriff Bullock, one of his few comrades in empathetic stewardship of the camp as a whole, to protect Jarry from the mob. Their exchange:
(Al’s room, he is sitting on the bed, Seth is standing near the door)
Al: (Chuckles) You got gall—comin’ before me prettier ‘an ever.
Seth: Are you all right?
Al: On the fucking mend, that’s all to say on that. What do you know of this new commissioner?
Seth: His notice on the claims has people pissed off.
Al: I wouldn’t want the cocksucker harmed.
Seth: I don’t intend him any.
Al: Don’t be fucking clever with me. He’s allied with Tolliver. Are you aware of that?
Al: Bedridden, I know more ‘an you. The point is, if their man’s allied with Tolliver and fuckin’ harm comes to him, between the hoopleheads and me, who will Yankton put it on?
Al: Yeah. Do they understand how most of what happens is people being drunk and stupid and trying to find something else to blame besides that that makes their lives totally fucked? No, they don’t.
Al: Yankton, exactly. They’re too busy stealin’ to study human nature. (Puts his tea cup down […].) And both of you being government officials…you ought to fuckin’ look out for each other…(lifts his teacup in a toast.) Sheriff.
(Al sips his tea, Seth pauses, turns and leaves.)
As Swearengen confirms for Bullock, the “they” of whom he speaks here—
Do they understand how most of what happens is people being drunk and stupid and trying to find something else to blame besides that that makes their lives totally fucked? No, they don’t.
—is, immediately, the aptly-named Yankton; but his insight applies equally to anyone, making “what happens” anything. Most of what we do period is done under a lesser degree of precisely this sort of pressure. Whether we’re the “drunk” one or the one reacting to “drunkenness” or both, we face precisely this sort of and degree of contingency in everyday relations—we just learn to calibrate our reactions to it more or less poorly. We do that by what Al highlights in the second part of his statement: we justify things to ourselves in particular situations; and over time, aggregate them into a foundation from which to generalize about those sorts of situations. Based on those generalizations and our evolving, irreducibly subjective understanding of them, we ultimately come up with (fluid) rules by which to act and, embedded within those rules, identifiable ideas about power relations: i.e., in Al’s personal vernacular, Whom to blame for what.
His thinking of power is all about blame—or culpability, really. Whom is to blame and what that means is the foundation for how Al chooses to act in the face of particular sorts of situations. His way of calibrating his relationship to contingency and chance, that is, is to think out a network of blame and counterblame, culpability and counterculpability; and then, with what he sees as the best bird’s-eye view, plot the best course of action in light of how the network looks right then, at the precise moment in which circumstances force a decision. That’s his extremely advanced, personally evolved set of rules; his calibration method. But Al knows he’s often wrong. Al has seen, from taking the best bird’s-eye view so very many times, that when it comes down to it, most of what actually happens in the world is premised on mistaken readings of the world.
These misreadings occur, usually, because we’re drunk—often literally for Al, and for many others; but metaphorically for everyone: we’re all drunk most of the time in this sense—and so do things that are stupid, or out of sync with what we would have done had we known more effectively what was going on; and, finally, again because our self-conceptions are tied up in projecting error outward, we “blame” our misreadings on other things—that is, find ways to explain them that don’t fracture the rules by which we generally come to find explanations. As Al says, no, people don’t understand that most of this shit is a lot less solid or certain that they think. They can’t understand it, because their self-images are tied up in it, sustained by it.
Al, on the other hand, while obviously a self-gratifying, self-motivated cocksucker, has been forced time and time again to think outside the rules that for the rest of the camp define their everyday behavior. As Al’s initial favored whore and eventual moral exemplar Trixie (Paula Malcomson) argues once to Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), this has produced an incredibly complex moral sensibility, one that, for instance, keeps an endlessly derided “cripple” named Jewel (Geri Jewell) around not as a nickel-trick for the hoopleheads, but because he feels an obligation to protect her. Judging Al, as Trixie says, is never as simple as it seems. “The fucking point,” she tells Jane—who understandably wishes Al dead for his transparent role in attempting to kill an innocent child—is that “there’s entries on both sides of the ledger.”
Trixie is correct: there exists not just compassion for Jewel in Al’s mind, but mutual respect, too. Jewel is clearly both bright enough and alienated enough to have learned many of Swearengen’s lessons about contingency for herself in her own way. She’s been with Al a long time. She fully understands that Al might fly off the handle one day and kill her. It could happen. Later Al would mourn her and scorn his mistake; Jewel knows this and takes comfort in it. Like Al, Jewel is perpetually ready for the contingent drunkenness of humanity as such to capriciously abolish her. This militant, ever-forgiving preparedness is also called faith.