the important and the not-so-important, horribly conflated.

Deadwood & the Mid-Terms

In politics on November 2, 2010 at 9:43 pm

The third and final season of HBO’s excellent Deadwood has a season-long election storyline: “the Camp,” once a paradise for gold-claiming, whore-mongering, iambic-pentamer-spewing hedonics, is becoming tame—and the Law demands executors, so elections are deemed necessary. I say “deemed” because, as anyone familiar with the show is aware, decisions about the Camp’s future come down from Olympus via one of two Titans: Hearst (above L) or Swearingen (above R).

It would be easy to cast these wild west power-brokers in the mold of their modern hyperpartisan descendents: W.R. Hearst is the proto-Randian Capitalist, using torture and murder to crack down on unions, scoffing at other’s distaste for monopoly—he even engages in the delusory game most Objectivists play now, believing that capital and entrepreneurship are self-evident solutions to social inequality. Al Swearingen is a brash, but not unfeeling, saloon owner that befriends the immigrant (Chinese) contingent in the camp, treats his prostitutes with (relatively) more respect than others, and is genuinely more in touch with human suffering (perhaps because he still inflicts it on others). Al is a liberal before Americans knew what a liberal was.

But the Deadwood writers are too smart to let us draw these simple parallels.

Hearst and Swearingen are not stand-ins for our modern political parties—they represent instead the two themes elections in our country vacillate between, respectively: Individualism (2004, 2010), and Personality (2008).

The difference is subtle. Individualism is self-autonomy, its blatant disregard for the inevitabilities of personal freedom (the inconvenient clashing with “the other’s” freedom, or the rights of the community as a whole) a badge rather than a burden. Hearst kills off an outspoken miner and landowner resistant to an offer on his (the landowner’s) claim because it betters the Hearst business. But his real soul-destroying kill is committed off-screen: Hearst has the son of his Black cook murdered after he reveals the site of a new gold find to the mogul. Nothing is sacred except personal freedom.

Republicans are not killing people. I hope. But we see Hearst’s legacy in this year’s midterms: the audacity of the Republicans/Tea Party to claim that tax cuts and deregulation will somehow “level the playing field,” even as corporate welfare has left middle class wages stagnant over the last 20 years and equality of opportunity (re: the american dream) will never be a reality in a country with an unjust education and health care system (which Republicans want to privatize further).

The Personality cult is the projection of personal hopes and struggles onto someone perceived to be stronger than he or she actually is. A line full of individuals, wanting nothing more than their feelings and intuitions confirmed, seems to constantly form at Swearingen’s office door. He usually makes them feel like they are part of something larger, but this usually just makes them more dependent on his opinion. One of Obama’s failings during his still-young presidency has been, simply, a lack of timely explanation of the chaos that is our economy and our legislative process. We craved, but never quite received, an affirmation that our voices were heard.

Throughout Deadwood, characters talk to inanimate objects—a box, a grave, the earth itself. They, like us, crave intrinsic, inalienable truths. Jill Lepore, explaining (brilliantly) the Tea Party’s view on American history, makes a similar point in The New Yorker:

A fundamentalist approach to history, which you see in and around the Tea Party, insists that the Constitution was divinely inspired and speaks to us, across the ages, and is therefore incontrovertible, and outside the sphere of political debate, or even of interrogation. Historical scholarship, of course, works otherwise: its methods rely on skepticism and inquiry, and, necessarily, on an appreciation of the distance, and the difference, between past and present.

Elections become a cyclical, intentional, communal forgetting: a mis-remembering of Individualist candidates whose personal values could not be satisfied without the disenfranchisement of the other; a forgotten past where Personality could not overcome a national feeling that our self-agency was seeping away.

We flock to the polls once every two years and cast our votes for Personality or Individualism because we fail to interrogate our own history. We fail to see that the names on the ballots are interchangeable, that we vote for these ideals—ideals that exist outside of history or argument—because it’s easier that way. It’s the most American form of self delusion: one that becomes enshrined as a sacred right.







  1. As I sit here frustrated and grumbling watching the election results come in, this made me smile. David Milch is brilliant. I love Deadwood. And you made some great points. Thank you!

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