Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
How<em> Deadwood </em>found a higher power in a godless territory

How Deadwood found a higher power in a godless territory

Screenshot: Deadwood (HBO), Graphic: Libby McGuire

“St. Paul tells us from one spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jew or Gentile, bond or free, and have all been made to drink into one spirit. For the body is not one member but many. He tells us: ‘The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of thee.’ Nay, much more those members of the body which seem to be more feeble... and those members of the body which we think of as less honorable—all are necessary. He says that there should be no schism in the body but that the members should have the same care one to another. And whether one member suffer all the members suffer with it.”
—Reverend Smith, Deadwood, The Trial Of Jack McCall

Reverend Henry Weston Smith is ecstatic and grotesque. The crowd, there to mourn the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, is uncomfortable—this isn’t the first funeral Smith’s conducted, but his zeal reeks of desperation, belying a manic terror. It’s only the fifth episode of Deadwood, and he’ll be dead by season’s end, smothered amid the cruel, spasmodic throes of a subsuming brain tumor. Still, he speaks truth. In the text above, he speaks not only the will of God, but also that of his world’s creator, David Milch. Deadwood was conceived as an exploration of community: Taking place in the 1870s, it chronicles the makeshift camp, which was built on land stolen from the Lakota Sioux, both before and after its annexation by the Dakota Territory. How, Milch wondered, do societal structures manifest in the absence of law? And, though Deadwood proves itself a godless town, its lone minister is the only one able to articulate what haunts the minds of its leadership: We are nothing if we are not one. Everyone has a purpose: eye, hand, foot, or head, your utility is the key to your identity.

“I’m right where I’m supposed to be,” Smith asserts, even as the lesion in his brain tears at his sanity. It’s why Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) respects him. McShane’s saloon owner/kingpin, opportunistic and vicious as he is, knows that every society needs a moral center, or at least the veneer of one. “An illusion agreed upon,” to quote Milch himself. That requires a healer like Brad Dourif’s Doc Cochran, a lawman like Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, and a journalist like Jeffrey Jones’ A.W. Merrick. The operation Swearengen desires functions best beneath the guise of order, but what he learns, as we do as viewers, is that order, community, and even truth is sometimes stumbled upon within that illusion. As former A.V. Club TV editor Todd VanDerWerff once wrote, “collective survival requires human beings to learn to function interdependently, and in that way communities become single organisms.” It’s a beautiful thing.

If the clergyman so beautifully played by Ray McKinnon is one of the only characters to see the purity of Deadwood’s synthesizing, that’s likely because Milch himself came to acknowledge a “higher power” while going through AA’s 12-step program. That experience has no doubt impacted his writing process, which he views through a religious lens. “I believe that we are all literally part of the mind of God and that our sense of ourselves as separate is an illusion,” he told The New Yorker in 2005. A few years later, during a lecture at the University Of Southern California, he said, “The telling of a story is nothing more or less than the process of the viewer coming to experience what has seemed to be separate entities, as informed by a single unity. And, in that context, all of the sort of abstract categories of plot, character are subsumed in really what is a religious construct, which is—it’s on all your currency—e pluribus unum: Out of many, one.” It’s not an explicitly Christian point of view; the emphasis on oneness and the loosening of ego speaks more to Buddhism. The characters, after all, are always at their most miserable when their ego serves to separate them from the whole—just think of Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane.

But Deadwood takes place in the American West of the 1870s. To deny Christ is to be labeled an other. Swearengen, in justifying he and his cohorts’ takeover of the land, repeatedly calls the Sioux “dirt-worshipping heathens,” and his anti-Semitism is a flood upon Sol Starr (John Hawkes), who absorbs it as a byproduct of his circumstances. Of course, there’s nothing traditionally Christian about Swearengen’s own behavior—he converses not with God, but the decapitated head of a Native American—nor anyone’s in a town so ridden with murder, dope, booze, and prostitution. Meanwhile, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) spends the early part of the third season feigning a conversion that evaporates once he’s used it to fool Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), the gambler-turned-preacher who similarly used the Good Book as a mask for revenge.

That’s why Smith is so necessary. In the show’s first season, he orates with as much care over the bodies of two-bit thieves and murderers as he does Hickok, a living legend. He conjures pageantry, builds coffins, and, oddly enough, loves it. Contrast that against Cochran, who is perpetually tortured by the cries of the Civil War soldiers he couldn’t save, or Bullock, who approaches the job of sheriff with grim dutifulness. This is partly why Smith’s collapse, when his sickness separates him from his purpose, is so heartrending. “When I read the scriptures I do not feel Christ’s love as I used to,” he tells Cochran, his right eye drifting, his left arm a useless crook. “Nor do those who listen hear it through me.” Later, the sound of a new piano draws him into Swearengen’s saloon, where he dances obliviously amid jeers from the drunken patrons. “My father was a preacher of the Word and that ain’t right,” says Swearengen crony Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers). When Swearengen boots Smith, he says it’s because “a man of the cloth slows business down.” That’s no doubt true, but Swearengen also needs Smith to slip back into his role. By the time he sees him in the throes of psychosis, preaching to cows on the thoroughfare, tears rim his eyes. Smith’s seizures remind him of his brother, yes, but there’s also something horrible about witnessing the real-time corruption of someone who had so fully realized their purpose. “He’s making a fucking jerk of himself,” he spits. “I mean, why go on with that? Who’s gonna benefit from that, huh?”

But then something magical happens. Cochran brings Smith to Swearengen’s saloon, where he can die comfortably, then retreats back to his office and, through wailing cries, prays to his God to let the reverend die, asking “what conceivable godly use” the Lord could have for keeping him alive. Swearengen, meanwhile, no longer content to watch Smith suffer, suffocates him, serving in this moment as an answer to Cochran’s prayer, a vulgar, holy vessel in a godless land. For one moment, at least, the absent spirit was willed into existence. The moment is in many ways indicative of Deadwood’s larger themes, showing how, in the spirit of community, transcendence can emerge from that which previously didn’t exist.

There, the higher power emerges in a Christian frame, but Milch’s mantra of “fake it till you make it” manifests elsewhere. There’s the camp’s eventual annexation, sure, but look also at how the marriages of necessity that form between Alma (Molly Parker) and Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) and Seth and Martha (Anna Gunn) evolve, slowly and intricately, into passionate unions. There’s also the brutish Mose Manuel (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who emerges from near-death with a desire for moral redemption, one he wills into fruition by serving as the unasked-for (but appreciated) guardian of the camp school. Even Andy and Cy, troubled as they are, long for genuine revelation as they bend the Bible to their wills. Andy is a queasy orator at the funeral for young William Bullock, but, even in his ugly digressions about worms, he’s earnest. And, in one of the series’ most telling scraps of dialogue, Cy declares that “deception don’t preclude the search for fuckin’ conviction.” Joanie (Kim Dickens) calls him the devil as he grips a Bible, to which he ponders, “Show me another fuckin’ strategy.” Cy’s tragedy is in desiring redemption from an external spirit, rather than a communal one. His ego precludes the latter, and, in Deadwood at least, redemption isn’t a passive act (see: Mose Manuel).

And then there’s sweet, dopey Richardson (Ralph Richeson), the put-upon servant of the despicable E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson). After being handed a pair of loose antlers by Alma, Richardson cherishes them like a rosary, raising them up to a larger pair of horns in the town inn. It’s comic relief, yes, but it’s also a mode of prayer that he seems to understand, and Richardson commits to this manufactured spirit even as Farnum mocks his idolatry of the “god of antlers and hooves.” “Pray away, then, moron, for all the harm you’ll do,” Farnum says in parting. But, as Milch has said, communities tend to organize around symbols—for Richardson, the antlers are no different than a crucifix.

Illustration for article titled How Deadwood found a higher power in a godless territory
Screenshot: HBO

“God is just a name for whatever is the spirit which has given us rise,” Milch said in his lecture. He expressed a similar sentiment in a new, heartbreaking interview with The New Yorker about the upcoming film and Milch’s current struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. Speaking of his old mentor, poet Robert Penn Warren, Milch described Warren’s presence as having the “effect of a continuous unfolding.”

He continued, “It wasn’t so much an unfolding of a truth as it was of a passion, or that there was some higher power that had become present as a result of a shared effort. And the presence needed to be acknowledged or the exchange could not be understood. The great blessing of Mr. Warren’s presence was a rising up in one’s heart of the desire to acknowledge that shared experience.” Smith himself couldn’t have crystallized Deadwood’s heart better.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.