I would like to pose the argument that the 2004-2006 HBO miniseries “Deadwood” is one of the highest achievements in the arts ever created for the entertainment and enjoyment of guys. This is a claim I would make even if David Milch’s creation wasn’t infused with Buddhist wisdom of the grittiest kind imaginable. Amid the hail of unimaginably foul language, crime, murder, misogyny, inappropriate sexual relations, drunkenness, drug abuse and surliness of the highest order, the wisdom of the Buddha shines out for those tough-guy Buddhists who seek it.
Who needs the Mindfulness Center? I’ve got the entire three seasons of “Deadwood” on DVD – with bonus features and generally inane voice-over commentary.
The series centers on the bone-grinding-on-bone relationship between Timothy Oliphant’s Seth Bullock, a not-too-bright, hotheaded lawman, and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, a whoremonger, power-broker and murderer, head of organized crime in the gold mining camp in the Black Hills, which in 1876 grew from an uninhabited gully to a lawless population center of 10,000 men and a few whores in three months. The Dharma of Deadwood has to do with the kinds of things men in the real world must do in order to create and protect the integrity of the community in which they all perform their respective duties. The threat they face is the camp’s absorption into the international mega-industrialized mining operations of John Hearst, played with wonderfully understated evil by Gerald McRainey.
Bullock and Swearengen, diametric opposites on the morality continuum, must meet somewhere in the middle if the community is to survive the onslaught of Hearst, his millions of dollars and his legion of murderers and thugs. Which, of course, they fail to do.
On the side of law, order, and morality is Seth Bullock, who left a lawman’s job in Montana to open a hardware store in the new mining camp, but he gets sucked into the job of Deadwood’s sheriff. Bullock (a real historical figure who was Teddy Roosevelt’s best friend) has anger management issues that are sometimes expressed in the form of delivering one-sided beatings to otherwise-helpless scumbags. He’s a fighter. He has a duel to the death with a Lakota warrior while trying to chase down Wild Bill Hickok’s assassin. Mister Morally Upright is not beyond slipping it to the hyper-Victorian widow Alma Garrett, a junkie who owns the richest strike in the gully. When Swearengen insults his honor for his sexual escapades, Bullock fights Swearengen. In the grapple, both of them fall off Swearengen’s second-floor balcony into the mud below in the thoroughfare. A melee breaks out between Bullock’s few friends and Swearengen’s toadies. It’s a bloody mess inside the bloody mess that is “Deadwood” the TV series.
From that point on, the two main characters have to find a way to work together, as rumors of the imminent arrival of John Hearst spread through the camp. Swearengen realizes this. Bullock’s not that bright.
Al Swearengen’s character is contrasted with that of a rival saloon owner, Sy Tolliver, played by Powers Booth. Whereas Tolliver as no allegiances but to himself, and who treats his female employees like warmed-over shit, Swearengen, on the other hand, shows true moments of genuine compassion. After the fight in the street at the point when Al has the upper hand and is about to dagger Seth in the kidney, he is unnerved by the face of a little boy. In stages over the course of the show, Al liberates his favorite prostitute, a woman he literally owns, and probably loves. Among his employees is Jewell the Gimp, played by Jeri Jewell, a stand-up comic who has cerebral palsy, whose character he brought with him from the orphanage in which they grew up.
For me, the most searing scene in the first season was Al Swearengen performing the mercy killing of an itinerant preacher who suffers from a brain tumor. The same guy you see cutting a number of throats over the course of the season, suffocates the reverend with a wet cloth, clinging the suffering man to his bosom like he was a mortally wounded brother, whispering in his ear to “let go.” It was a profound scene that just got me by the balls. It was the greatest act of loving-kindness I’ve ever seen in the movies. It was the only scene in the series that made me cry.
The other most riveting scene of the series, for me, is in the middle of the third season when Dan, Swearengen’s closest toady, fights the Captain, John Hearst’s personal bodyguard. It was the most brutal fight I’ve ever seen depicted in film. Dan is about to be drowned in a puddle when he reaches back and pokes the Captain’s eye out, and then clubs him to death with a piece of firewood. You can see it on You Tube.
“Deadwood” is dense and rich, chock full of real faces, colorful characters, and insidious humor. Many of the show’s prostitutes were played by the daughters of technicians or actors who worked on the film. Murdered bodies are disposed of by feeding them to Mr. Wu’s pigs. Mr. Wolcott, Hearst’s front-man geologist, is a slave to sicko-sexual perversions. The show has the only prostate massage scene in television history. The guy who played Billy Babbitt in “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest,” Brad Dourif, plays the town doctor who is consumed with PTSD from his experiences in the Civil War. Molly Parker’s post-coital nudity in the first episode of the second season is an odalisque worthy of Goya or Renoir. A mixture of fact and fiction, nevertheless Milch did his best to make the series as authentic as possible. The language (“Deadwood” is probably the most foul-mouthed artistic creation in history) is beautifully obscene even at it’s most loquacious, as Jim Beaver’s Ellsworth muses in the first episode on the general state of the human condition: “Well, fuck us all, then, for the limber-dicked cocksuckers we are.” The language is a cross between Shakespeare, Dickens, and a platoon of Marines.
AND THEN . . . there is Robin Weigart’s performance as Calamity Jane, a great study in contradictions, Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok, Jeffrey Jones as newspaperman A.W. Merrick (who can forget him as Mr. Rooney the assistant principal in “Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off”?), and especially William Sanderson as E.B. Farnum, the slimiest character of them all. You remember him as the spokesmen for the brothers Larry, Darryl and Darryl, or in “Blade Runner” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Deadwood would have been greatly diminished without Sanderson’s presence. His character is the most Shakespearian of them all.
“Deadwood” provides an unblinking reality that should remind us that, yes, the world is a profane and violent place full of thieves and cutthroats, chicanery and unimaginable greed. Just because you don’t see a lot of that sort of thing in your gated Forest Hills community doesn’t mean that it is not there. Imagine yourself under circumstances where the delusion of safety doesn’t exist. Imagine your life and family and employment in Syria rather than the U.S. or Western Europe. Reality is unrelenting when you don’t have time to entertain your delusions.