As I mentioned shortly after my recent interview with Andrew Grevas, I will be writing at least one article about the HBO show Deadwood, which bridged the first and second terms of George W. Bush’s presidency. Deadwood ran for just three seasons, amounting to thirty-six episodes, but it changed my expectations forever in terms of what I need from dramatic art on television. Like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad, there was television before those shows and television after them, but what came after was very different that what was before. Deadwood is also like that for me.
Truly appreciating Deadwood requires humility, patience, a dark humor and it should really begin with understanding the historical context in which the show is set. Deadwood was a civilization without law and what the show explores is the corruption from purity of a person’s word as their bond, along with the brutality of their knife at your throat should you betray that word, degrading into servile numbness after society imposes its merciless order upon you. Deadwood is a fall from innocence and yes, a brutal grace.
In 1869, the Trans Pacific Railroad (TPR) was completed in the United States, connecting the East and West Coasts together for the first time in history. The TPR was President Ulysses S. Grant's greatest accomplishment, even more so than leading a victory in the Civil War; the TPR changed the United States more than he could have imagined. That being said, over the next few years, a national scandal broke out which clearly revealed that the President of the TPR had been bilking the government for millions of dollars during the railroad line’s construction, he had been charging for rail that was either never laid or deliberately laid in unnecessary turns and extensions so as the bloat the cost. After all, he was paid by length of rail laid, a ridiculous incentive that invited corruption.
It was a huge scandal and faith in the railroads were shook at the end of an investment bubble similar, if not more severe, than the Dot Com bubble in the late 1990s. Thus began The Panic of 1873 which exacerbated an already growing global Economic Depression. A lot of people lost their asses. A massive number of businesses closed and more of the country lost the ability to produce value in coin for the work they were lucky to find. This quickly became being lucky for the food they were able to find, let alone the work. Great Depressions are no joke and this was the first one America would live through.
So it churned on. Another one of the victories President Grant desperately wanted to maintain was the fragile peace he had established with Native Americans. At the time, the United States Government viewed all Native American people as an amorphous group of non-citizens who, if they banded together, could ignite another war that would decimate the country. Remember that we are barely a decade out of The Civil War here. Well, that fragile peace was established on a huge plot of land in the Dakota territory, land which surrounded The Black Hills, a place of great spiritual meaning and power to the Lakota tribe (one of many tribes now corralled into this large territory).
And in the midst of this Great Depression, from which there was no end in sight, gold was rumored to have been found by poaching miners, right in these Black Hills of another country's land. The potential of what that gold could do for the country (and their own politician’s pockets) starting shining in the eyes and sparking the worst of ambitions throughout Washington, including the desperate President Grant. And he and General Sherman sent the worst possible person into the Black Hills to verify the presence and amount of gold there. General George Armstrong Custer had large political ambitions of his own and the biggest was to win the Presidency after Grant. But he felt he needed one more national win and solving the economic crisis that seemed unsolvable appeared to be a pretty damn good way to do it. Custer was told to report his findings back only to Grant and Sherman, which he did. But he also sent a copy to the New York Times.
Starving people now had a chance to strike it rich by squatting on foreign land and murdering its owners if necessary to secure that shining wealth from the ground. Little acts of war have created these United States and Deadwood is filled with little acts of war.
Now we pass into the fictional story of Deadwood the television show as it mingles with the history of The United States in the 1870s. And in this story, two of those early poaching miners are the enterprising Al Swearengen and his strong man murderer Dan Dority. They illegally entered another country, found a spot near one of the largest mining sites, an area about the size of a town with land that looked flat enough to support a small civilization. They found that spot and Al and Dan started chopping down trees. Some of these trees would become the wall and ceiling and floors of The Gem Saloon, the only thing Al Swearengen ever loved more than money up to that point. The Gem will be the castle in which he crowns himself King. And like a Shakespearean King, Al is strutting and preening when we meet him in the pilot episode, no idea of the shit storm blowing his way and how it will break him of his hubris, the myopia of his ambition, and the frailties of his compassion.
Before we leave the actual history that surrounds the pilot episode of Deadwood and what unfolds after it over the next 36 hours of television, it is important to note that Custer rode back out to to this territory one more time. Sitting Bull refused President Grant's offer of several million dollars to buy the Black Hills (it was worth hundreds of times more). That refusal meant war and Sitting Bull and his chief warrior Crazy Horse knew this; it was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the city of Deadwood was being born from the stolen lumber of thousands of clear cut trees. One day at the end of June, 1876, Custer and his entire 7th Cavalry was slaughtered at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was two times outnumbered and divided his forces into frontal and rear assaults, one of the most foolish tactics ever employed against a superior force in what eventually became modern warfare. General Custer died in the last week of June, 1876. The pilot of Deadwood kicks off a few weeks or maybe a few months later.
So now you have the historical context of what you are about to experience, which is a tale of moral corruption carried into the hearts of men, women, and children, carried there by the “civilizing” force of social order as it was in the Summer of 1876 and the year that passes after it. What happens in the hearts of Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, and all the other citizens of this dirty, dangerous, and lawless town during this time is the same corruption happening in the hearts of human beings as this sentence is being composed. It’s still happening right now.
Now, imagine you are in a rickety wagon, stuck in a terrible mountain traffic jam in 90 degree sweltering heat. Flies are everywhere. It smells like horse shit. You are sweating and dirty and mad. Out of the crowd, you hear a woman’s growling voice shout, “It’s only ‘fuckin Wild Bill Hickok you got stuck here in the muck!”
Welcome to Deadwood. It’s a hell of a place to make your fortune.
JB Minton is the author of the upcoming book “A Skeleton Key To Twin Peaks: Experiencing The Return” and Co-Creator of The Red Room Podcast.