There are a lot of television shows that I haven’t seen, but not many of them are about the rise of law and capitalism from the muck of anarchy, with a lot of race, class, and gender politics thrown in. I’ll be blogging my way through Deadwood two episodes at a time on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Dust off your DVDs or ready your HBOGO logins, and let’s rock and roll.
There’s a common assumption among minor Deadwood characters that the absence of the law and governance augurs a capitalist paradise in the town they hope to settle. “Jesus Christ Almighty,” Clell Watson says from his cell, trying to talk Seth Bullock into letting him out of jail and on his way. “No law at all, gold you could scoop from the streams with your bare hands, and I got to go fuck myself up by supposedly stealing Byron Sampson’s horse.” Similarly, Ellsworth, celebrating his latest strike in the Gem Saloon declares that “I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker and working a paying fucking gold claim. And not the U.S. government saying I’m trespassing or the savage fucking red man himself or any of these limber-dicked cocksuckers passing themselves off as prospectors better try to stop me.”
Al Swearengen’s central insight seems to be that it’s a false distinction, that a little regulation and law and order can in fact make it easier to do business. “If that longhaired loudmouth had held his end up, we could be operating here in peace,” he grumbles of Custer at one point. And when he finds out in “Deep Water” that road agents, rather than Indians, appear to have killed the Metz family on the Spearfish road, Al is furious at Ned Mason’s companion, telling him “So you let Ned run, you leave a squarehead alive, and me to clean up. Those are the only loose ends.” There’s no question that Al is a violent man, but in these first two episodes, most of his violent acts, whether he’s beating Trixie as punishment for murdering a customer in self-defense, or stabbing one of the murderous road agents, is a way of preserving the order that he needs to operate his business successfully. He’s not alone in desiring some sort of return to the protection of the state. “We who have pursued our destiny outside law or statute will be restored to the bosom of the nation,” declares a drunken A.W. Merrick. “And…that’s what I believe!”
Al is torn between the short-term gain he can make from exploiting disorder and delaying justice, as when news of the Metz massacre makes it into town with the result that “Nobody’s drinking, nobody’s gambling, nobody’s chasing tail. I have to deal with that!” He’ll offer half-price sex with the whores in his employ to distract the townsmen from setting out what happened to find to the Metz family to avoid losing a whole night’s business. But he generally believes in order enough to enforce a rough form of it — especially when he can regulate Deadwood’s commerce in a way that benefits himself, as he does when he balks at selling his corner lot to Sol and Seth until he can make sure they don’t have Wild Bill Hickock as a silent partner and intentions to opening a gambling establishment.
All the law we see in the show so far has that same rough, Biblical, emotional quality. “Why don’t you climb out from behind your badge and your big brick building and you bring Clell Watson out here so we can give him what he fucking deserves?” Byron Samson bawls at Seth in the show’s first scene, demanding that as the man who was stolen from, he has the right to administer justice to Clell. “You called the law in Samson. You don’t get to call it off just because you’re liquored up and popular on payday,” Seth tells the mob, backed up by Sol. But the most justice he can offer anyone is hanging Clell without a trial, breaking his neck himself because the drop off the steps is too short for a proper neck-stretching.
And yet, despite the dissatisfactions of the sheriff’s job, despite the promise of all he can achieve in Deadwood financially, it’s clear that Seth Bullock can’t quite quit the law even though he’s literally moved beyond its boundaries. “Camp also needs a bank is exactly damn right,” Sol tells him, trying to suss out his partner’s uneasiness about their new ventures. “Seth. If you see all these possibilities why get sidetracked by that saloon-keeper? We just want to buy his lot.” “What about what he called you?” Seth asks, using Al’s anti-Semitism as an excuse to keep a burr under his collar. “I’ve been called worse by better,” Sol replies patiently. Where Seth has to work himself up to pitch his goods, he’s entirely at home commissioning coffins, spotting scams, even enticing Wild Bill Hickock away from the poker table. Charlie Utter recognizes something of Wild Bill in Seth, and something more sustainable. In Seth, there’s a dream of perfectable law, an alternative to Al Swearengen’s rough regulation of Deadwood.