No Law At All in Deadwood
By Mary Kilpatrick
The HBO series Deadwood
has received critical acclaim for its deconstruction of the Western
genre. What sets the series apart is its fearless depiction of
the violence and mayhem that accompany the process of moving
from near anarchy to civilization. Can an ordered civilization
exist without law? No one in Deadwood wears a white hat,
and the series is drenched in blood, mud and foul language.
1876, Deadwood literally exists outside the law. The show uses
the traditional Western theme of law and order coming to a place
outside the law and then turns it on its head. David Milch (NYPD
Blue) said that what interested him in creating the series
is "the idea of order without law." Deadwood is a mining
camp located on land that, by treaty, actually belongs to the
Sioux nation. Due to political and economic considerations, the
United States government has allowed the illegal settlement to
exist. One of the show's main characters, saloon owner Al Swearengen,
is working to have Deadwood annexed into the Dakota Territory
throughout seasons one and two.
Al Swearengen is the ultimate
anti-hero, a scoundrel with a streak of compassion. He presides
over Deadwood using violence and intimidation, remorselessly
having his enemies murdered and fed to man-eating pigs. Al knows
exactly what he is doing when he orders a murder - he uses the
word "murder" instead of the word "kill."
Al's violence brings order
to the camp, an order without color of law that allows Al to
continue to fleece the prospectors by providing them with whiskey,
women, and gambling. It is Al's desire to prevent unrest in the
camp that motivates his actions. When Al fears information about
white marauders preying on travelers would unsettle the miners,
he is even willing to go so far as to have a young girl murdered
to prevent her talking about the bandits who killed her family.
While Al works to maintain
order in the camp to keep the gold flowing into his till, Seth
Bullock, Deadwood's other hero, turns to law enforcement as a
way to control his own violent impulses. Seth is a man who beats
his lover's father to a pulp and will get into an all-out brawl
with Al over an insult to his honor. Yet, he repeatedly turns
to the law to reign in his violent nature and to curb the lawless
violence of others.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said
that the law develops out of society's need to minimize the collateral
consequences of the taking of revenge, and Seth's relationship
with law fits this model. In Deadwood's first episode,
Seth is a Marshal in Montana and is confronted by a lynch mob
wanting to hang the horse thief in his custody. Sampson, the
man whose horse the thief stole, demands that he be allowed to
kill the prisoner himself. However, Sampson's desire for personal
retribution is thwarted by Seth, who insists that the prisoner
will hang "under color of law." Rather than allowing
the mob to kill the prisoner, Seth hangs him from a rafter on
Later in season one, Seth turns
to the law to govern his own desire for revenge. Bullock's friend
Wild Bill Hickok is shot in the back by Jack McCall. When McCall
is acquitted in a sham trial and leaves camp, Seth takes off
after him intending to exact revenge. A Sioux warrior ambushes
him on the trail, and Seth kills the warrior, though he himself
is badly injured. Seth's violent encounter with the Sioux warrior
causes him to change his mind about his desire for revenge, and
after apprehending McCall, Seth delivers him to Yankton for a
Seth eventually takes on the
role of Deadwood's sheriff, despite his own misgivings. Even
this transformation occurs out of an act of violence. When Seth
sees Deadwood's current sheriff inciting violence as a result
of a bribe, Seth punches him out and throws his sheriff's star
into the mud. Seth then literally picks up the sheriff's star
out of the mud and wipes it clean before pinning it on his own
vest. Despite his own frequent recourse to violence, Seth cannot
stand to see the law sullied by corruption or mud.
Over the course of the first
two seasons, Deadwood begins to take on the trappings of civilization.
In the first season, Al learns that the government in Yankton
will look more favorably on Deadwood (and preserve the claims
of existing stakeholders) if the settlement has some sort of
rudimentary organization in place. He calls a meeting of the
main players in the settlement to elect a mayor and some other
officers, and his minion, Johnny, serves peaches. From this point
forward, peaches are served at each meeting of the new town government.
This is how great government traditions begin.
Season two ends with Al signing
the camp over to the government in Yankton, making it part of
the Dakota Territory. As season three begins in 2006, Deadwood
will be transformed from a place with "no law at all"
to a legally-sanctioned town - and it will be fascinating to
see what happens when law comes to Deadwood.
Posted November 17, 2005