Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Mary Kilpatrick
is an Assistant Professor and Reference Librarian at the Massachusetts School of Law. She teaches a course entitled Film and the Legal Profession, as well as Race in American Law and Legal Research and Writing

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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

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.

In 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 the porch.

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 new trial.

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

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