Sunday, September 10, 2006

Deadwood and the libel of George Hearst

by Lance Mannion

Last night on Deadwood, Ellsworth proposed to Alma Garrett, Tom Nuttall rode his bone-shaker the whole way down the sidewalk, Al Swearengen spent too much time talking to a dead Indian in a box, and Seth Bullock, as he does in too many episodes, spent most of his time glowering, grinding his teeth, looking as though he would like nothing more than to find someone to beat bloody, and generally not getting anything accomplished.

That tendency of Bullock's to not get anything accomplished is one of the reasons my enjoyment of Deadwood isn't as unreserved as some people's.

Fans of the show recognized immediately that the episode I described up top, Childish Things, is from the middle of the second season. The third and final season has just ended on HBO, but the blonde and I don't subscribe so we've been watching on DVD.

That doesn't mean that I'm a season and a half behind in knowing what's going on. I've been keeping up through the website and Matt Zoller Seitz's reviews. (Look out: Plenty of plot spoilers at both places.) So I know what's in store for the main characters and apparently what's in store for Bullock is more glowering, teeth-gnashing, and lack of accomplishment.

I find this dramatically uninteresting and uninspired. I understand why the writers can't let Bullock get to work cleaning up Deadwood quite yet. But couldn't they have taken a page out of the King Arthur stories and let him leave town now and then on an adventure in which he gets to be the movie western hero we know he is and is going to be? Launcelot spent as much time as he could away from Camelot so that he wouldn't have to see Guenevere every day. Bullock should follow his example so that he doesn't have to keep exchanging longing glances with Alma Garrett.

But what is also bothering me about Bullock's inertia is that it is historically inaccurate.

There was a real Seth Bullock, just as there was a real Al Swearengen and a real Tom Nuttall and a real E.B. Farnum. In fact, at least half the main characters had historical counterparts whose careers pretty closely paralleled the characters'.

Series creator David Milch and his writers have taken more than a few liberties with their personalities. The real E.B. Farnum appears to have been a more respectable, intelligent, and self-reliant type than the unctuous, fawning, greedy, foolishly scheming coward and "born follower" portrayed so brilliantly by William Sanderson.

And the real Seth Bullock appears to have been too busy and too accomplished to have wasted a single moment grinding a single tooth.

Bullock, the real Bullock, was one of those fortunate people who are born older, possessed of a maturity and sagacity beyond their years, more than his their share of energy and talent, and a genius for being in the right place at the right time and knowing just what needs to be done when and how to do it.

There were good reasons he was made sheriff, Teddy Roosevelt became his lifelong friend, his business thrived, and he became over time one of the leading citizens of Deadwood. He was smart, hardworking, brave, honest, and, above all, preternaturally sensible.

And I understand why David Milch wouldn't have wanted him for his hero.

The real Seth Bullock wouldn't have wasted any time with the fictional Al Swearengen---the real Al Swearengen doesn't appear to have left any mark on history and was probably just what you'd expect the owner of a whorehouse to be, a petty thug---and the central dramatic tension of the series, which is based on how the thoroughly corrupt Al Swearengen longs for a world in which he is not only not necessary but an evil to be stamped out, so that his mission in life is to bring about his own self-destruction, requires a tortured, indecisive, and not at all level-headed Seth Bullock.

It's necessary to the plot that the "good" people Swearengen needs to make his dream of a civilized Deadwood come true be weaker and not as sharp as he is so that he can give them the benefit of his cynical wisdom and back them up when they prove incapable of committing the violence or dishonesty that a scheme requires to succeed.

And it's necessary because Milch's conception of the Wild West is essentially ahistorical.

In Milch's Deadwood, the West is a thoroughly lawless and savage place that has to be tamed through the most brutal means. Civilization has to be built from the ground up, one small step at a time, and against great odds. The West---the World---wants to be a hellhole. People are for the most part stupid and vicious and driven to self-destruction by their lusts and greed and appetites and no matter how often you demonstrate to them that it's better to walk down a wooden sidewalk than wade ankle-deep through mud and shit, they will not just keep stepping off the sidewalk, they will not just regularly trip and fall off it, they will jump off it, happily, after taking a running start, and break their necks landing head first in the mire, if they see a penny shining up at them from a puddle.

Heck, they don't even need to see the penny. They will drown themselves in the shit just because it's too hard to walk straight on the sidewalk or because the echoing clomp of their own boots on the boards drives them crazy.

Pretty much, then, they have to be forced at gunpoint or bribed or tricked into acting human and decent.

Honesty, compassion, mercy and other more refined virtues are often problematic in such a world.

In reality, civilization was imported all at once to the various Deadwoods that sprouted up all across the continent from Plymouth on out to San Francisco.

Civilization arrived as soon as the Seth Bullocks and Sol Stars opened up their hardware stores.

It arrived in the form of hardware stores.

And schools, and libraries, and lecture halls.

It arrived in the persons of people like George Hearst.

In the series, George Hearst is a rapacious monster, a dragon who comes along and despoils the village, and carries off all the gold the hardworking and honest citizens have earned through their sweat, blood, and courage.

He's an invincible dragon too.

Not only do bulletts fired at point blank range into his face magically swerve off course to merely nick his shoulder, but there is no political or economic power on earth that can resist him. He corrupts with a touch all that he can't destroy.

Even Al Swearengen is no match for the dragon. Al survives, and saves Deadwood, by strategically retreating at every step the dragon takes and letting him gobble up pretty much all he wants to gobble up. In the end, they win out simply by outlasting the dragon's appetites. His lust and greed and gluttony slaked, the dragon leaves on his own, although not before demanding and getting the villagers to sacrifice a virgin...

Well, she's hardly a virgin, but she's a young woman so completely innocent of any offense to any one, let alone the dragon, that her moral purity is practically that of a virgin's.

Very dramatic. But also a pure fairy tale.

The real George Hearst was not a dragon. He was someone dragons---little, mean-spirited, much less talented dragons---followed around in hopes of making a killing off his hardwork.

Like Seth Bullock, Hearst was born older. He matured young and he was a success in life almost from his first step out the door into the great wide world, and he succeeded by being harder working, smarter, more talented, more sensible, and less greedy than most young businessmen of his day.

I'm not saying that he was some kind of saint. I'm saying that he did not make his way in life as a parasite. He was a true entrepreneur. He started businesses, made them prosper, and then sold them off, probably sometimes to parasites of the type the fictional Hearst is a grotesque caricature of in Deadwood.

The real Hearst's supposed Indian name "Boy the Earth Talks To" appears to have as been as well-earned and deserved as Natty Bumpo's Indian names, Deerslayer and Hawkeye.

He was a true prospector and an accomplished mining engineer as well as a savvy businessman and investor.

As a person, he appears to have had far more in common with Deadwood's most decent and noble, and humble, character, Ellsworth than he'd have had with his fictional counterpart.

It's very possible that the real Seth Bullock was a far more tortured and tempted young man than he appears to be in the historical record. He might have succeeded in life because he was able to repress and tame his demons and resist the dark angels of his nature. That side of him might very well have not made it into the history books. So if Milch needs the character to be more flawed and conflicted than was apparently the case, he can do it without really doing a disservice to the real Seth Bullock's reputation.

If in the two movies that will finish off the series next year Milch makes Bullock a corrupt hypocrite undeserving of the respect and positon his historical counterpart earned in real life, I will be extremely disappointed, both as a student of history and as fan of the show, since it will mean that Bullock wasn't worth investing all the time and trouble it's taken to watch Timothy Olyphant glower and grind his teeth and stand around looking frustrated and impotent and incompetent.

I will also be disappointed in Milch for letting his ideas trump his art. He will have used Bullock to illustrate a non-dramatic point at the expense, not just of history, but of good storytelling.

I don't really expect that will happen. I think that in the end Bullock will step up and become the hero Milch has set him on the path to become.

Note, I didn't say that he will become the hero the real Seth Bullock was. The real Seth Bullock arrived in town as a hero. There would have been no drama in that. Not enough to sustain a TV series planned to last even longer than the three years Deadwood has unfortunately been limited to.

It is enough to sustain a pretty good movie western and is in fact pretty much the plot of Dodge City and Destry Rides Again, movies, by the way, I think David Milch must have had in the back of his mind as models, despite his cynical view of the West compared to those westerns' romanticism.

But I am already disappointed in that with George Hearst Milch has allowed a non-dramatic idea to give him permission to alter history to a far greater degree than he had in the first season and in effect libel the real George Hearst.

Yes, I know, you can't libel the dead. And Hearst was a public figure anyway, so I can only use libel figuratively here. But I mean it, doggone it. The Hearst in the series an insult to the real man.

And don't try to tell me about what Shakespeare did to Richard III. There's some disagreement about just how much of a tyrant the real Richard was and how much blood was on his hands, but besides that there's reason to think Shakespeare believed he was being true to the historical record. He was working from what passed for it.

Milch knows he's making it all up. And I can't help being disappointed that while he was making up his character George Hearst he didn't take the extra step of making up a name for him too.

The show is more of an allegory than it is a historical drama, which is, of course, one of the justifications for all the ahistorical profanity, which is itself a disguise for the far more ahistorical habits of the characters to speak in blank verse.

The blank verse, the very Shakespearean scene structures, plus the outrageously exaggerated violence, are signals of the show's artificiality. Depsite its realistic looking surface, Deadwood is theater. It isn't meant to be taken as a documdrama. It's meant to be taken as pure Drama.

Which is why I think calling the George Hearst character George Hearst was an artistic mistake, on top of everything else.

The character is an allegorical monster of corporate capitalism. It is neither true to history, true to life, nor true to the art of the show---to keep Hearst alive and thriving the other characters have had to act in ways artistically inconsistent with their behavior. Swearengen has cut the throat of a goverment agent. Would he really have hesitated to have had Hearst killed? Faced with the choice of having to kill Trixie or killing Hearst himself, would he have hesitated?

Giving the dragon the name of a real human being, I think, highlights the character's artistic implausibility by calling attention to the fact that no real human being could have acted like this and gotten away with it.

But it's a failure too in that by not caring if the fake George Hearst gets mistaken for the real one, Milch allowed his politics to get the better of his art.

Those capitalists, they're all the same, aren't they?

At which question, the allegory shrinks into a tract.

Originally posted at my place.

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