Deadwood as History

What the Show Got Right About the Old West -- and What It Missed


All Westerns are stories of people attempting to impose order on a chaotic, lawless, and savage environment. Deadwood, the HBO series that aired from 2004 until 2006, derived tremendous narrative power by exploring the moral quandaries that arise in such circumstances. In the show, otherwise good people lie, commit sabotage, sell drugs (and their bodies), and kill -- just as they did during the 1870s in the real Deadwood, the mining town in present-day South Dakota from which the series took its name.

Beyond thematic verisimilitude, Deadwood's creator, David Milch, also strove for more mundane historical accuracy, the best-known example being the show's remarkably profane dialogue. Many of the main characters are based on real people: Seth Bullock, the sheriff; Al Swearengen, the saloon and brothel owner; E. B. Farnum, the hotel keeper; Wild Bill Hickok, the celebrity sharpshooter killed during a poker game in Deadwood; and Calamity Jane, the gender-bending, gun-toting scout. But the daily realities for these historical figures are invented. The result is a rich, almost epic tale -- "like some fucking great Greek battle," as Farnum describes the state of affairs at the beginning of the second season. But accurate? Not so much.

Of course, audiences should not expect Westerns to be lessons on how people cursed or dressed or died on the frontier. Imposing the rules of history on the genre would mire its grander themes in the mud of hardship and disappointment that covered ordinary life in the Old West. Meanwhile, Deadwood, compelling as it is, only gestures at the historical forces that shaped the real-world Old West: military conquest, industrialization, and ethnic conflict. Complex phenomena such as those undercut the notion of the individual taking control of his or her own destiny, a trope at the heart of every Western.


To its credit, Deadwood avoids one of the worst offenses of the Western genre. Most Westerns misleadingly present the natural state of the frontier as chaos, a disorder that existed until American

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