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by Alex Carnevale
creator David Milch
I once sat next to Ian McShane, the actor who portrayed Al Swearengen, at an Upper East Side movie theater. The film was No Country for Old Men. “Wow,” I thought, “the two baddest dudes on the planet both live on the UES.” We both fell asleep during the movie.
The head of a mob concern in the emerging gold camp of Deadwood, Montana, Swearengen is the yin and the yang, an America Chicago-born who navigates the human enterprise better than any man we know. Deadwood is truly one of television’s finest achievements, and it was cut down in its prime after its delectable third season of violence and morality.
The frustration of watching that great, globular moron Tony Soprano navigating the ins and outs of underground business was that the big lug wasn’t particularly good at it. Thus it was a relief when NYPD Blue creator David Milch created the singular purveyor of violence and wisdom in Swearengen. Born an orphan into a pimp’s operation in the Windy City, Swearengen had a mentally disabled brother and no parents to speak of. In other words, he had a lot more to overcome than Janice Soprano.
The frontier is a filthy, nasty place, and Milch’s first liberty was to personify the landscape with a vaguely Shakespearan approach to the interplay between friends. It’s a society that originated the values we now prize, the place that created Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Rod Blagojevich.
You could see the current political inanity forshadowed in the mining camp, where large cash payments are readied in plain envelopes. We have no government, Milch is saying, except for the one we make.
As then, now. A gentile and a Jew rule the camp in the former of moral uprights Seth Bullock and Sol Star. The former fetishizes an upright urban sexuality in the person of Molly Parker, and the latter the dirty frontier lacrosstitute Trixie. Pairing the Jew with the blond is the show’s only direct insult to its righteous little corner of the world.
For uniqueness of vision and an incredibly deep set of characters, Deadwood was one of the greatest things ever put on television. In the role of his life, Ian McShane was Albert Swearengen, as he announced his full name in the middle of the show’s last season. For all those who seek to manipulate others with words alone, Swearengen is a devious paragon, an Imp, Horatio Alger and Odysseus all rolled into one.
His finest moments occur when he’s getting the old-fashioned on his crusty Western penis from his favorite whore. His mind wanders, and he makes connections he otherwise wouldn’t Besides whores, alcohol is Al’s major vice. He never appears liquored up, but he’s always pounding one shot or another. Like his pinstriped suit, it’s always another accomplice, a means to an end.
Swearengen wants but one thing - money, profits exceeding costs and the like. He wants to stay out of trouble, not make more of it. He doesn’t see, or doesn’t care, that for the rest of the camp, he is that trouble. This fundamental misunderstanding is at the heart of American government.
Unlike Mayor Bloomberg, Al gets that he’s a cancer. He’s the plague, but a tolerable one. Whatever he is, he’s an honest broker. At one point Swearengen is confronted by the mogul William Hearst. “I’m not powerful,” he tells the richer man. “I’m dangerous, and I know the difference.” Most of our best governors were thrust into the role, and Al gets that. He doesn’t want the power, he just wields it because he’s afraid of someone else having it. And the men he allies himself with are similarly motivated.
The show began with the arrival of real life legend Wild Bill Hickok to Deadwood, in Keith Carradine’s best role. With long hair and an illiterate writing style, Hickok died in the Deadwood camp, and this small historical note is but one scene in the show’s rich first season. Accompanying Hickok is another footnote, Calamity Jane, about twenty years younger and forty leagues more attractive, and drunk as a skunk.
Whores abound, their snatches appraised and refreshed, whispering in throaty cockbreath as the resident ho of the Bella Union, whore master Joanie Stubbs, complains. Even the villains of the camp are really heroes – you can tell one by if he wants gold, and then he’s our man or woman.
That’s the only part of Deadwood we can be nostalgic for. Greed and avarice. It’s what made this country great. Now wealth isn’t a navigation of superior minds, it’s a relic of pure chance, and it’s largely unchanging. We need to stop bathing and start breathing gold to be this great again.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here.
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