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The gospel according to ‘Deadwood’

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July 26, 2007

With the DVD release of its third, and final, season, I’d like to suggest that HBO’s “Deadwood” is the finest theological drama ever made for an otherwise dismal medium.

I realize that for many familiar with this series, my assertion will seem perverse. The drama’s violence and profanity make HBO’s far more successful “The Sopranos” almost seem like fodder for the Disney Channel. I also realize that theology was probably the last thing of which David Milch, the executive producer, expected to be accused.

But I stand by my guns. If you want to understand Western Christian social thought and, more precisely, St. Augustine’s view of Christian culture, look no further than this fictional re-telling of the gold rush (1876) in Deadwood, S.D.

You’ll remember from European History 101 that Augustine understands all civilizations as by-products of two cities, the City of God and the City of Man. But these are not twin cities, or a sort of spiritual St. Paul-Minneapolis. Nor is the City of God a natural development of the City of Man. They are rival communities with rival ends. Like something out of science fiction, the cities occupy the exact same space. One covers the other like a transparency. Devil and angel, scoundrel and saint, chaos and order.

Any culture that emerges from the co-existence of these two cities will be an ambivalent construction at best. The idea that human justice will triumph, or that cultural wars are won, would strike Augustine as dangerously naive. (It wasn’t until the 18th century that Christians finally bought into what we call the idea of progress.) At the end of history, God will indeed separate the two communities, but until that day the two rival communities occupy the same city limits.

The two cities do have one important thing in common, though: love. Both of Augustine’s cities are driven by what can only be called erotic longing. In the City of Man, love is usually perverted, while in the City of God it remains unfulfilled until the end. Civic order, however necessary and beneficial it may be, will always be the love child conceived when virtue and vice bed down together.

And so we come to Seth Bullock and Al Swearinger, the sheriff and brothel-owner, respectively, of Deadwood. In lesser Westerns, both characters would be handled either stereotypically as White Hat vs. Black Hat (Gary Cooper); or cynically as the Lesser Evil vs. the Greater Evil (Clint Eastwood). But not in this Augustinian Deadwood.

Swearinger remains throughout the series a vile human being. He possesses no heart of gold. That the majority of scenes occur in the midst of prostitution tells you everything you need to know about Swearinger’s perspective. We come to understand some of the reasons why Swearinger is what he is. We even develop a peculiar fondness for him. He may be a scorpion, but he’s our scorpion. But Swearinger remains spectacularly unredeemed. (“Deadwood” has no time for our contemporary need for facile redemption.) Yet, to survive, Swearinger needs — and he knows he needs — the very order that he despises. He comes to aid the common good by using the very violence that the common good denounces.

Seth Bullock, on the other hand, is a man who can’t escape morality even when he tries. The reluctant lawman-turned-merchant no sooner arrives in Deadwood than the role of lawman imposes itself on him yet again. That Bullock has married his brother’s widow to provide for her and her son gives you his character. But he is prone to a vengeful anger not traditionally associated with a sheriff. He comes to find in Swearinger the elective affinity the latter finds in him. That he will eventually succumb to making the-beast-with-two-backs with yet another widow not his wife (a scene that is more a portrayal of reciprocal self-gratification than anything romantic) is a moral lapse that Augustine would have understood, and forgiven. Duty and instinct seldom coincide.

The one character who is explicitly “theological” is, of course, Deadwood’s preacher, H.W. Smith. This character, more than others, holds citizenship in both cities. He is more mantic shaman than Protestant clergyman, given to oracular pronouncements that may or may not be divine. We discover that he is also a severe epileptic. How much of his insight is due to the Holy Spirit, and how much is due to body chemistry; we never know. As the town doctor puts it with his typical twisted eloquence, “It ain’t God talking to you. It’s the (expletive) lesions on your brain.” The two cities co-exist within his own skull. Smith is a character only Augustine (or Cormac McCarthy) could understand, value and love.

What about the series’ language and raunchy sex? I would defend “Deadwood’s” use of both, again as a matter of good Augustinian theology! The language in its abrasive persistence has a way of making us attentive to how deeply our day-to-day speech is rooted in self-interest. It’s not gratuitous. Without such language we could easily distance ourselves from the story. “Deadwood” could be viewed as one more American mythic mural. By introducing the likes of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, Milch does allude to myth. But the language in which he couches it won’t allow such a distance; it shatters any frame we make.

I’d argue the same for what some consider the series’ obscenity. Sex is an affective way to illustrate how love and violence collide. Believe me, there is nothing titillating about “Deadwood’s” fleshier scenes. By making prostitution the backdrop of the story, the series explores a theme dear to Augustine’s heart. Domination (male) disguises itself as love, while love (female) mistakes being dominated for fulfillment. Perhaps there’s no other way to get the attention of a culture saturated by erotic cliches than by reducing sex to the compulsive and mechanical.

Over the last few decades, Christians have pretty much relegated Augustine to the back porch. For some time now, American Christian thought has ceased to be informed by serious theology. As churches have become therapeutic communities and/or political lobbies, Augustine’s somber realism is an expendable embarrassment; his critique of progress nothing less than cultural heresy. We should be grateful to David Milch and the good citizens of the two Deadwoods for reminding us that the most pertinent person at a party just might be the one stuck out on the back porch.

(The Rev. David Lewis Stokes Jr. is a Catholic priest and an associate professor of theology at Providence College.)

One Response to The gospel according to ‘Deadwood’

  1. Sandra Price

    July 27, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    This is interesting as I saw Deadwood in an entirely different mode. I saw early American culture start out as violent as we know it was. One settlement being shown was the “survival of the fittest” at its best. It was a dog eat dog existence but after a few years it became apparent that some kind of honest civilization crept in.

    Civilizing any territory has never been simple but the stronger the citizens the better the results. There was no government until the leaders realized there must be some kind of law and order. It also showed the exploitation of the Chinese that were brought in from San Francisco. Exit Bill Hickock and enter George Hearst. Excellently played by Keith Carradine and Gerald McRaney neither has shown off their talents any better than in Deadwood. I know these actors and they were superb!

    It was not a morality play by any stretch of the imagination. It was a depiction of civiliation getting a toe hold in South Dakota during a gold rush. California is filled with settlements like these with little if no prayers being heard. Only a Priest could read the gospel in such a series.