Deadwood Reminds Us How to Live

Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

Have bad guys ever been more boring? Most of today’s villains are either flatly, “Destroy the world!” evil (Thanos of The Avengers movies), self-servingly evil (Bobby Axelrod of Billions), or some unrealistically buffoonish combination of the two (Donald Trump of “The United States Presidency”). Few are complex and provocative enough to hold our interest for very long. Maybe that’s why I’m anxiously awaiting the brand new Deadwood movie, due out at the end of May.

Because it was Al Swearengen’s complicated relationship to villainy that made the eccentric Western drama, which aired for just three seasons between 2004 and 2006, so unbelievably addictive. When I think about Deadwood — and I’ve never really stopped thinking about Deadwood since those big-city cocksuckers over at HBO refused to give the show’s creator, David Milch, the final season he deserved — I think about Al Swearengen, making hard choices.

Milch devoted a lot of screen time to Swearengen making choices: The camera lingered on his face as he encountered a tough dilemma, strategized, improvised, resigned himself, and then reconsidered. And is there an actor in the history of television with a more expressive face than Ian McShane? When Swearengen contemplated his options, McShane’s face moved like a troupe of dancers, disparate but emotionally synchronized: a barely discernible lowering of eyelids here, a twitch of the jowl there, a chimplike display of gritted teeth, and then two lips pursed together in a grimace of resignation for the grand finale.

Swearengen might’ve embodied the black hat of the Wild West — cruel, opportunistic, punishing — but he was also the single most reasonable, practical, and at times, merciful human in the town of Deadwood. He ran a saloon, employed (and abused) prostitutes, pushed dope, murdered enemies, and also served canned peaches at the town meetings so people would show up (which they did, but mostly for the peaches). Unlike most villains, Swearengen’s strategizing was at once pragmatic and ideological. He considered both immediate results and long-term ramifications. He was highly emotional and had no moral compass, but he did seem to follow his own tangled set of unpredictable, chaotic-neutral principles. Or as Swearengen himself put it, “I got a healthy operation and I didn’t build it brooding on the right and wrong of things.”

But Swearengen was also the town’s only fully invested, level-headed leader. More than personal gain, Swearengen was determined to prevent an infestation of wealthy robber barons and government officials from bending his town to their imperialist will. In contrast, Seth Bullock, the town’s white hat and eventual sheriff, was temperamentally ill-suited for leadership: quick to anger, hard to read, and not much of a way with the people or with words. When times got tough, Bullock would either blow a gasket or storm off (Swearengen once called him “an errant maniac”). But Swearengen never backed away from any dilemma. He would roll his eyes, laugh incredulously, spit on the floor, and then dig in and try to chart a course forward that wouldn’t inadvertently harm the town of Deadwood or its citizens.

Swearengen was the town’s patriarch but he reminded me more of a mother: highly capable, perpetually aggravated, and guided by a kind of exhausted wisdom. He viewed the inhabitants of Deadwood as ignorant children, yet he took action to protect them even when their own stupidity or haplessness landed them in tight spots. In spite of his intention to make some gold and stay the fuck out of the petty shit storms around him, Swearengen was always forced to either take action on someone else’s behalf or to actively refuse to do so. (As he once told Bullock, “Here’s my counter offer to your counter offer: Go fuck yourself.”)

In just three seasons, Deadwood gained a loyal and garrulous gaggle of die-hard fans by offering a colorful, fully imagined microcosm, its hive of oddballs fumbling and growling and awkwardly caring for each other in glorious synchronicity, speaking in a melodious hybrid of Shakespearen soliloquies and dive-bar obscenities. Like Swearengen himself, the show was resoundingly ill-suited for mainstream audiences but never shied away from the queasy realities of the American frontier. This included the outwardly racist speech and attitudes of the entire Deadwood community, at once a product of the times and a deeply ingrained negative trait common to the sorts of people who blunder into indigenous lands and steal whatever they liked while writing off all native residents as unenlightened heathens. And that only scrapes the surface of the immoral behaviors that were treated as mundane facts of life in Deadwood, a place where deadly sins were more countless than stars in the South Dakota sky.

Swearengen occupied the spiritual center of this ragged hive, a true believer in wretched, reckless freedom — which meant freedom of speech and action, freedom from outside influence, and freedom from the toxic hierarchies of wealthy so-called sophisticates and tenderfooted cocksuckers elsewhere. He hated Bullock but tolerated him, hated the fact that his former employee, Joanie, started her own whorehouse, but tolerated that, too. He hated all of the complications of living in a community with other irascible miscreants, but tolerated and protected them nonetheless.

“You can’t slit the throat of everyone whose character it would improve,” Swearengen once announced (somewhat resignedly), thereby separating himself from 99 percent of the flatly murderous villains of Hollywood. Because, while movie super villains inhabit a binary Judeo-Christian world in which the wide sea between good and evil is easily discerned and navigated, Swearengen’s cognitive leaps transcended such predictable moral radar systems like an erratic force of nature. Even villainous TV protagonists like Tony Soprano and Walter White mostly served their own interests at the expense of their communities; Swearengen had more to juggle than that. And even with the weight of the whole town on his shoulders, Swearengen attacked each dilemma with a perverse blend of poetic reconnoitering and hard logic. Watching Swearengen make choices was like witnessing a corrupt philosopher, cutting a path forward through a cognitive and emotional thicket.

Most of all, Swearengen was a deeply damaged realist who could still savor his own improvisational leaps. In one episode, after mentioning that he was abused as a child, he proclaimed, “Every fuckin’ beatin’ I’m grateful for. Every fuckin’ one of them. Get all the trust beat outta you, and you know what the fuckin’ world is.” It’s notable that so few of our villains today have even the faintest grasp of what the fucking world is. Maybe that’s why viewers get confused when someone as power-hungry as Danaerys Targarean lets her trauma and her rage overrule her more merciful tendencies. History is littered with tragedies incited by this exact psychic turn to darkness, yet most of us are like Swearengen’s ignorant children: guided by childish ideas, addicted to cheerful delusions, and foolish enough to believe that actions and people alike can be easily sorted into good and evil.

The world is more complicated than that. Most people are at once more honorable and more depraved than they at first seem. Or as Al Swearengen once put it, “The obvious merits utterance. Character is fucking pertinent.” Likewise, a good man might be hard to find, but a complex, engaging villain is even harder.

‘Deadwood’ Reminds Us How to Live