When I haven’t been rambling on about random comics over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching Deadwood again, and it’s such a pleasure to be reminded of how goddamn good it is. It’s so enjoyable that I’m going to give the bloody comics a rest for the day and talk about one small thing that helped make Deadwood one of the best television series ever.
The wife and I just finished re-watching the first year of Deadwood, and while it’s still a show that is finding its own voice, it has already established a gorgeous tone. This was a television show full of big ideas – it’s not just about the West dying with Wild Bill Hickock or the dangers of colonial life, it’s a story about the birth of a new society, where people who have had enough of the old world start out afresh to make a new one.
It’s there when Al Swearengen grudgingly welcomes the hardware boys into his camp, or the savage American bond between Al and Mr Wu. It’s there in Doc Cochran overcoming his crippling cynicism and helping people as much as he can, or in the slow establishment of positions a growing community needs – fire marshals, health inspectors and officers of the law.
All that is nothing without some kind of genuine connection to your fellow human being, that drive for a society full of like-minded people, all helping each other along. And when the characters in Deadwood find the compassion in the muddy streets of the camp, that’s when they found their new world.
Take the tragic case of Reverend Smith – a man afflicted with a terrible disease, who never gives up on hope and loses himself in hopeless and nonsensical sermons. In a society that has no community, he could have been ignored or abused, but he finds friends in the camp.
In one of his last lucid moments, the poor reverend walks into that hardware store and tells Sol Star and Seth Bullock that he does not recognise them as his friends. With calm assurance, they convince him that he is truly among friends, and offer to walk him home. It’s the smallest acts of kindness, such as this, which bring these remarkable people together.
Soon, the Reverend is beyond saving, and as Doc Cochran pleads on his knees for God to spare the man’s suffering, it’s Al who sends the Reverend out of this world. He hides behind his usual display of callousness, but he sees Reverend Smith as a good man who tried to do only good, and terats him with care and respect at the very end.
It’s these little doses of empathy that grow into a strong streak of compassion. By the final season, this leads to the moment when Bullock clumsily produces an impossibly elegant letter about the life and death of somebody who was barely a footnote in the story, and the other leaders in the camp decide to print it, so that they can show their monstrous enemy that they care about any human life, and that there is no such thing as collateral damage.
There is still a long, muddy and bloody road before Deadwood becomes a truly civilised place, but they’re on their way.
There is still a load of other moments in Deadwood that manage to be hilarious, intense and genuinely emotional, from Al’s blowjob soliloquies to Dan Dority’s relationship with Silas Adams to the sweetness of the Sol/Trixie union to the complex inhumanity of people like George Hearst and the abominable Mr Wollcott to the ongoing comedy of EB Farnum.
But it wasn't the flowery language, the undisguised violence or Shakespearean tragedy of it all that made Deadwood so wonderful. It was the empathy damned characters would show for each other, finding their humanity in this inhuman place. Compassion is everything, but when you’re trying to create a new world, it’s just about the only thing.