The Last Western: Deadwood and the End of American Empire

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Perhaps the most sophisticated and complex of shows in HBO's recent history, Deadwood has surprisingly little coverage in our current scholarship. Grounding contemporary anxieties about race and class, domesticity and American exceptionalism in its nineteenth-century setting, Deadwood revises our understanding of a formative period for the American nation through a re-examination of one of the main genres through which this national story has been transmitted: the Western.

With contributions from scholars in American studies, literature, and film and television studies, The Last Western situates Deadwood in the context of both its nineteenth-century setting and its twenty-first-century audience. Together, these essays argue for the series as a provocative meditation on both the state and historical formation of U. What emerges from this collection is the impressive range of Deadwood's often contradictory engagement with both nineteenth and twenty-first century America.

Deadwood , Frontier Rhetoric, and U. There are readings in this anthology which should be of interest for anyone working on Deadwood or television studies. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers, undergraduate students, graduate students, and research faculty. One way the various essayists accomplish this is by recalling powerful scenes from Deadwood that form indelible tableaus … These essayists represent perspectives not only from literary studies but from political science, film studies, and history.

One of the book's particular strengths--rare for an anthology of this nature--is its focus; from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, the contributors plumb the intersection of Deadwood's visual style, its treatment of genre, and its exploration of political economy at the formation and waning of the American empire.

I know.

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The conversation continues, with Tony offering oblique descriptions of his stressful job, and Dr. Melfi pressing him to describe his feelings. After one such moment, Tony launches into his well- known rant: Let me tell you something—today everybody goes to shrinks and counselors. Everybody goes on Sally Jesse Raphael and talks about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong silent type.

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That was an American. He just did what he had to do! Tony thus articulates his loss of control as a form of belatedness. And The Wire will make good on this claim, gradually broadening its horizon to include the decline of American industry, the corruption of city and state governments, the failure of the public school system, and the unreliability of the media, demonstrating in each case how the violence that seems external to society proper has only been sublimated into the channels of power, wealth, and status that run the city and, by extension, the nation. Deadwood, in our reading, synthesizes elements of both of these shows and allows us to see the connecting threads that run through all three.

Beginning with a radical revision of the Gary Cooper myth, Deadwood demonstrates the advance of a modern totality that crushes an individuality which was never actually that heroic to begin with. Telling the story of a mining camp, illegally set up on Indian territory, which eventually gets annexed by the nation and overrun by the consolidating interests of monopoly capital, Deadwood sug- gests that the evacuation of individual agency felt in the twenty-first century has been with us all along, and that its contemporary manifestations have their origins in the imperial capitalism of mid-nineteenth-century territorial expansion.

Deadwood is thus a modernizing narrative, but one that refuses to posit modernity as a story of either unending progress or as the fall from some Edenic perfection.

The Last Western: Deadwood and the End of American Empire

For Marcuse, culture can be affirmative even when it seems critical, precisely by providing comforting fictions that help sustain the social order. For an America that finds itself in a difficult transition period, during which the corporation and the state are seen, by figures on both the Right and the Left, as engaging in thinly veiled forms of theft, Deadwood offers a strik- ingly relevant narrative of a similar moment of transition.


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History in transition No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb. Adorno, Negative Dialectics The series opens with Seth Bullock, a sheriff in Montana, on his last evening of work before heading out to the illegal settlement of Deadwood to seek his fortune.

In a scene much discussed in the essays below, a mob arrives to lynch his already condemned prisoner. Bullock hangs him instead. For Bullock this action is a principled refusal of mob violence, but for the dead man it is not clear that this principle is of much use. The law is seen here, in a critique that will only gather force as the series progresses, to be both different from and entirely parallel to the violence from which it seeks to distance itself. Another cut takes us to the spaces in which we will spend the duration of the series: the chaotic muddy streets through which Sol and Seth arrive in camp and the close interiors of residences such as the Gem Saloon where we first meet Al Swearengen.

Within five minutes, Al has his boot on the neck of Trixie, one of his whores. With this, the opening of the show places us in familiar territory, sug- gesting, as Justin Joyce notes below, several narrative paths it might follow. Either Bullock will reluctantly take up the badge once more, bringing order to a lawless land or he will be compelled to act outside the law as an honorable renegade, perhaps aided in this endeavor by that symbol of outlaw justice Wild Bill.

The Last Western: Deadwood and the End of American Empire: Paul Stasi: Bloomsbury Academic

Just as Deadwood eschews the promise contained in the panoramic vista for the enclosure of its cramped spaces, so too does it reject the simple narrative of honor and villainy upon which the leg- end of the West was built. Bullock, meanwhile, is not only a reluctant sheriff, but also a man barely able to control his murderous rage, while Al acts out of a violence—as Julia Wright argues below—that always serves a purpose, even if that pur- pose is entirely self-interested. Instead, the show asks us to attend to its villain, Al Swearengen, caught in a moment of historical transition, a movement away from the visible and personal forms of violence characteristic of precapitalist social orders to the invisible and impersonal violence of the nation-state as it emerges alongside monopoly capitalism.

Historical transitions are not, however, unitary processes. Deadwood is poised in between these two social forms, and it thus offers a snapshot of a much more complicated and lengthy histori- cal transition. Instead, he operates through his advance agent, Francis Wolcott, and—as John Miles and Jeffrey Scraba elaborate below—the intimidation of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. His interests, that is to say, are transpersonal.

They represent historical truths that a backwards camp cannot yet acknowl- edge, natural forces they refuse to see, virtues they fail to understand. Running his holdings like a despot, I grant, has a fucking logic. The comparison between Al and Hearst suggests both the common ground between capitalism and the supposedly backwards world it seeks to rationalize as well as the important difference between an interest that is limited in scope and one that, through an increase in scale, is able to imagine a larger transpersonal sanction for what, nevertheless, remain indi- vidual desires.

It is this distinction between two different kinds of interest that leads to the strange drama of season three. He asks a similar question of the Native American head he keeps in a box in his office. No longer conceived in personal terms, interest becomes, in the capitalist modernity Hearst represents, sublimated into the laws of the market, which mask per- sonal interests in the language of formulaic necessity. These ele- ments Williams names as either residual or emergent. In examining the past, we can discern both residual cultural moments—those that the dominant culture has overcome—and emergent moments—those that, with histori- cal hindsight, we recognize will become dominant.

Al, like the Indian before him, represents a residual culture; Hearst can be seen as an emergent form, already dominant at the level of the world system of capital, and on its way to dominance in the semi-peripheral space of the American West. The first level is that of tactics, of the old ways that Al fully understands, where he and Hearst are relatively well matched.

On this level, Al wins some skirmishes and loses others.

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Superseding the tactical level, however, is the historical shift that Hearst represents, and here the purposes of consolidating capital, whether horseshit or virtue, cannot be resisted. We are at the end of season three. In the meantime Hearst has gained the largest claim in the camp, that of Alma Garrett, intimidating her by having his Pinkertons shoot at her and, when that fails to advance his purposes, ordering the murder of her husband, the honorable Ellsworth.

Al cannot kill Trixie because he cares for her, but he also does not want to risk the destruction of the camp; instead he kills a woman who looks like Trixie.


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Hearst, of course, fails to notice the difference and so the camp is preserved. For the principle upon which Al acts does not help the dead woman. More damningly, it fails to achieve any real purpose for the camp as a whole. Hearst has gotten exactly what he wants: he controls the entire camp, and he is able to leave, since his interests, as he has already noted, are best served from afar.

He wins the tactical battle but loses the war. Nostalgia does not represent, here, as it does for Tony Soprano, the longing for a simpler time; it does not, that is to say, describe a past that existed. Rather, nostalgia is the image of the very thing modernity lacks, as much its product as telephone poles, nation-states, and the consolidating forces of monopoly capital. Ultimately, Deadwood asks us to reflect upon the relationship between history and individual agency, not only through a narrative arc that traces the evacuation of that agency, but also through its explicit reconsideration of the aesthetic forms and genres that purport to tell its story.

Deploying several aesthetic registers simultaneously—some of which seem appropriate to the setting of the show while others seem anachronistic to it— Deadwood conveys formally its thematic concerns with historical trans- formation, as well as with the emergent and residual cultural elements that accompany all such periods of transition.

Put more simply, the show makes explicit the ways in which particular aesthetic genres produce particular feel- ings that make the past and the present—as well as the relationship between them—legible and comprehensible. Nostalgia, sympathy, sensation, and, ulti- mately, powerlessness, bewilderment, and horror are among the chief affec- tive registers that the show develops through its simultaneous deployment of disparate genres and modes. Those narratives, Robert Pippin argues, consistently track the founding of a legal and social order out of war and conquest, and end in the extinction of both the native peoples whose land has been taken and those who have taken it in violence.

With the closing of the frontier imminent, figures who had attained mythic status in popular culture like Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody found themselves in a position where they could only live by capitalizing on the fame they had, touring with circuses, theater companies, and Wild West shows.

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The cul- ture of the camp is thus one that is already located in an era of nostalgia for the very frontier that it would seem to occupy, and the very figures whom you might expect to find there. Ultimately, Deadwood can only begin when Wild Bill Hickok dies because its time and plot is not that of the Western itself— the narrative of expansion into Native American territory that ends with the death of both Native and frontiersman—but of the production of nostalgia for that narrative. Hickok may have outlived his era and failed to turn himself into a theatrical character, but that does not stop the residents of present-day Deadwood from reenacting his murder 14 times a day in the No.

Working in and across multiple genres and aesthetic forms, the series makes its diverse, populous social world legible, in some sense, by doing with genres and forms what the Russian formalist M. Bakhtin argues that the nineteenth-century novel did with social languages—namely, playing a diversity of forms centrifu- gally off one another in order to capture both the complex and conflictual rela- tions within a particular social space.

While Trixie, Johnny, and Dan express their fear and grief with what may appear to a twenty-first-century audience as excessive sentimentality, the affect they display is in many ways precisely appropriate to a historical moment that—as David Greven argues below—was saturated with such scenes.

In moments like these, Deadwood eschews both realism and naturalism to draw upon the heightened affective realm of the most popular aesthetic modes of the late nineteenth century. No longer confined to a single space, theatricality becomes one of the chief modes through which characters represent themselves in the market economy of the camp and perform both power and interiority.

Farnum pursues his gold claim con on Brom Garrett. Instead, beginning with E. Now, fucking go faster, hmm? The theatricality of the scene allows the show to introduce the memory and motivation that complicate its antihero while explicitly undermining the sympathy that such disclosures typically engender by foregrounding the form of psychoanalytic confession over its content. Thus, long before Jack Langrishe and his traveling players arrive in the camp in season three, Deadwood is permeated by the theater.

Even George Hearst, who otherwise refuses to observe convention or protocol, under- stands that power in the camp must first be registered theatrically—specifi - cally by the visibility and perspective afforded by a balcony view. In one sense, putting the theater of the camp on an actual stage makes explicit what is already implicit in its theatrical relations.

Working across multiple genres, layering apparently divergent aesthet- ics together, and showing how they both intersect and give way to others, Deadwood conveys both thematically and formally the historical transforma- tions that lie at the heart of its inquiry into modernity in general and American empire more particularly.