Tuesday, July 11, 2006

What's the deal with "Deadwood"?

I love this show, but nobody ever seems to know what is happening. I think it's one of the most demanding shows on television. The puzzle/mystery stuff on "Lost" is more in-depth, but viewers can just ignore all that stuff and still follow the show.

After they worked their way through the killing of Wild Bill Hickock in season 1, the show turned decidedly political, not in an ideological, metaphor-for-modern-society way, but in a Machiavellian, wheeling-dealing sort of way, and that tendency grew from the orchestration of the trial of Jack McCall by Al Swearengen to preserve the camp's perilous status as an illegally operating entity, into the primary plot arc of season two, which was Swearengen's manipulation and bluffing of the officials from the Dakota territories to arrange for the camp's annexation under favorable terms.

The other primary season two plot arc was the amalgamation of most of the Deadwood gold claims by George Hearst's geologist, Francis Wolcott. Wolcott spun rumors in the camp that gold claims would not be honored after the annexation. encouraging most of the prospectors to sell their claims to him, and, in this way, he obtained every substantial claim in Deadwood except for Alma Garrett-Ellsworth's. Wolcott also had a proclivity toward slashing women's throats with razor blades, and, after news of this got out, Hearst arrived to terminate Wolcott's services and Wolcott subsequently killed himself.

That brings us to this season, where Hearst is doing inexplicable things and has poised himself in a rivalry with Swearengen. Nobody can really figure out what Hearst's play is. Swearengen, in the most recent episode, paced his office grunting with frustration at his absolute inability to understand what Hearst is doing.

The audience has a little bit more information, and the only conclusion I draw from it is that Hearst is a complete megalomaniacal, sociopathic nutjob. Early in the season, we see Hearst expanding his rooms in the newly acquired Grand Central Hotel and converting building's the covered porch into a balcony, by smashing through walls with a sledgehammer. This is not a mere accident; it illustrates a theme and is a metaphor for how Hearst chooses to operate in the camp.

In the first episode of the season, Hearst staged the execution of one of his Cornish workers who was organizing a union in Swearengen's saloon, and in the most recent episode, another organizer was killed in the middle of the town's thoroughfare. Hearst could easily deal with his union problems more discreetly, but he chooses to do so in a way that steps on the toes of the camp's most powerful citizens.

In the fourth episode of the season, Hearst had meetings with Bullock and Alma, and later told his henchman, Captain Turner, that it was only with great restraint that he prevented himself from killing Bullock and raping Alma, despite the fact that neither act was in his interest. Hearst seems to be driven by an almost uncontrollable instinct to respond violently to any opposition to his will, despite the fact that he knows this violence will cause him more problems than a more measured solution. Even though he claims his only interest is in pulling the color out of the ground, he seems driven by an irrational compulsion to break everyone to his will, even when a lighter touch would be a better option all around.

In the second episode, Hearst apparently decided to try to play by Al's rules, apparently responding to Al's suggestion that, with the insult of the killing in the saloon remedied, Al would not be opposed to Hearst's pursuit of his interests. Hearst responded by setting up an intentionally botched assasination attempt on Al, forewarning Al, and withdrawing the backup from the two killers who had shot the Cornishman. However, when Al returned to Hearst, placated and willing to play ball, but still intent on expressing his own unwillingness to be enslaved to another's interest, Hearst lost his temper and smashed Al's hand with a hammer, despite the considerable investment he'd made that very day in currying Al's favor. The guy's acts simply aren't rational.

This week, Hearst tried to break Al to his will and demonstrate his dominance in the camp by pitting his thug, Captain Turner, against Al's loyal henchman Dan Dority. However, one of Al's gifts has always been to surround himself with the best talent, and Dority had alluded in season 2 to his debt to Al for plucking him from among the gangs of highwaymen and taking him into his tutelage. This week, Dority affirmed Al's eye for talent when he ripped Turner's eye out of his skull with his bare hands, and finished him off with a heavy chunk of wood.

Hearst has again paid heavily for his insistence on trying to break Al when there is no evident reason why it is necessary for him to do this to achieve his objectives in the camp, losing his most potent coercive asset as well as, it seems, his closest friend (if he is, in fact capable of empathy or compassion).

Some might interpret his altercation with Bullock, who ended the episode by dragging Hearst to jail by his ear, as a ploy by Hearst to protect himself from an assassination attempt by Swearengen and Dority. I think Hearst just shot off his mouth because he's incapable of restraint or discretion. I think Hearst is accustomed to being able to either buy or take by force the ability to do whatever he wants, and in Deadwood, he's met Al, who's as mean as he is, and Bullock who isn't for sale.

There's an irony; in the second episode, Swearengen responded to Hearst's asking if he was a danger to his interests that "As capable of inconvenience and of some damage and debt to those that would act against my interests, I cannot fucking argue with dangerous. Different from powerful though, which speaks to potency longer term. I’d not have myself called powerful in your company or the Captain’s."

Now it's becoming evident that Swearengen, who sees every angle and pulls all the political strings in the camp, is, indeed the powerful one, and Hearst, whose only concept of power is the direct subjugation of others through force, is just dangerous.


Blogger RV said...

Briilant insights; I particularly like the sledgehammer metaphor. Couple of things in your analysis that you picked out, though, that were a bit off. I only mention the details because you draw attention to them and I think the actual events strengthen your case about Hearst.
First off, when Hearst mentioned wanting to murder the sheriff and rape Mrs. Ellsworth, he was telling Tolliver, and the Captain, of course, was standing vigil. Secondly, when he went at Al's hand, he used a pick and not a hammer, severing Swearingen's middle finger in the process.

One can only help but wonder what went through Tolliver's head as he heard this information; as for the pick, well, Hearst seems to get what he wants out of life by chipping away at obstructions one piece at a time.

And I totally agree--Hearst is a sociopath. He pretty much said so himself, again with Tolliver, when he apprised the Bella Union's proprietor about his new job: "In my dealings with people, I ought solely have to do with niggers and whites who obey me like dogs."

Hearst's uppance will come, of that I have no doubt.

11:27 PM  

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