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‘Deadwood’ is more about U.S. now, than then

HBO Western’s themes of media and change parallel modern challenges
/ Source: The Associated Press

"We're in the presence of the new," the menacingly eloquent Al Swearengen of "Deadwood" says during one recent outburst. He is talking about the interloper George Hearst, but he might as well be referring to just about everything around him.

From its first episode in 2004, the "Deadwood" universe has remained obsessed with the new — the bumpiness of innovation and its uneasy relationship with ancient ways. In short, it mimics America, land of never-ending novelty.

Now, as David Milch's HBO series winds toward its unsettling end this month, it becomes ever more obvious that the show is, beyond anything else, about one of the early 21st century's most urgent issues — the rise of a confusing, overwhelming media society where little is as it appears.

The town — "the camp," they call it, ignoring encroaching civilization — is a roiling landscape of confounding communication. Its denizens are realizing they no longer live on an island and must deal with the larger world.

Sound familiar? We've heard a lot of this in America since that jumbled morning in September 2001. And it's no coincidence that this Western — like so many of decades past — is as much about Us Now as it ever was about Us Then. "Deadwood" is deeply suspicious of the very mass media that gave it life.

A.W. Merrick, the high-minded, hypocritical editor of the Deadwood Pioneer, is portrayed by Jeffrey Jones as an insider's outsider — a man who, even in the 1870s, is grappling with the notion that there are quicker, sexier ways to obtain information than his extremely local newspaper.

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"We are swept up, are we not, by the large events and forces of our times," Merrick says impotently. Far more in step is someone like Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), whose shipping business is riding the wave of the future.

Swearengen (Ian McShane), meanwhile, watches from his perch on the balcony of his Gem Saloon as new telegraph-related contraptions rise. "Messages from invisible sources," he spits, recognizing their threat to local power and control, his in particular.

In the second and third seasons of "Deadwood," this theme became more pronounced with the arrival of fresh stagecoaches, each containing a new metaphor for the outside world — and, more often than not, a new challenge.

On one coach arrives a "velocipede," a precursor to the bicycle, which represents the debut of modern consumer invention in Deadwood. Its owner, barkeeper Tom Nuttall, rides it publicly to initial success until a follow-up ride plays a role in the death of Sheriff Seth Bullock's young stepson.

On another coach arrives Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox), an actor and the harbinger of a troupe from back East that wants to establish a theater in town — the representation of modern popular culture as another force descending upon the town. "The place," Langrishe says of Deadwood, "is yearning for elevation."

And there is the new bank, run by Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) with the help of Sol Star (John Hawkes), a Jew who faces insinuations that became all too common in America — namely that he represents a tentacle of a larger conspiracy of control.

Each of these is an expression of the fears that mass communication produced in Deadwood in the 1870s — and, not coincidentally, is producing in America in the 2000s.

"The introduction of a new communication technology disrupting established communications networks ... presages what we see today with digital media, wireless networks and the Internet," Shawn McIntosh writes in an essay about Deadwood and journalism in the upcoming book "Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By."

The show's would-be protagonist, the ever-enraged Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), seems perpetually confused as he wanders through town, trying to parse the complicated communications. Though Swearengen has grown into the marquee character, it's hard not to identify with Bullock and his angry eyes gazing out at the bewildering society that swirls around him.

Through its three-year incarnation, "Deadwood" — set on the eve of the telephone's introduction into American society — has become a document of our own times, an era when every other pundit compares the new media landscape to the "Wild West." Can it be coincidence that the ultimate force of evil in "Deadwood" is Hearst, patriarch of a clan synonymous with what many consider the birth of Information Age tyranny?

"Please do not kill me. I am only messenger," Blazanov, the Russian telegraph operator, says when confronted with a loaded gun as he delivers a telegram.

But in the emergent society of Deadwood, and in our own, isn't his kind the most potent threat of all, the breed we absolutely must learn to understand?

"Those who know how to negotiate the old, the new and the between," Sean O'Sullivan writes in another "Reading Deadwood" essay, "are the ones who survive."

True then, truer today.