Evil in Defense of Liberty: HBO’s Deadwood

Beneath the vulgar grittiness of HBO’s Deadwood lies the struggle of a lawless community attempting to preserve its own unlikely liberty when confronted with the tyrannical regime of George Hearst. Viewers see how a spontaneous “law beyond law” is challenged by authoritarianism in the search of a gold fortune. Throughout the series one sees how evil is the primary force halting a greater evil in an attempt to save the freedom enjoyed by the people of the camp preceding governmental annexation. Set in the Black Hills of Dakota circa 1870, viewers begin their journey following Seth Bullock, a former sheriff, and his partner Sol Star, migrating from Montana in an attempt to make their fortune selling hardware to miners in the Deadwood camp. Once they arrive in Deadwood they come into contact with a host of characters who are taking advantage of the lawless liberty established organically throughout the camp. From the beginning two characters would clash while attempting to cement their positions, the aforementioned Bullock, and Al Swearengin. These men have radically different views on how life and the camp should operate, but continue to gravitate towards each other when Deadwood’s needs are dire. 

People migrated to Deadwood in search of wealth and to take advantage of the government free society established. In an exchange early on, Wild Bill Hickok states that soon there will be peace with the Indians in the hills around the camp, then “pretty quick you’ll have laws here.” Bullock replies, “I’d settle for property rights,” to which Bill asks incisively, “Would you?” It quickly becomes clear to viewers that Bullock will be unable to abide the lawless nature of camp and just settle for property rights. Bullock holds certain ideals in high regard and his innate sense of justice drives him to react decisively without much forethought. Begrudgingly, Bullock will take up the mantle of sheriff once more. Bullock talks about his internal sense of justice with Wyatt Earp, a former lawman, after taking up the badge stating, “I took the badge off myself once, without losing my impulse to beat on certain types.” This impulse will cause Bullock to clash with some of the major figures of the camp in his battle for stability and order.

Al Swearengen seeks order and the continuance of the camp’s freedom through other means. Swearengen was one of the original members of the camp and used his influence to open up a saloon, capitalizing on the baser desires among those in the camp. Swearengen prefers to come across as a rugged individual, advocating a harsh philosophy on the workings of life; “Pain or damage don't end the world, or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man, and give some back.” Utilizing violence and hired muscle to either prevent or solve his problems, he has a firm grasp over the goings on of the camp. With the annexation of the camp looming in the near future, Swearengin sees a use for Bullock as the perfect front man for Deadwood.

Numerous altercations between the two show Swearengen’s distaste for Bullock’s sense of morality but, an unlikely alliance forms out of necessity. First, in preserving Deadwood’s own interests following the expected annexation, Swearengen uses Bullock’s ties to Montana to gain a more favorable deal from the Yankton government. The arrival of new money and power to Deadwood shifts the duos focus as they feel their camp losing its own liberty.

In Deadwood everyone’s primary interest lies in gold; this creates a natural economic and social system. This causes an organic liberty to grow throughout the camp while the United States government works to annex the area. The ever present plot of the show is the battle between this spontaneous liberty and tyranny pitting Al Swearengen and Bullock against George Hearst. Hearst, a cold hearted gold prospector, operates from the shadows during the first two seasons, allowing his agents to alter the camps development to better suit his longing for gold, or as he puts it “the color”.

When he finally arrives in camp during season three, Hearst believes he is there for the betterment of his fellow man, “Before the color, no white man, no man of any hue, moved to civilize or improve a place like this had reason to make the effort. The color brought commerce here, such order as has been attained…. Gold is your chance. Gold is every man’s opportunity.” Hearst continues, “That is our species’ hope, that uniformly agreeing on its value, we organize to seek the color…. I hate these places, because the truth that I know, the promise I bring, the necessities I’m prepared to accept make me outcast.” These claims make is seem as if Hearst did not buy his way into Deadwood but aided in its the development.

The lengths Hearst is willing to go, in an effort to form his personal regime in the camp, angers Bullock. The murdering, bribery, and amplification of tension among the Chinese community all subvert the order Bullock strives to maintain. In a fit of rage Bullock arrests Hearst and drags him through camp by the ear. Hearst believes himself a savior to the economic stability of camps like Deadwood and will not abide any threats to his authority. This morally impulsive action by Bullock only escalates Hearst’s desire to gain control of the camp, sending telegrams for additional hired muscle.

Swearengen recognizes the twisted means Hearst takes in an attempt to dominate the camp and subvert Al’s established order, “Running his holdings like a despot I grant has a fucking logic. It’s the way I run mine, it’s the way I’d run my home if I had one. But there’s no practical need for him to run the camp. That’s out of scale. It’s out of proportion and it’s a warped, unnatural impulse.” The liberty established among the people of camp does not affect Hearst’s gold holdings, this “unnatural impulse” of Hearst’s aims to gain total control over an independent body of soon to be citizens.

Certain townsfolk of Deadwood claim Hearst is obsessed with “Amalgamation and Capitol”. This need to further improve his stores of gold drives him to harshly punish those who go against his will. This is put forward through the murder of numerous mine workers who attempted to unionize. This culminates with a Cornish worker left in the middle of the main road with a knife through his chest. Knowing that they are unable to oppose this tyrant, the leaders of Deadwood, including Bullock and Swearengen, publish a letter, written by the sheriff, in the camp’s newspaper to one of the murdered workers’ families. The publication of this letter, while not a direct attack against Hearst, does show a united front against the robber baron tyrant. When Swearengen is questioning the prudence of such a publication, his theater friend John Langrishe, affirms the wisdom of this action, “that proclaiming a law beyond law to a man who is beyond law himself, its publication invoking a decency whose scrutiny applies to him as to all his fellows”. This “law beyond law” is an inherent understanding by the people of Deadwood; through the spontaneous natural order created around the search for gold, liberty found a home. The battle between Swearengen and Hearst exemplifies the lengths these people will go to avoid the loss of their liberty. While discussing the dangers Hearst imposes on the camp, Langrishe sees through Swearengen’s rugged persona and states, “A thing of this order you’d as soon not see ruined or in cinders.” Swearengen counters with, “I will if I have to, avoiding it, if I could.”

In the most unlikely of communities we see an understanding of liberty and a desire to shake off a repressive regime. As Aristotle wrote in book VI of the Politics, “Every man should be responsible to others, nor should anyone be allowed to do just as he pleases; for where absolute freedom is allowed, there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man.” In this lawless society there are few checks to keep man’s inherent evil restrained, but what we do see is evil obstructing evil. Whether evil in defense of the Deadwood communities’ liberty is acceptable lies with the viewer’s discretion.

While Deadwood was tragically canceled and the story cut short, fortunately, fans may be able to return to the harsh mining camp in the coming years. HBO has received scripts for a movie or two hopefully concluding the storylines of the show and aims to begin production shortly.