Ann Hyde: "Deadwood" as History
Ann Hyde teaches American history at Colorado College.
All Westerns are stories of people attempting to impose order on a chaotic, lawless, and savage environment. Deadwood, the HBO series that aired from 2004 until 2006, derived tremendous narrative power by exploring the moral quandaries that arise in such circumstances. In the show, otherwise good people lie, commit sabotage, sell drugs (and their bodies), and kill -- just as they did during the 1870s in the real Deadwood, the mining town in present-day South Dakota from which the series took its name.
Beyond thematic verisimilitude, Deadwood's creator, David Milch, also strove for more mundane historical accuracy, the best-known example being the show's remarkably profane dialogue. Many of the main characters are based on real people: Seth Bullock, the sheriff; Al Swearengen, the saloon and brothel owner; E. B. Farnum, the hotel keeper; Wild Bill Hickok, the celebrity sharpshooter killed during a poker game in Deadwood; and Calamity Jane, the gender-bending, gun-toting scout. But the daily realities for these historical figures are invented. The result is a rich, almost epic tale -- "like some fucking great Greek battle," as Farnum describes the state of affairs at the beginning of the second season. But accurate? Not so much.
Of course, audiences should not expect Westerns to be lessons on how people cursed or dressed or died on the frontier. Imposing the rules of history on the genre would mire its grander themes in the mud of hardship and disappointment that covered ordinary life in the Old West. Meanwhile, Deadwood, compelling as it is, only gestures at the historical forces that shaped the real-world Old West: military conquest, industrialization, and ethnic conflict. Complex phenomena such as those undercut the notion of the individual taking control of his or her own destiny, a trope at the heart of every Western....
comments powered by Disqus
- Climate of Change: The Catholic Church's Dance With Science
- Sacrificed Humans Discovered Among Prehistoric Tombs
- Nazis Triumph Over Communists in Ukraine
- Obits for Happy Rockefeller blamed her for his political decline. Don’t believe it.
- Historian investigates claim that Bugsy Siegel wanted to kill Goring
- NYT hosts debate including Eric Foner: How Americans should remember Reconstruction
- William Leuchtenburg says historians and the media have been too hard on Obama
- Hugh Ambrose, historian who helped develop WWII Museum, dead at 48
- Historian discounts claim that Churchill and other British PM's were gay
- Nick Bunker Wins $50,000 2015 George Washington Book Prize