top of page
  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

“For the Body is Not One Member”: The Moral Optimism of Deadwood

It took a global pandemic for me to truly appreciate Deadwood


When I watched the iconic HBO Western TV series for the first time in 2004, I was just one year into a Ph.D. program in nineteenth-century American literature and therefore fully attuned to its literary aspirations. The series created the sense of being immersed in a fictional world—not through CGI, costuming, or well-choreographed action sequences, but through dense “smoking pen” dialogue that pitted characters against one another in entertaining bouts of verbal display. Sometimes, Deadwood felt like a Renaissance play, complete with soliloquies. The characters spoke in a highly stylized dialect of nineteenth-century American English that was liberally punctuated with the obscenities of a mining camp where, as the series creator David Milch himself said, people used language as a survival strategy, like apes pounding their chests—the “cohabitation of the primitively obscene with the ornate presentation” of Victorian novels. Like a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean history play, Deadwood drew its world in words.


This world is a complicated place. Frontiersmen, Chinese immigrants, sex workers, contract killers, dope dealers, addicts, wealthy thrillseekers, former lawmen, and shop owners mingle in the streets. Two murderous saloon owners dominate the town’s politics. In season two, big capitalism shows up in the form of George Hearst, the gold-mining magnate (played by Gerald McRaney). The series wove a loose web of interdependent stories around these characters, all of it revolving around the town’s fitful struggle to become a civilized community. The series ended abruptly like an unfinished novel in 2006 after the third season with its many fans clamoring for a fourth season. In 2019, a two-hour movie on HBO served as the final chapter to Deadwood


And like a great novel, Deadwood reads differently each time you pick it up. I watched Deadwood again recently in anticipation of the twentieth anniversary of the series and saw something new: Beneath the profanity-laden verbal fireworks beats a heart of moral optimism not found in the other signature HBO dramas of the time. In Deadwood, collective action, mutual aid, and acts of kindness make life in the community worth living. In between viewings of the series, the COVID crisis had trained me to look beneath the surface of American life for these qualities. Rewatching Deadwood, I could see them everywhere. 



Deadwood first aired March 21st, 2004, and ran just three seasons, ending over a disagreement between Milch and the studio over how to handle season four. It might not have been a Western at all if Milch had followed through on his original plan to make a series set during Emperor Nero’s reign during the Roman Empire. When he approached HBO with the idea, he learned that the network had just greenlit a drama titled Rome.  Plan B was to make a Western that explored similar themes. 


The series was set in the infamous “camp” that grew up suddenly in the Black Hills of South Dakota after gold was discovered there in 1874 on land previously ceded to the Sioux in a treaty. Milch, who had reinvented the cop drama in the ‘80s and ‘90s through his writing for Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, based most of Deadwood’s main characters on historical figures from the period, fictionalizing them generously along the way. The dense, often florid dialogue was like nothing heard before on television—delivered in Shakespearean cadences and peppered with extremely creative usages of “fuck” and “cocksucker.”  Much of the series was filmed on Melody Ranch, a 22-acre film set in California that has been used as a location for Westerns for decades. The costumes and set were meticulously researched reconstructions of the period.


Deadwood broke the mold for the Western by smashing some of its major tropes and injecting others with a level of realism and literary complexity never before seen in the genre. Most notably, Deadwood discarded the Western’s expectation of heroic virtues and heroic men. Former sheriff and Western legend Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) arrives in Deadwood in the pilot and is dead by the third episode, shot in the back by Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt), but not before revealing himself to be a gambler with a death wish. Deadwood’s reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) survives all three seasons but is revealed to be a self-righteous bully with anger management issues whose tenure as the town’s Health Commissioner may have been more beneficial to the camp than his time as sheriff.  In season three, Wyatt and Morgan Earp show up briefly only to reveal themselves to be less than honorable men. 


There are no black hats or white hats to easily distinguish good guys from bad guys, and no easy narrative about justice upheld or restored. Deadwood’s most despicable characters meet variable, random fates. The “Coward McCall” is acquitted for murdering Wild Bill but is later hanged. Francis Wolcott (also played by Dillahunt), the geologist who murders prostitutes for sport, escapes justice for his crimes but then hangs himself. Vicious saloon owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) is stabbed in the gut but survives. Sociopath gold mine operator George Hearst is harassed out of Deadwood but promises to return to burn the camp to the ground. And the gangster Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) survives and thrives. There is no guarantee of justice for bad actors in Deadwood, but Wu’s hungry pigs are always ready to make a body disappear for anyone who can pay the fee.  


The series overturned other tropes as well. R. Colin Taint has observed that women in traditional Westerns were two-dimensional stock characters—the wife, the “schoolmarm," the “hooker with a heart of gold”—but Deadwood fleshed out some of these stereotypes with rich, interesting lives. Far from being foils for male leads, the women in Deadwood are fully realized characters with narrative agency who drive much of the action. 


There is goodness in Deadwood too, but it is depicted as a widely distributed civic virtue rather than the province of a single upright man or band of anomalous do-gooders. In Deadwood, the upright person bands together with others to do the necessary work of improving the community, through cooperation and mutual aid.  


Early in the first season of Deadwood, smallpox shows up in the camp. When Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), the cantankerous physician, organizes a campaign to fight the disease in the camp, he finds many volunteers, including Reverend Smith (Ray McKinnon) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). Later, Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier) joins the team after he himself recovers from the disease. Swearengen and his rival Cy Tolliver both send riders to secure the vaccine and they join together with other leaders in the camp to organize an effective response.    


The town’s reaction to smallpox felt familiar to me because I had seen it in the many stories of mutual aid and spontaneous collective action that surfaced during the COVID crisis just a few years ago. Hundreds of local mutual aid groups arose in the U.S. during the pandemic, sewing face masks, delivering groceries to the elderly, raising money for people behind in their rent, walking pets, making wellness calls, playing concerts outside of nursing homes, and cheering nurses and doctors as they left the hospital after their shifts.  


This ethos of mutual aid is everywhere in Deadwood. When bandits murder a Scandinavian family headed out of the camp in the first episode, hardware store owner and former sheriff Seth Bullock and Wild Bill organize a party to go out to the site. They bring back the only survivor, a little girl, who is taken in as a ward by Alma Garret (Molly Parker) and cared for by Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Doc, and Jane—essentially adopted by the entire camp. The care of the girl is a recurring theme throughout the series.   


There are many other examples. After the murder of three prostitutes at the Chez Amis brothel, Joannie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) agrees to turn the building into a school, and a little family organizes itself around her, Jane, and Mose Manuel (Pruitt Taylor). In season three, a troupe of actors arrives in town, and they are all caring for their dying leader. Every burial scene in the show is an act of mutual aid as coffins must be made and graves dug. In one scene, Wild Bill shows up to help Bullock build the hardware store. Even Swearengen fondly recalls the early days of the camp when the original settlers helped each other to erect the camp’s first buildings. 


If you look beneath the violent surface in Deadwood, you see a quieter but equally consequential undercurrent of people caring for and supporting each other without the expectation of financial reward. There is commerce, capitalism, and economic predation in Deadwood, but there is also an underground economy of cooperation making the town a less-than-hellish place to live—not favors for favors, but more like a frontier version of paying it forward. 


These ethos are expressed beautifully in the homily given by Reverend Smith at the burial of Wild Bill in season one. Hickok is murdered just as he is beginning to be seen as that catalyst figure in the camp, shot in the back of the head while playing poker. The preacher speaks these words: 

For the body is not one member, but many. He tells us, The eye cannot say unto the hand, 'I have no need of thee.' Nor again, the head to the feet, 'I have no need of thee.' They much more those members of the body which seem to be more feeble. And those members of the body which we think of as less honorable, all are necessary.

This speech is probably the closest thing to a mission statement that this chaotic frontier town will ever have, but it also expresses a historical truth about the American frontier that runs contrary to prevailing societal myths: Individualism was not the dominant proletarian cultural force on the frontier. Collective action played an equal if not greater role. 


This ethos of collective action is one of the many historically accurate aspects of Deadwood. Before Europeans arrived in North America, mutual aid had been a survival strategy for many centuries among indigenous people, who organized their societies around small groups through which members were intimately reliant on one another. European settlers also brought cooperativist and communitarian lifestyles with them or adopted them after they arrived in North America. In his book For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, John Curl writes “Close community survival cooperation permeated the entire way of life in Colonial America,” citing corn-husking bees, quilting bees, apple paring-bees, trant and bull rings, and ship launchings as examples.  


Writing about early nineteenth-century American society in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America.”

Euro-American settlers carried this social logic of association into the frontier. Writing in 1941, the same year more than 100 classic genre Western movies were released in the U.S., historian and folklorist Mody C. Boatright wrote this of frontier culture

If a widow had no men in her family, her cattle would be gathered and her calves branded with her own brand. If a neighbor were sick, his corn would be plowed for him. If his house burnt down, neighbors contributed food and labor and clothing. If a school or church was to be built, each contributed his share of materials and labor. 

Boatright used documentary evidence left by pioneers to support his argument, but more recently, other historians have also noted this basic principle of frontier life, including most notably Robert Hine (Community on the American Frontier: Separate But Not Alone). In his book Westward Expansion, Ray Allen Billington wrote “mutual aid among neighbors for defense, cabin raising, and road building were taken for granted in places where the division of labor was unknown and manpower was scarce.” Frontier settlers banded together for labor-intensive and mutually beneficial activities such as log-rolling, house-raising, cattle roundups, and fighting prairie fires.  Settlers created ad hoc anti-horse thief associations and“claim clubs” to resolve land claim disputes and organized against cattlemen and railroad companies. Radical individualism was a luxury on the frontier, and when practiced by the poor, it was liable to get you robbed, killed, or steamrollered by moneyed interests with deep pockets. 


Mutual aid and association continued into the twentieth century. Meyer Adereth, writing in Jacobin, observes that one in three adult men belonged to a fraternal society by 1920. Many of these organizations ran orphanages and hospitals, providing medical care that would have otherwise been out of reach for most people. The labor movement also owes its success to the American instinct for association. 


Milch’s Deadwood makes collective action a commonplace civic virtue rather than relying on heroic men to bring it out in other characters. Classic Westerns depict many acts of mutual aid—wagon trains, bucket brigades, posses riding out to chase an outlaw, etc.—but these scenes are often subordinated to storylines in which a wandering gunman, lawman, or outsider is the catalyst for action because the ordinary folk are depicted as too weak to organize themselves. In Shane, the farmers in the valley are helpless against the Rykers until Shane arrives. In The Magnificent Seven, an all-star cast of frontier ronin teach the town of Rose Creek to fight for itself. In Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood’s “Preacher” is the catalyst for the independent prospectors in Carbon Canyon. But in Deadwood, the impulse towards collective action and mutual aid is always there and ready to manifest in the most unexpected people and situations. 


The narrative arc across three seasons of Deadwood is headed towards a gradual knitting together of the town into a community. To move it forward, Milch wrote complex characters who engage in community building sometimes against their better judgment.  Al Swearengen, for example, begins the series as a ruthless gangster who acts only to protect and advance his interests in the town, but he gradually shows his willingness to collaborate with others for the common good. 


Milch has a gift for creating damaged characters who nevertheless possess the potential for selfless acts. Mos Manuel is a vile, abusive man who murders his own brother, but after nearly dying from bullet wounds, he recovers as a kind of guardian angel character, looking out for the “little ones” in the camp’s new school. Steve “The Drunk” (Michael Harney) is a loudmouth racist, despicable in many ways, but when the black livery owner flees Deadwood in fear of his life, Steve steps in to care for the horses. Other characters like Charlie Utter, Wild Bill, Jane, and Preacher Smith appear to be more naturally inclined towards helping others. The most villainous characters—Tolliver and Hearst—are sociopathic in their unwillingness to do anything for the common good. 


I missed Deadwood’s softer side the first time I watched the series because I was enthralled by the verbal displays, the literary quality of the characters, and the obvious attention to historical detail. Deadwood spoke to my aesthetic sensibilities mainly. But twenty years later, after the Great Recession, the “forever wars,” the Trump Presidency, and the COVID crisis, I crave moral optimism in my entertainment now. Milch obviously wanted to make a show that reached for universal themes, and Deadwood delivers by making us believe that even the most wretched among us is necessary to make the town work. “For the body is not one member, but many.”  These are words to live by.



bottom of page