Deadwood's Violent Theological Realism



“I was going to Deadwood same as you,” condemned horse thief Clell Watson announces from behind bars in a Montana Territory jail. It is May of 1876. “Is that so?” replies soon-to-be-former marshal Seth Bullock. So begins the HBO western that shares its name with the Dakota Territory gold mining camp of American yore. Bullock and his business partner, Sol Star, are headed to Deadwood to open (in the parlance of the times) a “hardware concern,” but Bullock has been detained by his law enforcement duties, which include hanging Mr. Watson the next day for stealing Byron Samson’s horse.


“No law at all in Deadwood? Is that true?” Watson asks, contemplating a horse thief’s Arcadia. “Bein’ on Indian land,” Bullock responds by way of confirmation. Deadwood’s a-legality is owed to its illegality—existing in violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and so also existing outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. “I suppose a community such as this attracts . . . a certain kind of man,” the well-to-do Deadwood resident Alma Garret will say in a few episodes. This is Victorian euphemism. She means criminals, degenerates; those unfit for the strictures of polite society or, probably, any society at all. But the drama and beauty and, indeed, subterranean theology of Deadwood rests on the extent to which this is a half-truth.


The story of those installed and recently arrived at Deadwood (told in three seasons and a recent film) is a story of God at work in and through the characters’ ambivalence towards law, society, community, and intimacy. Bullock, for his part, flees there to be relieved of the burden of enforcing the law at the end of a rope or a gun, but winds up (of all things) Sheriff of a place with no law.


Deadwood signals this ambivalence straight away, but it hides its theology out in the open, nestled into the ubiquity of Christian sign, symbol, and language in 19th century America. Returning to the scene above, we find Byron Samson has arrived outside the jailhouse, fronting a lynch mob and looking to collect Clell Watson. Bullock refuses to hand him over.


“I’m executin’ sentence now and he’s hangin’ under color of law,” Bullock announces. He ties off the noose around Watson’s neck to the porch of the jailhouse. “My sister was comin’ in the morning!” Watson protests.  “What would you have her told?” Bullock asks. “You tell my sister, if my boy turns up, raise him good.” “What else?” “Tell her, give him my boots.”


“What else?” Bullock coaxes, looking out again at the mob. Watson’s eyes search the middle distance. “Tell him, his daddy loved him. Tell him . . . ” Watson continues softly, as though just remembering the fact himself, “tell him, he has God’s forgiveness.” In the hush this effects among the vigilantes, Bullock calls Watson off the porch. He steps ahead, but the drop is too short and Bullock has to finish the job with a hard, earthward yank. Silence.


“Who will give his last words to the sister?” Bullock summons. There’s a stir of uncertainty in the mob. “Shit. I’ll do it,” one replies, stepping forward from anonymity to responsibility.  Bullock hands him a piece of paper with Watson’s message on it and, folded between, his badge too. With that, in the admixture of spontaneous violence and its principled application, by the grudging recognition of tenuous law at a society’s far margin, through the ambiguity of human motive and conduct, we witness how not just the evocation of fellow feeling, but also the invocation of God’s mercy—by a gun-slinging, horse-stealing outlaw, no less—spared a group of men in the dark of the Montana Territory the indignity of forgetting their humanity for a while.




Created by David Milch, the show that would become Deadwood was first conceived as something like a police drama set in Nero’s Rome. The drama was supposed to be organized by one question: how does one live, when tasked with enforcing the law while that law is but the caprice of a mad man? What happens when law, the codification of order, is but the proclamation of a decompensating mind? St. Paul was to feature as a character, collared by one of the cops. Relevant, no doubt, would have been his ambivalence toward law and his testimony to a new pair of organizing principles for a new society: the resurrected Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit suffusing the Church. We all know how that worked out for Paul, but also, longer term, the effect it had on Rome.


Milch had been beat to the pitch by what would become HBO’s period drama “Rome,” and so he transposed his intended themes to the American frontier. With the new setting came a modification of the driving question: could those arrived in the Black Hills, no doubt as much to escape the chaffing strictures of Victorian society as to pursue their fortunes, navigate and negotiate the camp’s establishment? Could the agreed-upon value of gold prove enough to hold them together in reciprocal self-interest? Or, would the avarice and misanthropy that drove them to the frontier make the necessary compromises impossible?


Here the much-noted quality of Milch’s dialogue, simultaneously obscene and circumloquacious, manifests its purpose. Deadwood’s characters deploy language to communicate, though (as Wittgenstein might chide) above all to cooperate. But cooperating is dangerous among dangerous people; so too then can communicating be. Contortions of syntax can be protective under such circumstances. If you lack the equipment for that, a fetid moat of profanity will serve even the dimmest hoople-head. One draws near to the other while spinning away from them by either approach. Thus, the bonds of community oscillate unpredictably. 


These internal questions of cohesion are paired with concerns for the long-term future of the camp. Can it be made sufficiently attractive to established powers so that annexation proves inevitable and so that property rights are established by force of law? On the other hand, once having been established and annexed, would what was built on the far side of American “civilization” be pulled apart from without by the white-gloved greed of the U.S. Congress or, in later seasons, the titanic power of America’s nascent corporate interests?


For all the scope and profundity of the themes, Deadwood explored them within the frame of what can only be characterized as a spiritual war. The political and economic drama loomed off screen, but those machinations turned on the conduct of people trying to figure out how to live through external circumstances threatening to swallow them up, and grappling with internal motivations that, in Milch’s words, “spin against the way they drive.”


I already mentioned Bullock’s convolutions, but it is likewise for nearly every major character. Calamity Jane’s foul-mouthed bluster and defiant alcoholism are wedded to her ineluctable tenderness and vocation to healing; Doc Cochran’s traumatized self-diminishment barely concealing a vein of moral courage and hard-earned competence; Alma’s incisive mind and civic vision struggling to survive an addict’s native capacity for self-deception; A.W. Merrick’s skittish hypochondria are funneled into fits of high-minded principle; Trixie’s unwillingness to relinquish the degradation of life in the Gem Saloon are tangled with her care for Al Swearengen and a pull towards domestic normalcy with Sol Star; Swearengen’s murderous ease with a knife as an instrument of his shepherding care for a surrogate family of criminals and prostitutes.


Even the heel George Hearst briefly weeps at what he had to suppress and sacrifice to devote himself to the promise of gold as an organizing social principle. “That is our species' hope,” he opines, “that uniformly agreeing on its value, we organize to seek the color.” Hearst here speaks, if I may say so with a flat literalism, as the anti-Christ. He would put gold in the place of the cross as white civilization’s mobilizing symbol. His sprawling organizational apparatus and the quality his operation’s quantity possessed serve not even self-interest, but a fanatic’s vision. Yet, his advocacy for humanity’s hope in capital, with Hegelian irony, alienates him from his fellows: “I hate these places . . . because the truth that I know, the promise that I bring, the necessities I'm prepared to accept make me outcast.”


Thus, Deadwood’s prestige TV drama humanism is coupled with a capital-S Spirituality. Indeed, Deadwood’s spirituality is deliberately, sometimes explicitly theological. Among the sinners (and aside from the innocence of children), there dwelt in HBO’s Deadwood perhaps a single saint. A preacher. The Reverend Smith, predictably guileless, earns a living keeping an eye on folks’ earthly possessions while they are off in the creek with shovel, bucket, and sifting pan. “And then Sabbaths, I preach Christ's crucified and raised from the dead,” he announces by way of making acquaintance with Sol and Seth, to their palpable discomfort. 


Reverend Smith, not entirely above self-deception, especially with regard to his own deteriorating health, nonetheless stands out in the camp for speaking the truth to others. Indeed, his truthfulness is not mere candor of self-expression, but a kind of ontological telling-the-truth, an aletheia. He reminds those in earshot who they are, not in their own estimation, nor who they have made themselves to be on the American frontier, but before God and so in reality.


Milch takes ample occasion to show us how this truth-telling finds itself in Deadwood as in a foreign country, usually in the form of delayed or total incomprehension of the truth told. “The Lord is our final comfort, but it's a solace having friends,” Smith confides to the blank stares of Star and Bullock. “I know that from past experience,” he offers as warrant.


Reverend Smith oversees funerals in Deadwood.[1] At the graveside of a family-murdering road agent Bullock and Wild Bill Hickok killed in a gunfight, Smith recalls Christ’s exchange with the thief on the adjacent cross.


“Verily I say unto thee, this day, shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Your ways are not our ways, oh Lord. We abide the just and the unjust alike under your tearless eye. Tearless, not because you do not see us, but because you see what we are so well.


When Sol, dubious, notes the (unseemly) generosity of this sentiment, Smith replies warmly, “And don’t we need all the generosity we can get?”  At the funeral of another road agent,[2] Smith quotes from Proverbs 16, setting eyes on Bullock:


By mercy and truth is iniquity purged. And by the fear of the Lord, do men depart from evil. A man’s ways please the Lord, when he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.


Later, in conversation, Smith shares with Bullock and Star that he received his call to ministry while a field nurse at Shiloh in Sanko Manassas during the Civil War. This is not his first encounter with bloodshed:


Out of that crucible, out of all that horror to come to God’s grace. A man’s heart deviseth his way, but the Lord, directeth his steps. He directeth all our steps, Mr. Bullock. All of us.


Bullock has no idea what he is going on about, but the rest of the show follows where the Lord will direct Bullock, both in concert with and in spite of what Bullock’s heart (among other organs) will devise.


Reverend Smith, having answered his call, sees in Bullock the undertow of a vocation. Moreover, as he discerned his own vocation elbow deep in the gore of a newly industrialized battlefield, so too Smith discerns Bullock’s call not just despite, but somehow in Bullock’s propensity for violence. If we find this surprising, Flannery O’Connor suggests the plank in our eye is to blame:


Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. [3]


Reverend Smith’s testimony rests upon that to which he is witness. Reverend Smith looks around Deadwood and “sees what we are so well,” even when his eyes fall on the agents and recipients of staggering violence. 


It is a point of history that Wild Bill Hickok met a violent end in Deadwood, shot in the back by Jack McCall. Milch sets McCall’s murder trial in the Gem Saloon and has Swearengen guiding the proceedings to a result propitious for the camp’s political prospects.[4] Meanwhile, Reverend Smith attends to the matter of laying Bill Hickok to rest. I will present Smith’s graveside remarks in their entirety, for summary cannot do them justice:


Mr. Hickok will lie beside two brothers. One he likely killed, the other he killed for certain and he’s been killed now in turn. So much blood. And on the battlefields of the brother’s war, I saw more blood than this. And asked then after the purpose and did not know. But know now to testify that, not knowing, I believe. Saint Paul tells us, by one spirit, are we all baptized in the one body. Whether we be Jew or Gentile, bond or free. And they’ve all been made to drink into one spirit. For the body is not one, 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 we think of as less honorable, all are necessary. He says that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care, one to another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it. I believe in God’s purpose not knowing it. I ask him, moving in me, to allow me to see his will. I ask him, moving in others, to allow them to see it.


Reverend Smith believes God’s purpose moves somehow even in these bloody events. As usual, those in attendance seem hardly to be listening, and those listening to hardly understand.


Back in the Gem, McCall is cut loose to spare the camp the awkwardness of having enforced the laws it does not have and word reaches Bill Hickok’s friends at the conclusion of his funeral. After observing a prayerful interval, Reverend Smith descends to Deadwood’s thoroughfare with Seth and Sol. Smith seems jangly. Off.


You’ve been so kind to me, a stranger. Many of us have asked, being broken, how are we to live? Well, you took me into the body of the camp . . . May I ask, Mr. Bullock, what you feel now may be your part?”


Bullock, mystified and aggravated, cuts him off, demanding they complete the walk in silence. But later, alone with Star, Bullock returns to the question despite himself:


“What is my part and your part? What part of my part is your part? Is my foot your knee? What about your ear? What the fuck is that?”


Sol says he doesn’t know.


“What don’t you know?”


What you’re supposed to do.”


I’m not supposed to do anything! Let’s agree to that. Not one fuckin’ thing that I don’t decide I’m gonna. Alright, Sol?”


Sol says it is.


“If I kill [McCall], and my part’s gettin’ hanged for it, good luck with the fuckin’ store.”


Sol says that’s alright too. And Bullock gets his things together to go after the coward who shot his friend Bill. It will turn out, thanks to a Native American warrior who tries to kill Seth to avenge his own murdered friend,[5] that Bullock hands McCall over to federal authorities in the territory rather than murdering him once apprehended. It is Seth’s turn to be spared the indignity of forgetting his humanity for a while.


Reverend Smith’s strange demeanor, in turn, presages a degenerative ailment of the brain that progressively robs him of his faculties. Ultimately, Al brings the Reverend’s suffering to a conclusion, taking Smith’s smothering as an occasion to demonstrate a method of murder to his underling, Johnny Burns, for whom it is a grace to be initiated into the ways of the family business. For Doc Cochran, as evinced in the preceding scene, it is literally an answer to prayer.[6]




Christianity is littered with scandalous notions, but chief among them in my book is that, if God’s grace is in fact at work in our world, things ought to be worse than they are. Deadwood caught my eye a decade and a half ago because, for all the savagery and degradation portrayed, its narrative seemed rooted in the confidence of Paul’s promise “that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” It stood out from the narratives of descent that dominated prestige television then and now, and especially from the reality TV that preceded it. There is certainly bottomless drama to be mined from the premise that there lurks in the ordinary man or woman the propensity for, little by little or in one terrible moment, the prosecution of cruelties. We can, all of us, forget our humanity for a while.


Certainly, the seriousness with which prestige television has treated the universal prospect of moral degeneracy is an improvement over plying narcissistic nobodies with alcohol and videotaping the consequence. I would happily spend my hours binge re-watching Mad Men and Breaking Bad instead of Real World: New Orleans. But Deadwood saw fit to imagine a community gathered in moral forgetfulness and to posit that, even when we are certain we are beyond warm fellow feeling, beyond the confines of the reputable, beyond redemption or saving or recovery or even God’s mercy—even then we may discover ourselves instruments of God’s purpose, not knowing it.


The not-knowing is, of course, the hard bit. Coming-to-know even in part (“in a glass darkly”) requires a showing-up, a going forth in spirit: faith. Milch has said it took him a long time to realize the shadow beneath which his characters seemed all to live was cast by the sheltering hand of God. His characters are likewise slow on the uptake, often speaking the truth without realizing it or meant somehow in the wrong way. Before McCall murdered Hickok, a fellow poker player snidely quipped of him, “He too is God’s handiwork.”[7]


[1] Funerals in Deadwood are not as numerous as deaths, with Mr. Wu’s pigs taking up the difference.

[2] The first’s brother, set by Al on a fool’s errand to kill Bill Hickok and slain by the latter.

[3] Mystery and Manners (London: Macmilllan, 1969), 112.

[4] The delicate situation in Swearengen’s own words: “Our whole goal is to get annexed to the united fuckin’ states. We start holdin’ trials, what’s to keep the United States fuckin’ Congress from sayin’, ’Oh, excuse us, we didn’t realize you were a fuckin’ sovereign community and nation out there. Where’s your cocksucker’s flag? Where’s your fuckin’ navy or the like? Maybe when we make our treaty with the Sioux we should treat you people like renegade fuckin’ Indians. Deny your fuckin’ gold and property claims. And hand everything over instead to our ne’er-do-well cousins and brother’s in law.”

[5] Bullock’s account of that encounter and its effect: “Charlie figgered out how it musta been the Indian had to kill me for comin’ on the burial place, ‘n maybe it’d been me, too, that killed his friend, cut his friend’s head off so his friend wouldn’t have eyes to see the sunset all those years he’d be lying there dead. So he had to kill me for that too. And he couldn’t, before he laid hands on me or the killing wouldn’t be honorable. We fought like fuckin’ hell, I’ll tell ya that much. And I never once had the upper hand, it just – happened out the way it happened out. He was just tryin’ to live, same as me, and do honor to his friend, make some fuckin’ sense out of things, and we wind up that way, and I wind up after, beatin’ him till I couldn’t recognize his face. For Christ’s sake. That Indian saved Jack McCall’s life, I’ll tell you that fuckin’ much.”

[6] Doc’s prayer: “If was a more adaptable primate or one of your regular petitioners, I suspect I wouldn’t feel this pain. I guess I’d have a wad of cartilage covering the patella, protecting me from this—this discomfort. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, just please, God, take that minister. What conceivable godly use is his protracted suffering to you? What conceivable godly use? What conceivable godly use was the screaming of all those men? Did you, did you need to hear their death agonies to know your—your omnipotence? Mama! Mother, find my arm! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy, they—they shot my leg off, it hurts so bad. It hurts so bad . . . Admitting my understanding’s imperfection, trusting that you have a purpose, praying that you consider it served, I beg you to relent. Thy will be done. Amen.”

[7] Thanks to Anne Carpenter for her keen editorial eye and generous help with this essay.

Featured Image: Screen capture from Deadwood website trailer, Fair Use.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

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