Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 235-37.
In the opening scene of the first episode of HBO's critically acclaimed historical drama Deadwood, an ordinary gold miner, Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), walks into the Gem Saloon, owned by Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), and proclaims: "I may 'a fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand before you today, beholden to no human cocksuckers. And workin' a payin' fuckin' gold claim." Ellsworth has established a gold claim in the Black Hills of the future South Dakota, and his proclamation of autonomy flows from the power and freedom gold delivers, even in the lawless town of Deadwood. At this point in the series, Ellsworth is a simple miner, a representative of the men who swarmed the hills in the 1870s to reap the rewards of untapped gold reserves. In the poetics of Western discourse, he seeks the company of whores in the evening and the solitude of the hills when he awakes. In Deadwood, he is just another denizen trying to escape a previous life and carve out an existence free from the confines of civilization.
As the narrative progresses over three TV seasons, Ellsworth's transformation comes to represent the evolving nature of the town itself, as he shifts from being an outsider on the fringes to being at the center of local politics. His marriage of convenience (her convenience, not his) to the widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker) thrusts him out of his comfortable self-reliance and reluctantly into the convolut! ons of political and economic jockeying that threaten the town's survival. His only resistance is to the monomaniacal George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), and it is at the hands of Hearst's henchman that Ellsworth finally meets an unjustified and violent end.
Reading the narrative arc of Deadwoodthe town and the series-through the development of Ellsworth's character shows the underlying effect of the settlement of the West on the individual settler and the individual's repeated powerlessness against the momentum of history. Like Ellsworth, the town of Deadwood moves from hinterland settlement to economic gold mine, literally, and the source of considerable political anxiety for the government authorities. We see in Deadwood, through Ellsworth, a formal tragedy of the settlement of the American West, a thought that series creator David Milch echoes: "Deadwood, like other gold rush towns, was a kind of reenactment of the founding of our country." The story of Deadwood is the story of the settlement of our nation, and as such it demands critical exploration. That the series portrays this narrative over the course of just three seasons, let alone within the character arc of one seemingly minor character, shows the latent potential of television, which has only just begun to manifest itself in recent years.