Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 2007


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 283-95.


Copyright 2005 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In one of the most famous and quoted passages from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx observes, "Men make their own history, but not spontaneously, under conditions they have chosen for themselves; rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them." While the historical conditions that engendered the Black Hills gold rush of the mid-1870s were more "forced" by and upon the participants than "handed" to them, Marx's argument resonates loudly with the anti-romantic project of HBO's critically acclaimed Western, Deadwood. Series creator David Milch makes a similar point about the town of Deadwood: "The only reason the town of Deadwood exists is gold." Milch bluntly discards the Western genre's foundational ideology of self-determination, considering these principles a delusion that obscures the material realities of the late nineteenth century. Were it not for the curious oscillation of history and economy, of time and theft, toward a mining free-for-all zone in the Black Hills, it seems unlikely that the war cries of noninterference and isolationism would have sounded so consistently throughout the camp of prospectors. To that end, Milch's series goes to great lengths to remind viewers of the historical contingencies that underlie Deadwood's dreams of separatism and self-rule. Deadwood contributes to recent revisions of the Western precisely by calling attention to the economic and historical conditions that incubated the illusory myth of selfreliant individualism in the frontier space.

In part, what the series overturns is the popular and fantastical treatment of the frontier as a blank space where the rugged loner could test out his preformed codes of atomized republicanism. Or, as Richard Slotkin has put it, to promote the fabled version of the West is to "turn from the tragedy of fraternal strife" of labor and capital and embrace "the classic quest of the republic's heroic ages, the mission to bring light, law, liberty, Christianity, and commerce to the savage places of the earth." If Slotkin identifies a version of the West that is mythic representation, then certainly Deadwood is a sort of grimacing antimyth. The show foregrounds a distribution of power in the Great Plains that is gilded with gold. By focusing on the struggle of the camp and its individual inhabitants against state intervention, Deadwood forces us to consider the historical factors that placed the contested, lawless matrix of the Black Hills in conflict and eventual compliance with the nation and its capitalist harbingers.

In this article, we argue that the thematic movement of Deadwood hinges on the secondseason episode "Almagmation and Capital," which marks the series' transition from a concern with lawlessness to a focus on the economics of western settlement and incorporation. We explore how the episode's curiously abundant representations of "castration" contain a fundamental anxiety over national annexation and loss of economic autonomy. Ultimately, Deadwood reconfigures phallic power, one of the dominant signifiers in the traditional Western, as a gaurantor of financial independence rather than its axiomatic meaning of sexual longevity or destructive authority. In this way, Deadwood's intervention into the American Western canon is its overt insistence on historical and economic determinancy as the prime shapers of frontier ideology.