Culture Magazine

Deadwood and Moral Injury

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I worked my way through Deadwood on DVDs however many years ago and thought it was terrific. I’ve just been through it again, all three seasons, as streamed on Amazon Prime. It holds up. The writing, the acting, the story, and of course the language ¬– not quite the same as the writing, if you catch my drift, but obviously closely related – it all holds up.
If I were to do serious work on it I think I’d center my thinking on Al Swearengen, saloon keeper, pimp, crime boss, and, in an interesting way, pillar of the community. He’s the one who called meetings of town elders, with canned peaches for refreshment, to get organized for becoming legally incorporated into the United States in some manner. Sure, he’s self-interested. But not, I believe, entirely so – something worth exploring (even from an evolutionary psychology point of view). And it’s clear that, as things move along, others count on him to do the dirty work that they won’t do themselves (I’m thinking of a specific incident involving Seth Bullock, but can’t recall the particulars).
One thing I’d look into is moral injury, which I’ve mentioned in some other posts here. There are a few scenes – two, three, four, something like that – where Swearengen is down on his hands and knees scrubbing blood stains from the floor. In at least one of these scenes, perhaps two, he let the blood with his own hand (slit someone’s throat). Otherwise, he ordered the killing even if he didn’t do it himself. His concern was not merely cosmetic. He paid a price for the killing he did, either directly or through others. Other reference scenes: talking about Dan’s reaction to killing Hearst’s enforcer; late in season three when he’s alone at the bar at night, singing sadly, wistfully.
In this respect – capacity for moral injury – compare Swearengen with Cy Tolliver and George Hearst.
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Here’s a bunch of old columns from The Valve that reference Deadwood. I wrote some of them, but not all. Start reading them from the bottom. Those are the columns that got me to watch the show:

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