Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock in HBO’s Deadwood, looking an awful lot like various movie versions of Wyatt Earp. In real life, Seth Bullock was more like Wyatt Earp than the real Wyatt Earp was like Wyatt Earp.
Seems I’ve had a lot opportunities to bring up Deadwood around these parts lately. My review of Howard Blum’s true-life western The Floor of Heaven. Last Saturday’s post on the loud and proud conservative playwright David Mamet’s very liberal life in the theater. A post I wrote while I was reading The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure’s memoir of her lifelong love for the Little House on the Prairie books, The little libertarian on the prairie, doesn’t mention Deadwood explicitly but it is an many respects a recapitulation of post I wrote last year, Deadwood as the model of a Conservative’s Utopia. And now I have another opportunity, thanks to my having started to read The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn.
The historical Wyatt Earp wasn’t quite like his mythical namesake. In reality, Wyatt was not a nice guy. He also wasn’t much of a lawman. He was brave, tough, resourceful, and, when he pinned on a badge, which he did from time to time mainly to make money and, according to Guinn, always with the hope that doing so would lead to bigger things for him socially and financially, he was determined, fearless, incorruptible, mostly, and a dangerous enforcer of the law. But he didn’t pin on a badge often or wear one for any significant stretch of time and he was always in a hurry to unpin it as soon as he could and move on to more promising money-making endeavors, usually gambling.
The sort of career as a professional lawman we imagine him as having had and the other personal qualities movies and television have usually attributed to him, a certain shy, easy-going charm, an innate chivalry, unwavering integrity, and a commitment to law and order and the betterment of his community actually belong more to his older brother Virgil, although, again according to Guinn, Virgil had his share of foibles and failings too. In other words, not only was the real Wyatt Earp no Henry Fonda, none of the Earp brothers who took part in the shootout at the O.K. Corral, not Wyatt, not Virgil, and especially not Morgan, came close to being a heroic figure. And never mind about Doc Holliday.
Life, of course, is mainly like that, a matter of weak and flawed people doing their best to get by while trying not to do too much harm and hoping that they might at least be doing a little good. But exceptional human beings do ride into town from time to time, and a few of them did wear badges in the days of the Wild West. One of them was Charlie Siringo, a main character in The Floor of Heaven, a Pinkerton Agent known as the Cowboy Detective, who had a long and illustrious career of adventure that included undercover assignments, threats to life and limb, fisticuffs and gunplay, and even some love and romance, all of it on the right side of the law (although not always on the right side of history. The Pinkertons were often employed as union busters and Siringo never shirked or, apparently, minded when employed by the bosses against the workers ). Another was Seth Bullock, a name that will be familiar to you if you were a fan of the HBO series Deadwood.
The real Seth Bullock was a lawman in the real boomtown of Deadwood. He was also one of the town’s most successful businessmen and prominent citizens. He was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt and signed up with the Rough Riders. He’s credited with helping to establish Yellowstone as the first national park, which, by the way, happened when he was 23 years old. He was one of those people who was born older. He seems to have had the wisdom and maturity of a 40 year old when he was 14 and he grew up from there. Deadwood, the show on HBO, not the town in Dakota Territory, begins with Bullock giving up a job as lawman in Montana to come to Deadwood, the town, not the show, to open up a hardware store and that’s true to life. Where the show differs from the history is in presenting Bullock as not as good, noble, admirable, and successful as he was in real life, not at first, at any rate.
One of the themes of the show was that Al Swearengen, the saloon and brothel keeper and criminal gang leader who is the series chief anti-hero, wants to help turn Deadwood into a decent place to live, a real and functioning, civil and civilized society in which someone like himself has no place. One of the things Swearengen does to bring this about is to turn Seth Bullock into what we know him to be from history.
Deadwood is about learning to become civilized. While we watch Deadwood grow into a real town we watch Bullock grow into the kind of person who not only can live and thrive in it but who is its best representative. We’re going see him become more like Wyatt Earp than the real Wyatt Earp was like Wyatt Earp.
As series creator David Milch has it, it’s a role Bullock isn’t ready for when we first meet him. He’s a brave man and an honest man and a decent man, but he’s not yet strong or wise enough to be a good man.
His hero’s progress begins with meeting and making friends with Wild Bill Hickock during the last days of Hickcock’s life before he was murdered, shot dead in a Deadwood saloon while playing poker, holding a hand of aces and eights. Like the real Wyatt Earp, the real Wild Bill Hickcock was more committed to the main chance than he was to public service, and that’s the case with the show’s version of Wild Bill, portrayed brilliantly by Keith Carridine who gives a performance that haunts the series until the end of its three year run, even though Carridine and Hickock are gone after the first four episodes. Hickcock hasn’t come to Deadwood as a lawman to clean up the town. He’s come to Deadwood for the same reason that just about everybody else is there, including Bullock, to strike it rich, not in mining, though, in shipping. But he leaves the actual work of striking it rich to his friends and partners, Calamity Jane and Charlie Utter, and spends his most of his time gambling---and drinking. He’s not an ideal role-model, in other words. But he has important qualities Bullock needs to learn to possess.
Hickcock is poised, cool-headed, and in complete command of his considerable store of anger and propensity for violence. It helps to know that in real life James Butler Hickcock earned his nickname from his large nose and wild temper. Bullock is full of anger he can barely contain. If you watch Justified, in which Timothy Olyphant is currently starring as a modern version of a fictional Wild Bill Hickcock or Wyatt Earp, but not a Seth Bullock, real or imagined, it’s amusing to note the different ways he plays his two character’s pent-up anger. Raylan Givens grins. Seth Bullock glowers. Throughout the first season, Olyphant portrays him as being in a perpetual seethe, except for those few times when he loses control and lets his anger get the better of him. Then he beats an Indian to death in a fight, after the man has already surrendered, and he picks a fistfight with Swerengen. The two brawl in the street in a knock-down, drag-out that almost kills the both of them.
Hickock’s anger is well tamped-down but he knows how and when to let the pilot light blaze in his eyes to let someone know they’re about to cross him, something they’d really be better off not doing. He is also, and this is key, aware of himself as a public figure. And he understands that this isn’t just a burden that comes with the job. It’s an important part of the job. Like I said, he hasn’t come to Deadwood to be a lawman, but people naturally turn to him when they’re in trouble and he steps up. And when he does, his back straightens, his chest swells, his chin lifts, and his stride lengthens. It’s not exactly like watching Clark Kent take off his glasses and start to loosen his tie, but it’s definitely the case that Hickcock is assuming a role he knows other people need him to play.
When Bullock takes over as sheriff, a job he accepts not out of civic responsibility but to get legal cover for avenging Hickcock’s death, he has no notion that he’s now expected to be something other and larger than himself and it’s suddenly up to Al Swearengen to teach him how to be like Wild Bill.
It’s interesting to note how Wild Bill’s death changes Swearengen. When the series opens, Swearengen is just a bloody-minded criminal boss. He hasn’t even begun to develop his what will turn out to be self-destructive ambition to turn Deadwood into the kind of town where respectable people can live safe from the likes of the Al Swearengens of the world. But helping to organize the trial of Hickcock’s killer gives him a taste of what it’s like to be respectable and civic-minded and he enjoys it. Meanwhile, Cy Tolliver has come to town, bringing his own brand of criminal enterprise with him. Tolliver is a classier, cleaner, handsomer, more charming, but less intelligent and even less self-controlled version of Swearengen. He’s also weak and craven, and Swearengen has recognized straight-away that Tolliver presents more than just a threat to Swearengen himself. A rivalry between them will eat up the whole of Deadwood and drive respectable citizens away. At first this prospect bothers Swearengen only because it would mean no customers and no victims and therefore no money. Cynically, then, he determines that Deadwood needs some law and order so that there are limits to what he and Tolliver can do to each other. But then it dawns on him that the Deadwood he knows, and profits from, is doomed anyway. Either the rivalry between himself and Tolliver, or between other versions of themselves, will burn the place down or civilization will arrive and with it real law and true order. Swearengen decides that if he’s going to be washed away in the flood of history, he wants to be replaced by something more than mud and wrack.
He becomes civic-minded and, tentatively, takes some steps to “improve” the town. He plans to go slow because he wants to keep his businesses, criminal and legitimate, going for as long as possible. But he keeps in mind that one of the first things that has to be done is the establishment of some real law and order and to do that he needs a real lawman. A heroic lawman people will automatically look up to and whose leadership they will respect and follow. He recognizes in Bullock the necessary qualities but the trick will be to get Bullock to recognize those qualities in himself and learn to draw on them. He’s also keenly aware of other qualities in Bullock that Bullock needs to learn to control. At the same time he has to convince Bullock to take on responsibilities and duties Bullock has already rejected in order to come to Deadwood.
It’s amusingly ironic that Swearengen sets out to accomplish this by manipulating Bullock into standing up to…Swearengen. He forces confrontations and tries to maneuver Bullock into fighting back in ways that actually work to thwart Swearengen’s plots and schemes.
Bullock manages to be a maddeningly slow learner and there are times when Swearengen has to essentially step out of character to instruct Bullock in the right way to do his job as sheriff.
The series didn’t last long enough for us to see Bullock graduate, so we were never presented with a Seth Bullock who rivals Wild Bill Hickock or Wyatt Earp as a western hero. He was always a work in progress and that progress was interrupted as David Milch grew distracted along the way.
In a bit of historical serendipity, it turns out that it’s possible that the real Seth Bullock and the real Wyatt Earp actually met. In 1877, four years before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt Earp was up in Dakota Territory trying to set himself up in the timber business in Deadwood.
If you’re thinking, wow, that would have made an interesting episode, and you were a fan of the series, that means you’ve forgotten.
In fact, it didn’t make two interesting episodes.
Wyatt Earp and his younger brother Morgan come to town, loiter there for two episodes, and nothing important to the story comes of their visit. Morgan’s bad temper and weak nature gets him into trouble. Wyatt tries to get him out of it. Bullock has to intervene. Then he tells the Earps it’s probably best for all concerned if they ride out, and they do.
That’s it. There’s nothing in this short story-arc that establishes this character as the Wyatt Earp, the real one, the legendary one, or even a revisionist version of one or the other. Which may have been Milch’s point, that there was no Wyatt Earp, that both the hero of the legend and the sometimes heroic but flawed man in the history books are complete fabrications, and, as Guinn reports regretfully in The Last Gunfight, it is the case that a lot of what people think they “know” about Wyatt Earp is based on tall tales Earp told about himself in his old age. In the show, the Earps ride into Deadwood claiming to have saved a stage coach from robbers. It turns out that they faked the hold-up themselves in order to ride to the rescue and set themselves up as heroes. It happens that there’s a historical basis for this in that when he was in Tombstone Wyatt and Doc Holliday were accused of actually robbing a stage with the intention of framing some outlaws whom they could then bring to justice, thus furthering Wyatt’s political career---Earp wanted the job of county sheriff. That Wyatt and Doc robbed the stage was a lie spread, according to Guinn in The Last Gunfight, Earp’s chief political rival. In the show, the Earps’ only reason for faking the hold-up is that they hope that folks will buy them free drinks and meals and maybe offer them jobs, any sorts of jobs, as long as they pay well and don’t require much work. Anyway, that whole subplot is dropped immediately and the Earps end up just hanging around until it’s time for them to go. For all they do or matter, they could be any pair of drifters brought in by the writers to cause trouble Bullock has to put an end to in order to remind viewers that while Milch’s convoluted political and romantic subplots are working themselves out Bullock is still the hero of western.
In the first episode, Bullock makes the one and only direct reference in either of the two episodes to either the historical and legendary Wyatt Earp. At this point in his life, the real Wyatt Earp had established a solid reputation as a lawman helping Bat Masterson keep the peace in Dodge City and other cow towns in Kansas. It’s not clear that this Wyatt Earp shares that reputation. Bullock has heard that this Earp has worked in law enforcement through this Earp’s own boasting, and he’s confirmed it with an exchange of telegraph messages. But he doesn’t appear to be impressed by what he’s learned about this Earp’s past exploits. He merely says to Earp, “Not asking why you’ve put the work aside, I’ll only say that some that do---find themselves ready and uniquely able to work the other side of the street.”
I took this as a reference to the infamous Vendetta Ride. Surprisingly---well, it surprised me when I learned this when I was a kid who hero-worshipped Hugh O’Brien’s Wyatt Earp---before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the real Wyatt Earp never deliberately killed anyone in the line of duty. He may not have killed any of the three men who died in the famous gunfight, which, you might know already, didn’t actually take place in the O.K. Corral but in empty lot off a back alley leading up to it. Things happened so fast and were so confused and confusing that no one was able to sort out who shot whom for sure. But in the weeks after the gunfight, surviving members of what’s sometimes, and wrongly, called the Clanton Gang, a loose band of outlaws and rustlers known in their day as the Cowboys, ambushed first Virgil and then Morgan Earp, crippling Virgil for life and killing Morgan. Wyatt and Doc Holliday, with several friends, then set out to track down the cowboys they believed were responsible and gunned them all down, in some cases pretty much murdering them in cold blood. That’s a true story that is well-told in the movies Hour of the Gun and Tombstone, so Milch isn’t bringing us any news by suggesting that someday Wyatt Earp may cross the line. But it’s just the case that his version of Earp isn’t either heroic or villainous and there’s no reason to care or even to think that someday this character will be both a champion of law and order and a killer, so there’s no irony here and no potential tragedy either.
So much could have been done in these two episodes.
They could have been about Wyatt Earp learning how to become Wyatt Earp by watching Seth Bullock.
They could have been about Earp not learning how to become Wyatt Earp even though he has the example of Bullock right there in front of him to learn from.
They could have been about Seth Bullock learning how to be Wyatt Earp---that is, learning how to become more like the historical Seth Bullock---by watching Earp and deciding, That’s not the type of person I want to be.
They could have been about various combinations of all of the above, and clearly the costume designer and make-up artists thought the episodes were supposed to be about the mirroring of Earp and Bullock, either as dopplegangers, secret sharers, or good and evil twins, because they dressed and made-up the actor playing Earp to look like Timothy Olyphant, which has the effect of reminding us, in case we hadn’t noticed or had forgotten, that all along Olyphant has been dressed and made-up to remind us of Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.
But whatever is there thematically in the Seth-Wyatt doubling is there only in the costuming and make-up and, a little bit, in the acting.
It’s not there in the writing.
Nothing comes of it in the plot. But then nothing comes of anything in either episode.
These episodes are part of the third season, when the series fell apart and nothing came of anything in any episode.
I’m still not clear on what happened, but David Milch was developing another series for HBO at the time, the ill-fated John from Cincinnati and it must have taken a lot of his attention away from Deadwood. The writers and producers he handed more of the work off to didn’t have his touch. The show lost energy, drive, and focus. Even the cursing got blurry, perfunctory, and lazy. The third season was planned to build to a showdown between the citizens of Deadwood and the private army of the rapacious capitalist monster, George Hearst, but it seemed each episode was more about postponing that showdown than about moving the story forward to it.
Deadwood is---was---about progress, its path and its costs, and in the first season the chief obstacle to Deadwood’s progress from a tent city pitched in the mud to a real town is the residents of Deadwood themselves. The question is, Do these people have what it takes to civilize themselves, which, Milch being both a cynic and a romantic (often a yin and yang proposition), means Are they ruthless enough to be and do what’s right and good? So the threat to Deadwood’s future as a community is corruption from within. In the second season, a threat to Deadwood’s progress arrives in the form of one Francis Wolcott who represents corruption from without. Deadwood is threatened by an unholy alliance of government and moneyed interests that would turn it off course from becoming a community and steer it towards becoming, essentially, a factory manufacturing wealth for a few powerful men, led by the as yet unseen Hearst.
In the third season, Hearst comes to town to continue the threat in person. But although he’s named after a real person, a mining engineer and entrepreneur who was the father of William Randolph Hearst, the founder of the newspaper empire, this Hearst is not much like the real George Hearst or like any actual human being. He’s a monster, a fairy tale dragon in human form. But he’s a dragon who for some reason can’t be fought. He can only be held at bay through constant appeasement. No knight in shining armor can be allowed to ride out to his cave and challenge him. So every episode of the third season is about a stall. In one way or another, we’re shown the cowed and craven villagers sneaking out to lay a tribute at the mouth of the dragon’s cave and then sneaking back, hoping the dragon will be content to leave them alone for another day. In the final episode, the dragon demands one more tribute, a human sacrifice. He wants to be fed a virgin. A demand that ought to get him shot dead by Bullock or knifed by Swearengen or both at the same time and then fed to Wu’s pigs. Instead, he’s fed his virgin and he leaves. Which makes Hearst not only implausible as a human being but implausible as a dragon. A steady diet of virgins is what dragons crave. You can’t defeat dragons by giving them what they want because they’ll just expect more.
In short, if Hearst was meant to represent capitalism’s threat to community, he’s a threat that never should have gone away. The only reason he leaves is so that the series can appear to have an ending.
I suspect that the theme intended for Season Three was the compromises communities have to make to keep themselves economically viable. Season Four, which never came about but which I believe Milch meant to be the final season, might then have been about showing the effects of that compromise---Deadwood as a thriving, prosperous community that no longer had places for either Al Swearengen or Seth Bullock the western hero.
And it would have been interesting, and both comic and sad, watching Al and some of the other characters trying to live in this brave, new, civilized world, to watch Al at a loss trying to relate to Bullock the solid citizen and watch Bullock grumpily going about his day with nothing to look forward to but being a solid citizen.
And this would have been the season to introduce a new character, another dragon, but not a dragon out of Western fairy tales, a Chinese dragon, a life-force and a bringer of joy.
As I mentioned above, the real Seth Bullock and Teddy Roosevelt were friends. They met and became friends when Roosevelt came out West to recover from his grief at the near simultaneous deaths of his mother and his wife and they remained friends until Teddy died. Bullock was a pall bearer at the funeral.
Milch could have brought in Teddy as a kind of anti-Hearst, which wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch, considering Roosevelt’s future relationship with capitalists like him. I’m talking about the TV show character named Hearst. Teddy had a more complicated relationship with a real life Hearst. In place of a dragon demanding tribute, the citizens of Deadwood would have had to deal with a dragon bringing them gifts, all of which, no matter how well-intended, would have been problematic because they’d all be bound up in Teddy’s ego.
It would have been beautiful.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Marshall Lance Mannion rounds up a couple of related reruns:
Hour of the Gun, a review.