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More thoughts on HBO’s ‘Deadwood’: Community, darkness and love

As I mentioned before, we recently started watching the now cancelled HBO western series, Deadwood. I must admit, I’m becoming much more intrigued with series, in part due to the dramatic quality of the story (thus far) but even more so because of the surprising amount of God-talk surrounding the series.

While we are early yet in the series (we just finished watching episodes three and four), I have been impressed by the Shakespearean sense of the series in its character exploration, focus and drivenness. Part of that might be due in part to the syntax and colloquial speech of the characters, and it doesn’t hurt that Ian McShane (above, a British actor who most recently portrayed Saul in the ill-fated modern retelling of the biblical King David, Kings) exudes a kind of Shakespearean aura. This series definitely pushes to the edges of Shakespeare’s darker plays, exploring the baser and lawless edges of society (and, as previously mentioned, that includes an abundance of bad language, some violence, adult content and sexual situations).

But it’s the God-talk surrounding the series that’s got me more intrigued. I actually stumbled on it all when I blogged my first impressions of Deadwood, and I got an interesting comment:

If you are watching Deadwood from the POV of someone interested in the development of a spiritual or God-focused story, I would suggest you keep watching. David Milch wrote Deadwood with the idea of the town as God's body and each inhabitant an un-knowing and sometimes even un-willing part of that body. It also may surprise you which characters start out as villains and become ersatz saviors of Deadwood
So, I started digging up interviews with Milch, the creator behind Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. Interestingly, there’s an amazing amount of God-talk associated with this guy—some of which I posted at the Arts & Faith forum. In one interview Milch explains how before he came up with Deadwood he had originally pitched a show about Rome centering on “the genesis of faith” and “faith as a regenerative and reorganizing principle for community.” In that same interview Milch talks about how he sees all stories being essentially about the same thing:
Which means that if God is anywhere, he's everywhere, and it's my task - I said to a priest, as he was dying, ‘I'm grateful to have lived long enough to be able to say to you that the shadow in which I always believed I and my characters must move is cast by God's sheltering hand.’ So any story can let you do that.
But it was this interview with Salon that really caught my attention, in which Milch connects the idea of the body of Christ to the Deadwood community:

Some people will not know themselves. As the minister says at Hickok's funeral, he quotes Paul—that was what I wanted to do that Roman show about, was the first guy they arrested was Saint Paul. But Paul says, "If the hand shall say, 'Because I am not the foot, I am not therefore the body of Christ,' is it not of the body?" In other words, because we misunderstand our natures, does that exclude us from the community of spirits? And the answer is no, it just means we misunderstand our natures. So many of these characters misunderstand their natures, but that does not prevent us from recognizing that they're of the body of Christ. My feeling about "Deadwood" is it's a single organism, and I think human society is the body of God, and in a lot of ways it's about the different parts of the body having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time.
While I don’t agree completely with Milch’s theology as presented here, I immediately resonated with the concept that much of our journey in this life is becoming aware of and growing more confident in our identy as members of the body of God. We were created and intended to be a people—a community, body, “called out ones, the “church”—who love God and others, who extend God’s will and Kingdom of restoration, right-ness, just-ness and care as we walk with him and others.

In Deadwood, Milch presents a very broken and fringed society—one intentionally “outside the bounds of ‘civil society.” At Hollywood Jesus, Maurice Broaddus notes that a theme around which Milch focuses this show is “how does society organize itself in the absence of law?” The characters, says Broaddus, are set against “a backdrop of rampant sex, alcoholism, drug use (laudanum--pure opium in alcohol--being the drug of choice for ladies), greed, and racism/fear (because of the omnipresent Indian threat).”

One of the stark realities that this series reminds me of is that there not only have been dark and lawless places like Deadwood in history (in fact, the series bases much of its depiction on the nature of the historical Deadwood) but there are also places like that today. And one of the first questions many of us ask (and, with the God-talk surrounding it, this series more than invites us to ask) is: Where is God in a place like that?

In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was asked a very similar question. In part, he answered:

The short answer is that God is where God always is, and that is with those who are trying to comfort and bring light in any such situation. I would guess in such a situation and, how can one imagine the nightmare in that school, how can one begin to imagine it, I would guess that there must have been older children putting arms around younger children, you might see God there.

Williams is describing love. And as I watch Deadwood, it strikes me that it is also love that reveals God’s presence in Milch’s dark story—and I find it most striking in the character of Calamity Jane.

Jane is a hardened, foul-mouthed and unattractive woman who travels with (and, we discover, carries a deep infatuation for) Wild Bill Hickok. Early in the series, she is handed a young Norwegian girl (who can’t speak or understand English) whose family has been massacred by road agents, and she immediately becomes fiercely protective of the child, not only guarding her but also stumblingly nurturing her in mother-like ways. In the third and fourth episodes, we see the effect of her acts of love for the child: her face noticeably softens, her voice takes on a softer tone, her touch is gentle and she sits patiently and still. As I watch Jane love that child, she borders on outright beauty.

Notably, Jane also transforms when she’s in Hickok’s presence. Hickok does not return her feelings of infatuation or romantic love (and Jane appears to know that), but he does treat her with dignity, respect and as an equal. When she is with Bill, she transforms as she does when she is with the child, her face softer and her tone more gentle.

Loving and being loved utterly transforms Jane. In the context of Milch’s interviews, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that love is what helps Jane move closer to her identity—towards the truth of who and whose she is. And love is what puts her in right relationship with those around her. Love pulls and nudges her towards a right community, however small, in the midst of great darkness and brokenness.

Not that Jane is fully transformed. Her moments of transformation are fleeting, but in contrast to Deadwood’s darkness, they are starkly evident. That kind of light is a bright light in a lawless society. Broaddus suggests that the “seeming absence of Law in Deadwood” itself “still points to a Lawgiver. The preacher on the show,” notes Broddus, “at Wild Bill Hickok’s funeral, summed it up this way: ‘I believe in God’s purpose, not knowing it. I ask Him, moving in Him, to see His will. I ask Him, moving in others, to allow them to see.’” Love is one of those ways God moves in others—and one of those ways that allows others to see him moving.

I’m only four episodes into the series, so at this point I’m not formulating a conclusion about the series as a whole or recommending it to others. It is really dark, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to stick with it. But, at this point, I’m finding it hard not to be more than a little curious about a show written by a guy who talks the way Milch does.

Note: The series has a TV-MA rating, which means it “may contain extreme graphic violence, strong profanity, overtly sexual dialogue, very coarse language, nudity and/or strong sexual content.”

(Images: screenshots, HBO)