Law and Disorder

Have you ever wondered why we seem to have so many television shows revolving around law enforcement? Look at some of our top shows: CSI (Las Vegas, Miami, New York), Law & Order (the original, Crime and Punishment, Trial by Jury, Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit), The Shield, The Wire, NYPD Blue, the list goes on and on. One reason is the seemingly endless supply of stories that come or can be spun from the lives and encounters of police officers. Another reason betrays our fascination with law and how it works.

Both reasons haunt David Milch. He went from story editor to Executive Producer of Hill Street Blues; was the co-creator of NYPD Blue; created the short-lived series Brooklyn South and Big Apple; and now finds himself on the opposite side of the law with Deadwood. Don’t get me wrong, Deadwood continues Milch’s fascination with looking at the nature of law and law enforcement, he just does it from a new perspective. The theme that he focuses the show around is “‘how does society organize itself in the absence of law?’”

Based on actual evens in the Sioux Indian land of Deadwood, South Dakota during the 1870s, just after Custer’s ill-fated stand at Little Big Horn and as gold is discovered in the Black Hills. The former camp of Deadwood becomes a boomtown. Those people who grew up on a diet of 1950s and 60s era westerns will be shocked by this show. David Milch said that he thinks of the show as a “story as set in the West rather than a Western.” And the casual viewer will be assaulted by some harsh language. Often. We’re talking Good Will Hunting plus Menace II Society levels of profanity. Horror writer Gary Braunbeck calls profanity “violence without action” and never is that more true than on Deadwood. David Milch spent months (some reports say well over a year) doing research for the show, including the level of foul language. Apparently people who visited Deadwood left stunned by how they spoke.

Real life figures such as Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) enter the story however, the real action centers around two other characters. Former law man trying to start his own business, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and corrupt, murderous, scene stealing, saloon owning pimp Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Think of Al as the Kingpin (from the Daredevil movie) or Falstaff (from Shakespeare’s Henry IV) or Tony Soprano (from The Sopranos) of the old west. Hypnotic, charismatic, and brutal, he disposes of the bodies of his victims via hungry pigs. A patron of his said it best, “I don’t trust you as far as I can throw you, but I enjoy the way you lie.” Their stories are set to a backdrop of rampant sex, alcoholism, drug use (laudanum–pure opium in alcohol–being the drug of choice for ladies), greed, racism/fear (because of the omnipresent Indian threat).

All in a state of lawlessness.

The nature of the literal lawlessness of Deadwood came to light during the “trial” of Cock-Eyed Jack McCall after he shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back. It occurred to several prominent citizens, chief among them Al, that no one could appeal to the law in order to settle on a verdict. To do so would invite the Federal government looking at them, annexing them as a state, which they weren’t at the time, and possibly seizing property. So instead, the judge ordered the jurors to deliberate according to common custom, in this case, would it have been common custom to do a revenge killing.

But we don’t live in a state of lawlessness.

C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, makes an argument for a Law of Human Nature, those laws of right and wrong written onto men’s hearts. After all, ethical disputes presuppose some common standard of human decency. But as we look around at the people around us, we’re disturbed by how men actually behave versus how they ought to behave. Something in us tells us that there is a standard of behavior that we ought to adhere or at least aspire to. Ad if there is some kind of code written into each of us, there has to be an Author of that code.

HBO continues its trend of highlighting our fascination with the brooding criminal side of humanity–The Sopranos, The Wire, Oz–perhaps forcing us to face the ugly truth about our natures. Yet, in the sewers of mankind’s heart, without the civilized dress that we like to put on to deceive ourselves about who and what we are, it’s easiest to find God. The seeming absence of Law in Deadwood still points to a Lawgiver. The preacher on the show, at Wild Bill Hickok’s funeral, summed it up this way: “I believe in God’s purposes, not knowing it. I ask Him, moving in Him, to see His will. I ask Him, moving in others, to allow them to see.”

This is a moody, brilliant show, a gritty look at the old west, that is defined by the depth of its characters.