Someday I’m going to write a paper on Deadwood, and I’m going to have a great time doing it. Deadwood is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, and possibly the most literary of anything that’s ever aired on cable (with the possible exception of The Wire, which I’ve criminally neglected, and plan to watch as soon as I get to that fabled land of Having More Time).
Since it was canceled in 2006, Deadwood‘s earned a slightly increased focus in scholarship. The most interesting analysis so far is Daniel Worden’s “Neoliberalism and the Western: HBO’s Deadwood as Allegory,” which examines the camp as neoliberal space that “interpellates all members of society as equals under the rule of the marketplace, and one that subordinates all interests to economic self-interest” (233). Worden makes the point that Deadwood‘s engagement with neoliberalism counteracts the western’s traditionally systemic nostalgia; he’s absolutely right (or at least his theory is sustainable and defensible through evidence, which is as close as we get to ‘right’ in lit crit).
But I’m more interested in Deadwood‘s speech: the rhythms and cadences of dialogue, with profanity woven through like coarse thread. From David Milch, creator and sometimes writer:
. . . I wish more people had noticed the overall language, the rhythms of period speech that we tried so hard to re-create, and the richness of the imagery. Profanity, I’ve come to believe, was the lingua franca of the time and place, which is to say that anyone, no matter what his or her background, could connect with almost anyone else on the frontier through the use of profanity. But there’s so much more to the dialogue than just the profanity. The language of the characters in the show is never generic, and everyone’s is different. They come from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, and they all express themselves a little differently.
That’s one of the things people like about the show, that after they’ve watched for a while, they can instantly identify each character by the quirkiness of his or her speech. These are people, you know, who all grew up long before the age of electronic media, when regional speech patterns began to lose their distinctiveness. Many of them might have been illiterate, but they knew the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and that’s what shaped the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves.
I work on regionalism and one of its tropes, dialect, and so this kind of stuff is right up my alley. I’d argue that profanity in Deadwood is less about emphasis and more about creating a linguistic echo of the muck and the mire and the rules of the market; it allows speech to reflect transaction. The word cocksucker, to look briefly at just one particular profanity, appears a notable number of times throughout the series, twelve alone in the first episode. Certainly cocksucker is no empty pejorative, but reflective of the kind of economic exchange so prevalent in the camp – Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver’s popular whorehouses. Mr. Wu, who controls the Chinese side of the camp and who knows very little English, communicates early on to Swearengen through three words: “Swedgin” (Swearengen), “white,” and “cocksucka,” operating in the language of the camp’s stratified hierarchies. In Deadwood (at least, in the first season), Swearengen controls the market; those who are white constitute or execute the camp’s growing operations. Cocksuckers, for Wu, are those who work against market interests; simultaneously, however, the labor of the literal cocksuckers, the camp prostitutes, benefits the growth of order and neoliberal regulation.
And none of this is even getting to the regional part of Milch’s quote! But, to sum up: brilliant show; totally literary; I’m itching to do an extended close reading. Someday.