The Boy the Earth Talks to: Gold and Progress in Deadwood

I gave a show called Deadwood a chance a few weeks ago and was swiftly plunged into television series binge-mode. The addicting nature of Deadwood comes from the carefully worded script illustrating the political forces acting on and inside a town that suddenly emerged and rapidly expanded its commerce on the borders of the American federation. The show depicts a camp out in what will soon become a part of South Dakota where people flock to mine gold during America’s westward expansion era. The economic-political dynamics of a not-yet-town in a “lawless” region are interesting enough, but what lit my curiosity up was the end of season 2 when a major capitalist finally came to Deadwood in order to establish scaled-up mining production with an imported labor force. Until then, men had mostly paned for gold and spent the plentiful bounty in the camp on food, alcohol, tools, clothing, property, and whores. But with the coming of the gold-mogul George Hearst, the times of freedom from the law and riches for all (European men) would come to a close.

What gives these people the drive to set off on a journey across the continent is the prospect of riches: the officially recognized currency is just waiting to be plucked from the earth. People say “money doesn’t grow on trees,” but it was once freely gathered from rivers, streams, mountains, and the ground. Gold is advantageous to be used as money for many reasons, and American expansionists lucked out when a commodity that would spur commerce appeared in its desired territories. Take away the convertibility of American and European money into gold and the movement westward, with its instantly flourishing commerce and activity, would never had been accomplished so rapidly and with such excitement. The people of Deadwood find money so easily that exchanging goods and services is intensified, simultaneously spreading the American population throughout the continent and increasing the money supply for fortunes to be made. The possibilities for furthering both Capitalists’ interests and American imperial ambitions in their bordering territories were overwhelming and after the first wave of entrepreneurial miners and military battles against Indians, the next phase of large scale production and low-waged labor now seems all but destined to spread across the continent.

George Hearst first sends his close advisor and chief geologist Wolcott to oversee the purchasing of other’s claims, drawing the land under his ownership and away from the less sophisticated miners. One character remarks, “Pretty soon, this’ll be a company town,” and that’s the design: one town owned by one company owned by one man. Wolcott sees this coming and repeatedly speaks about “inevitable change”, which he helps move along by working for Hearst. In challenging the current manager of the largest gold producing comstock in the camp on its site, he says “the noise is terrible isn’t it… like fate.” Wolcott is the agent of the transformation in America that the viewer already knows will happen: the frontier adventure in the edge of civilization will give eventually way to streamlined production and tightly managed labor.

As the character representing this transformation, Wolcott must be a truly horrible man. He speaks not as a common, “low-born” man with the usual outpouring of obscenities and the ease of transition from casual encounter to a heated confrontation. He holds back his expression without a hint of his inner feelings, but not with the aristocratic elegance of the other characters who fit the sophisticated model. When other well-schooled, upper class characters speak they speak in an excess of coded language to make conversation a game and an art. The dizzying flurry of pretty words with an accompanying sensitivity to inflection conceals the simple meaning of the sentence and forces the interlocutor to carefully decipher it. This is a major marker of class difference between those who can follow the train of thought in the conversation and those left dumbfounded by all of those long and confusing-sounding words. The tensions that so easily boil over with the lower classes and their readiness to project their emotions onto the other party is channeled by the upper class into word-play and a kind of conversational poetics. This dynamic is handled beautifully in Deadwood, with the rapidly spoken obscure words contrasting with the angry crude words, a distinction that signals who is capable of planning ahead and likely scheming in one direction or another.

Wolcott fits in an odd place in this dynamic: he speaks much more like a sophisticate, but also directly and without the radiance of the others. He gives simple commands that speak exactly to his interests without any of the masks that must have made conversation so enjoyable. He does not visibly express himself and offers very little bodily gestures to hint at his meaning. He prefers to speak only to other individuals and not in crowds or groups, giving instructions or listening to new information. He only wants to work with a selection of individuals with major stakes in the camp on a singular basis as he does with his employer. He is merely an officer sent to perform a task for his extremely wealthy employer.

The worst instance of Wolcott character comes in the violence he unleashes upon women. It seems all of the reserve he maintains in his affairs becomes concentrated, and when he becomes frustrated or disadvantaged he takes it out on whores by slitting their throats. It is one of the more gruesome scenes in Deadwood when he takes out three women without any cause other than his own pent up rage. It has happened before in Mexico, so we know this is a character flaw that recurs: he is overcome by an urge to inflict death and dominance over those he can without conflict. His cold and unflinching disposition is suddenly reversed in an explosion of violence.

Might this dangerous flaw be connected to his occupation under the capitalist Hearst? Or perhaps his knowledge and foresight of the direction of the macro-level of the economy brought him to a resigned despair? His murderous actions themselves where predictable – a matron of a high-end brothel knows of his propensity to kill women, but cannot stop him from accessing his favorite whore. He eventually kills her along with the matron and another woman, suggesting that the fate of Wolcott’s favorite whore was already sealed. But is the doom of the young and beautiful whore connected with the foreseeable expansion of mechanical production and proletarianization of the population?

I’ll leave that question unanswered and point to a conversation that Wolcott has with Hearst when Hearst arrives to Deadwood to take control of it. Hearst proclaims an interesting relationship with the earth: he believes the earth speaks to him and that “she tells me where to dig into her.” Spending his life mining for gold has made Hearst extremely wealthy, and his fame is enhanced with such sayings like this. He believe he is listening to the earth and that this intimate relationship with it allows him to find “the color.” When Hearst learns of Wolcott’s murderous tendencies he confronts him:

Wolcott: “As when the Earth talks to you particularly, you never ask its reasons?”
Hearst: “I don’t need to know why I’m lucky!”
W: “What if the Earth talks to us to get us to arrange its amusements?”
H: “Sounds like god-damned non-sense to me.”
W: “Suppose to you it whispers: “You are king over me. I exist to flesh your will.””
H: “Nonsense.”
W: “And to me, there is no sin.”

[Hearst then severs their relationship]

Hearst: “Does some spirit overtake you, is that what you mean by the talk?”
Wolcott: “No.”
H: “Tells me where the color is, that’s all it tells me.”

There is a great confusion about the Earth and God in this conversation. Hearst has personified the Earth in his labors as a miner, propagating the myth that it speaks to him and tells him where to find gold. Wolcott observes Hearst’s relationship with the Earth as one of subjection. In the absence of The Lord God in heaven above, the Earth below becomes for Wolcott the replacement God, yet one that is vulnerable. A wealthy man like Hearst can listen to the Earth and digs into it, extracting its precious metals and in effect becoming lord of the Earth by freely picking at it.

The relationship between a single great God with all power and knowledge and creation in it and the individual human worshiper is a relationship that could only be one of dominance. The voice of the Earth is taken by Wolcott to be like the voice of God, yet also the voice of a slave-body to be drilled into and harvested for its valuables. In the absence of a master-God (which in the later 19th century was becoming a greater cause for concern in European culture than it had been before) the great voice in the cosmic sky above fell mute with but only the Earth beneath our feet to remain attached to. The relationship of power, however, remains only reversed: the great Capitalist owner of the land and producer of goods becomes The Lord of the Earth. The Voice can no longer speak of correcting wayward souls or offering guidance, instead the security of God is replaced with the subdued body of the Earth. He will not talk to the sinners and provide assurance of the moral value of actions, instead, She will be dissected and exploited for what is universally valued in commerce: gold/money.

So is nihilism and the disgust at the sight of a subdued Earth the cause for Wolcott’s horrifying murders? The unstoppable force of Capitalist progress? His inability to take pleasure in the conversational habits and games of the well-to-do? One is about a great loss of meaning both personally and culturally, the next is about the sweep of history and the material conditions that seemed inalterable, the last is about the simple enjoyment of other’s company – the little twists and turns of the conversation that could either enflame our body into passionate action or create lasting bonds in the face of another’s skill and grace. In understanding the death of God, the subjugation of the Earth, and the coming age of mechanical production, Wolcott finds no comfort in the company of others. He repeatedly tells people not to touch him. These issues are connected in Deadwood as a show and as a artwork; stepping outside of it, we can say that keeping up the pleasures of our bodies in the company of friends (verbally and with proximal remove as well) can have an effect on the other issues that would drive a man to death and despair.

befitting his character, Wolcott hangs himself at the end of season 2 after being fired and during a wedding. Nobody seemed to notice.

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2 thoughts on “The Boy the Earth Talks to: Gold and Progress in Deadwood

  1. Bill,

    Long time no chat, who’s fault is mine. I’m a long time consumer of Deadwood and believe it’s perhaps the greatest show ever made, certainly the greatest that garnered no substantial market share in accord with it’s greatness. This article was really well done. I’ve sent it to friends and family that have watched Deadwood with me over the years. As it so happens a friend of mine and I are watching all three season again, our second or third time through together. The only show that comes close to creating characters so well rounded is Mad Men, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two share similar motifs of commerce and use the political backdrop of its times as a rather large mirror held up to our own. I’ve described the language as neo-Shakespearian, and the dialogue between Wolcott and Hearst is that and somewhat Biblical, too. I haven’t been around, as you know, obviously, since soon after my wife had our second child. How’s things been?

    • Hey, nice to hear from you. The company we keep is often manipulated by commerce and labor demands, so it goes.
      I was taken by Deadwood as I have been with Mad Men, and I agree they are atop the best I’ve seen yet. (I feel I must mention The Wire and Cowboy Bebop here). The best part of Deadwood is the play in the language. The spoken word of the high-born upper class meshing together with the crude swearing of the miners and other workers. It was a transitional period in American and other European-based countries, which gave the writers a lot of room to play with. Keeping up with the reasoning of Swearengen and other political forces in such convoluted language was captivating. Throw in the foul-mouthing into the mix together with the constant threat of violence and we get a good picture of the time.
      I felt like I had to write about Hearst’s claim that the Earth speaks to him – especially in relation to his venture in gold because gold is directly related to money and incentivized American expansion. It made the most sense to detour via Wolcott because of his violence against women and thoroughly middle-manager mediocrity. There is something blank and reprehensible in him that is a perfect compliment and introduction in season 2 for the big time capitalists inevitable arrival to spoil the party.
      If we lose God and gain the Earth, it might seem like a victory. But if the gain is in the shadow of His death, we get Wolcott and perpetual extraction. For a biblical connection, perhaps we could look into Tolliver’s language as it often lapses into strange Christian musings (from one of the most conniving of characters too).

      This was a good interview: http://youtu.be/1O2GW9G1h5A

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