Monday, February 16, 2015

The Western as Ethnographic Barometer in Gunsmoke and Deadwood

James Arness, the actor who portrays Marshal Matt Dillon in all twenty seasons of Gunsmoke (CBS: 1955-1975), had an interesting take on the ideologies behind the genre’s success. “A cowboy wasn’t tied down to one place or one woman,” he told TV Radio Mirror in 1964. “Nowadays people just don’t seem to have the intestinal fortitude to live the way they’d like. That’s why they tune in on Westerns, to get a breather from stifling conformity. They don’t want to see Matt Dillon—or any other lawman—come home and sweep the kitchen” (McBride 64).

While, perhaps, coy or playing to character, the assertion is odd given the nature of the television medium. The American Western, more than any genre, reflects the morals and cultural feelings of the era in which they were produced. However, unlike the film industry’s predication of rugged individualism dependent on the trope of cowboys riding off into the sunset, during the heyday of the television Western, heroes needed to be domesticated in recurring roles.

Arness’s ideologically ambiguous statement does any amount of cultural work. It presumes the television Western’s narrative is coded with rigid masculinity as well as insinuates its audience is (and its network would allow its program’s target to be) exclusively male. It ties (contrary to the ideological view of the very show he stars in) law and morality to non-conformity and self-government. It suggests the masculine ideal is too individualistic for community yet offers it through a social medium.

Though fragments of these assumptions share some truth with the early Western in print and film, the television Western largely subverts these assumptions through both their serial format and consumerist ideologies. Textual analysis of the first seasons of Gunsmoke and Deadwood (HBO: 2004-2006) will examine how the television Western, though employing traditional genre tropes and themes, does not perpetuate absolute ideologies but is elastic, reflecting the cultures and formats in which they were produced. As paranoid, commercial artifacts of the Eisenhower-era Cold War and the lingering shadow of post-9/11, these programs’ use of Western language exposes an ethnological rift as the culture shifts from the perspective of victor to that of victim in terms of foreign policy.

The popularity of the Western in the years following World War II can be read as a reaction to the crisis of masculinity. As women were needed in the work force as men shipped off to the war, the number of working women increased from 12 million before the war, to 18 million by 1944 (Campbell 100). These women attained a disposable income (with little product during the war time on which to spend it) and an independence from domesticity they hadn’t seen before. The first decade of television in the “baby boom” era had the paradoxical work of convincing America of its patriotic duty to consumerism following the profitable war effort and convincing women that the earning necessary for familial consumerism was to be from a patriarchal single-earner who needed his wife to fulfill the domestic role.

The government feared veterans returning from war jobless would escalate the crisis of masculinity so domestic gender roles became synonymous with national security. Elaine Tyler May discusses this “defensive domesticity” by arguing, “as the cold war took hold of the nation’s consciousness, domestic containment mushroomed into a full-blown ideology that hovered over the cultural landscape for two decades” (May 88). These two decades would be the Renaissance of the television Western which would help negotiate the fluctuating modes of ideological masculinity in the onset of the Cold War.

If, as John G. Cawelti argues, “the modern Western emerged along with the need to mythicize the new values of mobility, competitiveness, and rugged individualism which were replacing the more community and family-oriented values of the nineteenth century,” it follows that the television Western would return to this nostalgic mythicism when the ideological pendulum swung back toward domesticity (Cawelti 152). Gunsmoke, the most popular and longest-running television Western of the Cold War era, employs no shortage of Western tropes. Its hero, the Stetson wearing, gun-slinging U.S. Marshal, Matt Dillon (played by James Arness) is given overt masculine qualities amid his complex characterization.

The role was originally intended for John Wayne whose filmic presence, even in 1955, was understood as exuding a masculine “impression of continuity and stability in an era defined by sociocultural fragmentation and instability” (Durham 49). Wayne passed on the project, but leant his credibility to an introduction of the show. In the series premiere of Gunsmoke, “Matt Gets It,” Wayne addresses the audience at home, saying of the program, “it’s honest, it’s adult, it’s realistic. When I first heard about the show, Gunsmoke, I knew there was only one man to play in it: James Arness.” This endorsement speaks to both the perceived masculine credibility of Wayne to judge a “man’s man” and of the show’s intent to structure its hero after the masculine prototype of Wayne’s gendered identity.

Matt Dillon’s toughness is established in the pilot episode where characterization of good and evil is black and white—complete with matching hats. Dillon is shot by a menacing, anarchic gunslinger, Dan Grat who has a number of notches in his gun including lawmen. The fact that Dillon has been shot approximately 56 times by his foes during the show’s twenty year run doesn’t take away from the narrative power of this introduction (Trimble). The structure abides by the Western trope which sets up the final duel in the street, but with no insignificant injury to Dillon. Grat’s formidable villain only bolsters Dillon’s heroism and masculinity when returning from death’s doorstep. Dillon is defined by his quick draw and by his physical capacity to overcome injury.

The opening credits of the eleven seasons Gunsmoke was filmed in black-and-white feature Dillon winning such a duel in the street, reminiscent of High Noon. The phallocentric symbolism connoting manhood with violence has a long history in the Western, and it is no different here. Mark H. Moss speaks of this crisis of masculinity as T.V. cowboys act out America’s Cold War fears stating:

While the cold war developed, its primary symbols seemed to be too intellectual or too technological for most people to comprehend in tangible terms. Guns seemed to be reassuring and familiar as well as something to which most men, having served, could relate. Like tools, they were seminal masculine artifacts. Although they were lethal, they had grand appeal to young boys. What seemed to be needed was a bridge between the two. (Moss 109-110)

Not to extend the Cold War metaphor too far, but amid all the gunplay, it’s also of note that the first season of Gunsmoke features an awful lot of guns drawn though remarkably little gunfire.

Yet it’s important to read the character of Matt Dillon as both man and law. As John E. O’Connor and Peter C. Rollins note, “many of these [Western] heroes served as masculine role models for Americans—both on a personal level and in terms of a ‘cowboy’ outlook on foreign policy,” and Marshal Dillon is no different (O’Connor 20). In standing up for the marginalized, Dillon’s sense of justice (as well as that of the government-trusting audience in Cold War America) believes in due process.

But defending an unsavory member of society with the law of the land isn’t the same, in Gunsmoke, as believing that land has a place for them. In “The Queue” (Season 1 Episode 10), Dillon comes to the defense of a Chinese immigrant being bullied by a couple of town ruffians.  Yet their budding friendship is colored by a rigid ideology of assimilation. Dillon tells Chen, “you gotta live as an American, not a Chinese” in a sermon that speaks overtly to the case of conformity in 1950s television. Dillon interrupts the town lynching of an ex-con accused of horse theft in “Hot Spell” (Season 1 Episode 2), having to answer to accusations: “is this what you call the law; protecting a killer and turning your back on us [‘fine upright citizens’]?”

In “Night Incident” (Season 1 Episode 6), Dillon follows a string of robberies, finally locating the culprits living on the outskirts of town. Victims of unkind circumstance, the couple exist in limbo—criminals who wanted a better life, but are outcasts from society. In both “Night Incident” and “Hot Spell,” a benevolent Marshal Dillon promises to provide the utmost justice for the marginalized—even going so far as to promise to get them on their feet after justice runs its course—but the result is the same. The outcasts’ only hope for survival is away from the constructed community of Dodge City. It is a strange paradox in which the law Dillon upholds is concrete, but the town his justice defends can’t provide a safe refuge for the downtrodden.

That is to say, although Marshal Dillon will fight to defend a bullied group, he subscribes to an ideology that not all are able to assimilate. Just as the unlikely hero of “Magnus” (Season 1 Episode 12) finds that Dodge “ain’t uncivilized enough” for his liking, Americans throughout the Cold War saw it the nation’s place to protect marginalized nations from the red menace, but also saw fit to close their doors to immigrants they deemed unworthy. Congress passed into law the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act despite President Truman’s adamant veto abhorring “the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations” proposed by the law (Truman).

The veto was overturned by the House and Senate and enhanced by the xenophobic rhetoric of the act’s writer, Sen. Pat McCarran, who argued, “this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished” (Gans 544). Though he would never refer to Dodge City as an “oasis,” Dillon relentlessly toes the line of duty as moral obligation. Yet an air of jingoism rings through his Boot Hill prologue in “The Killer” (Season 1 Episode 28) as Dillon brags, “it never bothered me, killing a man whose very existence was an offense to decent people.” Gunsmoke’s “‘cowboy’ outlook on foreign policy” is mitigated by conflicting national opinion. Dillon both empathizes with the foreigner yet often sees the foreigner’s place outside his well-guarded community.

Gunsmoke’s shift from marshal Western to domestic Western in the late 1960s exposes its adherence to romantic ideals in its early seasons. Writer William Blinn helped pen episodes for Gunsmoke in its domestic Western era of the late 1960s, and summed up its popularity as communal. “There was an ensemble feeling of caring and interrelationships and interconnectiveness. I wish I had friends like that,” Blinn says describing the friendships between Matt, Doc, Chester and Kitty (Marsden). Community is a much more abstract ideal in early Gunsmoke, and the heroic, individualistic exploits of Dillon which run counter to Blinn’s definition of series “interconnectiveness” might explain why the first six seasons were renamed Marshal Dillon when they entered syndication.

The romanticized Western’s heroic figure “reflected the conflict between traditional heroic individualism and new needs for commitment to society. He was characterized by his reluctance to commit himself to any particular social group, his ambivalence about what social groups were right and wrong, and his strong desire to retain his personal integrity and the purity of his individual code” (Cawelti 96). This purity in the ideals of the romanticized West explain Dillon’s monological laments atop Boot Hill, but always from the point of view of a victor. Dillon has been down but never out, and his 6’ 7” stoic frame quells the fears of his community and audience.

Michael Ray FitzGerald argues that, unlike the canonical Hollywood Westerns, television Westerns are “intrinsically revisionist from the beginning, because nationwide network coverage did not begin until 1951 [after American media perpetuated multiculturalism in allegiance against the Axis]. Hence there are few westerns on network television in which Indians were portrayed as murderous villains” (FitzGerald 56). This is largely true in Gunsmoke where, even if Native American characters are portrayed through broad stereotype (as with the good Indian sidekick, Golden Calf in “The Hunter” [Season 1 Episode 9]), the threats to communal safety are usually bandits marked by immorality rather than race. This is not the case, however, when the program makes a statement of broad communal reinforcement in Cold War “us vs. them” schema. In “Alarm at Pleasant Valley” (Season 1 Episode 39), Dillon and Chester encounter a family of homesteaders while returning to Dodge City. The family has been ravaged by a group of faceless Indian renegades and Dillon, true to domesticated Cold War ideology, encourages the family not to flee. Dillon confronts homesteader Sam Fraser in no uncertain terms:

Matt Dillon: Anything that’s good is worth fighting for. Now you’ve got a gun, you’ll find that those Indians are no tougher than anyone else once you make up your mind to fight them. 
Sam Fraser: I ain’t gonna fight ‘em, marshal. 
Matt Dillon: Well you will, Fraser. Somewhere or somehow, in one way or another, you’ll have to. Every man does.
Native Americans are unquestionably the “othered” enemy in this xenophobic episode, and Dillon, as ideological patriarch, sets the course for the nation in this allegory. J. Fred MacDonald argues much of the success of the television Western is tied up in its presentation as “a political morality play for the frightened, confused, and dispirited. It contained secular parables for a nation whose citizens built bomb shelters in their backyards, whose government leaders threatened massive nuclear retaliation against evil ‘bad guys,’ whose external enemies seemed perpetually poised for attack” (Television and the Red 139). Though the threat may not be nuclear, the perpetual threat of othered “bad guys” drives “Alarm at Pleasant Valley.”

Note Dillon’s jingoistic political language in response to Fraser; it’s an appeal to patriotism that not only makes little logical sense, but its framing is independent from the enemy. Ideologically, Dillon suggests, we must fight—regardless of circumstance—to defend domesticity. Dillon not only talks the Frasers out of retreating further west to California (subverting the spirit of the genre), but burns and dismantles the family’s wagon to fortify against the enemy. It’s an obvious metaphor for communal settlement enforced by the fact that, once Dillon and the Frasers successfully ward off attack, Sam doesn’t see why Matt would need to follow through on his promise to replace the family’s only form of transportation. “There’s no hurry, marshal,” Sam concedes, “we won’t be going any place.”

The episode’s narrative structure mimics not only countless Hollywood Westerns, but also the way in which American history framed World War II: decent Americans were minding their own business, were ruthlessly attacked by foreigners, rallied and secured the home front and came away victorious. American Cold War ideology attempted to contain fears through utilizing the same strategy, and early Gunsmoke reinforces these ideologies with a presupposition of victory. It isn’t strange then that the death of the television Western coincides with the disillusioned Vietnam era. Revisionist Hollywood Westerns in the 1970s—like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man—took great effort to paint the West as driven by xenophobia, racism and corporate greed just as the genre’s increased representation of violence was intended as a sociopolitical statement.

Although the television Western only lasted as long as it did into the 1970s following a shift from marshal Western to domestic Western, following the lead of Bonanza (Gunsmoke included: poor ratings found it cancelled in 1967, only to be rescued and thrive for another eight seasons with a newfound “emphasis upon relevant human drama”), the political gulf between Western ideologies and the souring attitude of Americans regarding escalation of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs grew too wide to bridge (Who Shot 98). J. Fred MacDonald argues, “the television Western, even in its most violent manifestations, flourished because it meshed harmoniously with widely accepted social and political views of its times. If it is no longer viable, the reasons for its fall must be related to fundamental sociopolitical changes that render the genre obsolete” (Who Shot 101). The New Hollywood directors of the 1970s and the critical success of their revisionist Westerns suggest that an increasing distrust of government and big business opposed traditional Western romanticism. For the television Western—and the medium’s insistence on sociopolitical conformity and containment—moral shades of grey weren’t as easy to depict.

The revisionary work of HBO’s Deadwood not only carries the baggage of post-Western disillusionment, but arrived at an unprecedented fracture in the American psyche. Initial patriotic solidarity following the 9/11 attacks and nationalistic support found President George W. Bush’s approval ratings at a Gallup-high 90%, but these figures consistently fell as the nation grew increasingly polarized, the war in Iraq grew murky, and the promise of retributive justice grew less cathartic. Bush’s approval rating dipped to 46%—the lowest of his tenure at the time—in the weeks following Deadwood’s debut (Newport). Fittingly, the show tackles issues of communal conscience and irrecoverable loss in its first season. If Gunsmoke arose in an era in which the American myth of romanticized, infallible virtue was both intrinsic to the nation’s view of itself within global politics and codified within the language of the Western genre, Deadwood subverts Western tropes—often presenting an alternative to genre expectation—and, in doing so, refracts the nation’s growing disillusionment toward the American myth.

Much has been made of the historical accuracy and aesthetic realism of the program and, indeed, creator David Milch rigorously researched the period and language through the use of informal letters, memoirs and period diaries (Barra 53). Deadwood’s demythification of the West is twofold: not only does the program subvert genre convention by refusing a whitewashed representation (Milch says in an interview, “I always thought [conventions of the Western] had more to do with what the Hays office would allow than with what happened on the American frontier”), its attribution of acute historic detail to historical figures makes the viewer—even amidst fictionalized sequences of great creative license—question how much of recorded history is myth (Barra 50).

While most every character is based on or adapted from an historic figure, none are household names with immediate audience appeal like the iconic Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Neither is afforded a hero’s treatment in characterization nor arc. Hickok is defined by his vices (drunkenness, gambling) rather than his canonized virtues (marshaling, gun slinging), and when he is killed off in only the fourth episode (“Here Was A Man”), the show establishes its black as pitch tone while pulling the rug from narrative convention. What’s more, Hickok is assassinated in such an unceremonious fashion (and his corpse even treated as a road-stop sideshow in “The Trial of Jack McCall” [Season 1 Episode 5]), that all of life seems vaporous in the nihilistic territory.

Jane mourns the death of her comrade, but again Deadwood refuses us traditional valiance. Rather than reach for a six-shooter in a duel in the street, Jane reaches for a whisky bottle and forfeits her recent aptitude for sobriety. As Jane retreats into the wilderness for an extended, drunken sabbatical, so are our hopes withered for a cathartic, redemptive punctuation to elevate Jane to our folk hero understanding of her. The narrative collapse of these two legends denies us both genre convention and the romantic myth to which it is tied.

Ironically, it is precisely because of Milch’s adherence to historical detail and subversion of expected tropes that Deadwood—as revisionist Western—achieves a strata which Marc Ferro describes as “no longer merely a reconstruction or a reconstitution, but really an original contribution to the understanding of past phenomena and their relation to the present” (Ferro 163). Presumed heroes become merely (yet tortuously) human, and the genre’s uncustomary emphasis on loss, victimization and moral ambiguity refracts the nihilistic paranoia of post-9/11 America while simultaneously painting the genre’s ethnographic myths as alien.

Jane’s untenable grief at the death of Hickok is juxtaposed with the unimaginable loss suffered by Norwegian orphan, Sofia. Of the many narrative threads the first season of Deadwood balances on tenterhooks, one of the bleakest follows the matter-of-fact massacre of the Metz family on the road back to Minnesota. In “Deadwood” (Season 1 Episode 1), Al Swearengen’s minions bungle a robbery and murder the family in the style of savage natives to avoid suspicion. When word of the massacre reaches town, Reverend Smith informs the newly-arrived business partners, Seth Bullock and Sol Star that the youngest child might have survived.

They join Hickok and a small company rides out in the middle of the night to the road to Spearfish and arrive to a grizzly scene: with the scalped and dismembered family preyed upon by wolves, and one of the dogs who is shooed away carries a leg in its mouth. After rescuers bring Sofia back to town, we don’t know her name for several episodes as she is mute at first and then speaks a foreign tongue. However, her silence (both literal and virtual) proves to be her only salvation when she is cared for by the ailing Doc Cochran. It’s a harrowing sequence of innocence lost amplified by the child being in persistent danger even after her rescue. 

Swearengen hatches a double-edged plot in “The Trial of Jack McCall” to have his whore, Trixie both nurse Sofia back to health (ensuring she can’t identify her family’s murderers as White men) while keeping Alma Garret hooked on opium as to regain her husband’s claim after making her a widow. Unlikely matriarchs protect Sofia, but their success is more circumstantial than heroic. Jane keeps watch in Doc’s tent in “Deep Water” (Season 1 Episode 2), huffing and puffing bravado, boasting to Cochran, “believe me, anyone tries to getting’ in here who’s not you is gonna be damn fucking sorry.” Yet when she comes face to face with Swearengen who barges in to check on Sofia’s condition, again her cowardice belies her legacy and she is paralyzed, gun in holster. The female agency of Al’s whore, Trixie and Tolliver’s madam, Joanie allows them to each bide Sofia time; the former defies her boss’s orders knowing the consequence—though painful—will be lessened by Al’s soft spot for her, the latter uses what little independence she has earned with Tolliver to nurture Sofia in “Sold Under Sin” (Season 1 Episode 12).

Sofia can be read as a symbol for America’s lost innocence and, as a post-9/11 document, it’s significant that, though she survives, neither she nor her protectors are left untouched. The same cannot be said of other children in Deadwood’s nihilistic America. Alma conceives a child with Seth, only to lose the pregnancy and relapse into drug use in “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For” (Season 3 Episode 2). Seth’s adopted son William is killed when an escaped horse violently kicks through the thoroughfare in “Amalgamation and Capital” (Season 2 Episode 9). Joanie takes teenaged Flora under her wing at the Bella Union in the aptly titled “Suffer the Children” (Season 1 Episode 8), only to find she and her brother are con-artists out to rob the saloon. Cy Tolliver exacts his vengeful justice by executing the pair in Joanie’s room. Children have no special standing in Deadwood as neither Tolliver’s retribution, Swearengen’s equalizing greed nor fate’s hand offers any compassion.

As the Western genre acts as a barometer for ethnographic ideologies and has traditionally eulogized the values of the old West as a lament to what society has lost, Deadwood presents a community made up of loss. In “A Two-Headed Beast” (Season 3 Episode 5), one of the series’ most harrowing sequences pits Swearengen’s cold-hearted right-hand man, Dan Dority, against Hearst’s bodyguard, Captain Turner in a brutal showdown. Unlike Marshal Dillon who stoically and detachedly speaks of the dead atop Boot Hill, Dority escapes with his life, sits naked on the edge of his bed and weeps, not only at his recognition of mortality, but also for the price of trauma in catharsis. As much as the language, sex and violence of Deadwood are purposefully excessive in an attempt to counter the romanticism associated with the genre, the nihilism of moral ambiguity which supplants the Western’s traditional masculine hero is the show’s strongest revisionist exemplification.

In the era of the post-Western, a theme which continually haunts genre characterization is “the sense of decaying masculine potency” (Cawelti 39). This emasculation is just below the surface throughout Deadwood’s run. Even the program’s title/setting can be read as a reference to impotence in a series often concerned with literal and metaphoric castration (Reverend Smith, in a state of rapid mental deterioration, reads a passage from Romans about circumcision to some oxen in “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking” [Season 1 Episode 11], Al Swearengen lies prostrate with kidney stones in the first half of season two), and it refracts the state of post-9/11 masculinity in America. Where Marshal Dillon is a virile authoritarian throughout Gunsmoke, the arguable lead character in the first season of Deadwood is Seth Bullock, but his path to law enforcement is neither self-confident nor morally absolute. The series pilot (“Deadwood”) evokes the first two episodes of 1955’s Gunsmoke (“Matt Gets It” and “Hotspell”) in terms of genre groundwork, but plays the Western tropes out to adverse ends. In a showdown in the streets between outlaw Dan Grat and Marshal Dillon in Gunsmoke’s pilot episode, the two share an ideologically rich dialogue after Grat kills Sheriff Hill:

Matt Dillon: Jim Hill was a lawman. He was here to arrest you for murdering an unarmed man in Amarillo. 
Dan Grat: I didn’t know that man was unarmed. 
Matt Dillon: Your mistake.
The black-and-white law in Dodge City is an almost divine absolute for which Dillon is a masculine-codified mediator. Such elevated respect for the law also places limitation on Dillon who, in “Hotspell,” protects an ex-con accused of horse theft by a lynch mob. In the pilot episode, “Deadwood,” Marshal Bullock is introduced spending his last night as a lawman in Montana before abandoning the tin star.

Bullock, too, is a mediator between a man arrested for horse theft and an angry lynch mob but, unlike Dillon, Bullock carries out the lynching of the accused himself. Marshal Dillon makes clear that he follows the letter of the law for the sake of its sanctity, but Bullock is up to something else. Yes, he is a man of conviction who can’t stand for an aberration of justice, but his fulfillment of justice is highly personalized. By hanging his prisoner, Bullock eschews due process in a display of questionable judgment but one which hedges its bets farthest from anarchy rather than taking on a worldview of absolutes.

“How does order develop without law?” David Milch asked in response to a question concerning his motivation behind creating the series. “In frontier societies where there is no central authority, how does order develop? It isn’t just a matter of brute force; even brute force can only be used by somebody with an idea of order. How does chaos evolve into order?” (Barra 50). The answer, throughout much of Deadwood, is damage control.

Yet the representations of morality and masculinity become more malleable when the circumstance is personal. Law in Deadwood is only as worthy as its lawmakers, and even our most devout (if reluctant) heroes have their own agendas. In both self-defense and retributive justice, Bullock exacts Western-coded violence in Deadwood’s first season. Once catharses have been realized, morally ambiguous shadows expose Bullock as the monster he sought to vanquish.

In “Plague” (Season 1 Episode 6), Bullock rides out in search of Hickok’s murderer only to be brutally attacked by a Native American. The two continue in hand-to-hand combat: an even more primeval expression of the genre’s preoccupation with masculinity. Surviving an awful blow, Bullock knocks out the Native American and, while his foe is down, zealously finishes the job by bashing his head fifteen times with a rock. Equal fervor is on display in “Sold Under Sin” when Alma’s father calls her honor into question. Seth pummels Otis Russell—who never throws a punch—with seventeen blows to the face.

It’s from the same episode in which our reluctant hero takes up his sheriff’s badge, uncomfortably tying together concepts of tainted humanity and law. Both scenes linger on a shot of Seth’s pulped handiwork, calling into question the reality—however justified—of retributive violence. Seth’s honorable respect for the law is impaired by his unconstrained emotion and is in direct foil to Swearengen who, however dishonorable, is self-aware in his every manipulation. The bad guy isn’t nearly so black and white.

If frontier community is a picture of America in the television Western, both Dodge City and Deadwood are presented as largely unsalvageable, but not without conscience. It is each community’s picture of the law which reflects the ethnological perspective of the era in which they were produced. For the Cold War era, Dodge City’s fissures were stitched by an innate trust of governmental authorities and the community’s compliance with containment. This is far from the case in Deadwood’s refraction of a post-9/11 America riven by paranoia and fear that retributive violence turns society into the monster they try to “other”.

Of both programs’ wide use of Western genre tropes, one of the most consistent portrayals between the two is the picture of the town doctor as its community’s conscience. Both Gunsmoke’s Doc and Deadwood’s Doc Cochran are benevolent figures independent from societal justice. When Doc Cochran says in “Deep Water,” “I see as much misery outta them moving to justify theirselves as them that set out to do harm,” the rift is exposed between these two television Western societies: for a cynical, disillusioned America post-9/11, the lawman isn’t exempt from this caveat.


Works Cited

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