HBO's Deadwood and Serial Necessity: A Response to Sean O'Sullivan's "Reconnoitering the Rim: Thoughts on Deadwood and Third Seasons"

HBO's Deadwood and Serial Necessity: A Response to Sean O'Sullivan's "Reconnoitering the Rim: Thoughts on Deadwood and Third Seasons"

Daniel Worden

Daniel Worden’s riposte to Sean O’Sullivan’s piece on Deadwood argues that O’Sullivan’s “formalist account does not acknowledge… Deadwood’s connection to a kind of historical necessity that governs not just the show’s characters but also the very structure of the show as a historical drama about the West on late twentieth-century cable.”

Ed Finn:

Worden’s reading of the show as a staging ground for neoliberal individualism echoes a number of critiques of contemporary gaming culture, particularly Jan Van Looy’s reading of the player as uomo economicus in Dungeons & Dragons.


Sean O’Sullivan begins his essay on seriality in Deadwood with a brief gloss on narrative form: “Narrative, we might say, comprises three elements: the possible, the necessary, and the possible disguised as the necessary.” The tensions between these three elements constitute narrative structure by propelling events forward and creating suspense as characters encounter choices. This formalist claim, as I take it, divides narrative into three components: the “necessarily necessary,” that is, the governing realities of any given diegetic space, the most common being natural laws such as gravity, biological conditions such as death, and, in this case, the conventions of television drama such as sexual tension and character development; the “possibly possible,” most commonly involving characters’ choices and aspects of the narrative’s world that may or may not intrude upon the diegetic space; and the “necessarily possible,” which would most typically point out cultural conventions like marriage, child-rearing, and upward mobility, narrative possibilities that are, in fact, not possibilities but planned tensions that allow a serial narrative to unfold. This tripartite formulation immediately brought to mind Donald Rumsfeld’s oft-mocked press conference statement - on February 12, 2002, two years before Deadwood would first air on HBO - about the epistemological value of intelligence reports finding no evidence of weapons of mass destruction or collaboration with terrorist groups in Iraq: Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense News Briefing 12 Feb 2002.

If we substitute O’Sullivan’s “necessary” and “possible” with “known” and “unknown,” then it becomes clear that O’Sullivan and Rumsfeld’s categories correspond to one another. While Rumsfeld finds that the “unknown unknowns” are the most interesting, O’Sullivan places more value on a category that Rumsfeld moves past rather quickly - the category of narrative possibility. The importance of the “necessarily possible” is made clear in O’Sullivan’s essay, which teases out the ways in which Deadwood and other television dramas produce a sense of inevitability and novelty, especially in their third seasons.

Both O’Sullivan and Rumsfeld’s schemas elide a fourth possibility, one that Slavoj Zizek pointed out in his discussion of Rumsfeld’s press conference statement: What [Rumsfeld] forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know - which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say … If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the “unknown knowns” - the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values. Slavoj Zizek, “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib” In These Times 21 May 2004.

This elision of the “unknown known” or the “possibly necessary” creates a blind spot in these schemas, a blind spot that one might otherwise term “ideology. While O’Sullivan does pay attention to Deadwood’s “peculiar situation” - the fact that HBO announced the show’s cancellation before the filming of its third season - his discussion of serial narrative structure suffers from the same difficulty as many formalist accounts of narrative: an implicit disavowal of the deeper historical context that governs any narrative structure. When it comes to Deadwood, I believe that one cannot fully account for the show’s cultural significance without reading the television show historically, a complex operation that involves multiple versions of “unknown knowns” - what we tacitly “know” about the history of the American West, what we tacitly “know” about serial narratives, and what we tacitly “know” about what it means to be an individual in the twenty-first century.

O’Sullivan’s work in this essay and elsewhere rightfully locates in seriality a key mode of narrative, and one that is often elided in literary criticism. Many of our aesthetic and epistemological categories in literary criticism implicitly refer to non-serial narratives, with emphasis on authorial intention, the unity of the work of art, and narrative structures derived from Aristotelean poetics, which values plots that have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Seriality offers a series of interesting problems for the literary critic, then, because the values that we have absorbed in order to study narrative - values which are largely presented to us as epistemological concerns - are also aesthetic criteria about what constitutes a valuable narrative. What does a literary critic do with a narrative that is, in traditional, Aristotelean terms, not a narrative? How can we classify a text without a clear beginning, middle, or end? What do we do with a text that exhibits no character development? The traditional answer is, of course, that we simply don’t do anything with these texts, hence the exclusion of not only television shows but also comic books, dime novels, pulp fiction, and magazine fiction from traditional literary studies. O’Sullivan’s earlier essay on Deadwood places the show in relation to Charles Dickens’ serial fiction in order to both value Deadwood as literature and expose the close connections between literary and serial narratives. Sean O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction,” Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, ed. David Lavery (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006): 115-129.

What O’Sullivan’s formalist account does not acknowledge, however, is Deadwood’s connection to a kind of historical necessity that governs not just the show’s characters but also the very structure of the show as a historical drama about the West on late twentieth-century cable. Deadwood was a show that capitalized on historical accuracy; even its dense language was supposed to be, in part, a distancing effect that denotes the historical gap between the 21st century and the late 19th century. In Deadwood creator David Milch’s own words, the verbose dialogue of his characters is meant to foreground “how provisional the meaning of a word is,” that is, how language itself is historical rather than transcendental. Mark Singer, “The Misfit: How David Milch Got From ‘NYPD Blue’ to ‘Deadwood’ By Way of an Epistle of St. Paul” New Yorker 81.1 (11 Feb. 2005). The plots in Deadwood were just as bound to the history of Deadwood, the town, as they were to televisual narrative conventions. In this sense, the death of Wild Bill Hickock serves less as an abstract formal necessity than a historical necessity - the death of an incredibly charismatic character in the first season seems to gesture less to audience desire and expectation than to the intrusion of historical necessity onto the television screen. As Fredric Jameson famously remarked, “history is what hurts,” and Deadwood forces the viewer to watch the town mourn Wild Bill’s death in the first few episodes of the first season. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981): 102. History intrudes upon the show’s narrative, revoking “possibility.” What this entails is a revision of an “unknown known,” our typically exceptionalist understanding of the U.S. frontier. Deadwood exposes the less-than-heroic, devilishly pragmatic desires that “settled” the West and the inevitability not of triumph but of ruin.

In his treatment of seriality, O’Sullivan compares Deadwood to other HBO series like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Because of their filmic style and the fact that they are often tied to one creator, HBO series conform to our conventional aesthetic categories just as much as they complicate them. But, I believe that a broader understanding of seriality is needed to put Deadwood into context, and this broader context would involve Deadwood in a far more radical critique and revision of aesthetic conventions, a task that is just as necessary in literary studies now as ever. Aside from television, a chief medium for serial narratives is comics. In his reading of Superman, Umberto Eco finds in seriality a mix of the novelistic and the mythic that seems to correspond roughly to O’Sullivan’s “necessary” and “possible.” Serial comics place contradictory demands on their characters: a figure like Superman must remain unchanged from issue to issue, but he must also vary his adventures enough to keep an audience interested. Eco describes this mixture of the eternal and new as borrowing from both myth and the novel: The mythological character of comic strips finds himself in this singular situation: he must be an archetype, the totality of certain collective aspirations, and therefore, he must necessarily become immobilized in an emblematic and fixed nature which renders him easily recognizable (this is what happens to Superman); but since he is marketed in the sphere of a “romantic” production for a public that consumes “romances,” he must be subjected to a development which is typical … of novelistic characters. Umberto Eco, “The Myth of Superman” trans. Natalie Chilton, Diacritics 2.1 (Spring 1972): 15.
The Western genre is by no means unrelated to these conventions. There have been Western comics - just as there have been Western television serials - throughout the late twentieth century, and Deadwood appeared when there was a revival of Western comics through titles such as Jonah Hex, Loveless, Scalped, and Rawhide Kid. O’Sullivan’s notion of seriality is confined to media that are more or less traditionally aesthetic. A historical account of seriality in the late twentieth century needs to account for comics narratives, one of most vibrant media in contemporary literary culture and one that has disciplined audiences to read and process serial narratives. Long-form serial narratives like The Sopranos or Deadwood that span many years (or seasons) have much more in common with comics narratives than they do with serial novels since comics exist contemporaneously with - and are often reference points for - television serials.

In my own work on Deadwood, I argue for the show’s significance as a narrative staging ground for neoliberal individualism. Daniel Worden, “Neo-liberalism and the Western: HBO’s Deadwood as National Allegory” Canadian Review of American Studies 39.2 (2009): 221-46. O’Sullivan’s essay, though, made me consider a different aspect of the show: the ways in which its unfortunate cancellation gestures to the importance not of narrative necessity but of historical necessity. In Deadwood’s first season, Wild Bill Hickock asks his companion, Charlie Udder, “Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?” “Here Was a Man,” Deadwood: The Complete First Season, DVD (HBO, 2004). Hickock’s remark blends the necessary with the possible, acknowledging the inevitability of death yet facing that inevitability with honesty and agency, however compromised. This understanding of necessity runs throughout Deadwood. However, in Deadwood’s third season, O’Sullivan finds an allegory not for necessity but the death of possibility. In the final episode of season three, Al Swearengen murders one of his prostitutes to appease George Hearst. O’Sullivan reads this as “the death of possibility itself” since Jen, the murdered woman, is a relatively unknown minor character who has potential as the love interest of Johnny, one of Swearengen’s employees and a mainstay of the series. This “death of possibility,” however, is not simply due to the show’s cancellation but to Deadwood’s dramatization of corporate capitalism’s encroachment upon a town constituted by individual and small business ventures. Throughout Deadwood’s final episode, individuals are left helpless in the face of George Hearst, concluding with the series’ final moment. Al Swearengen, the ruthless saloon owner, is cleaning up a bloodstain with a brush. Johnny walks in, seeking sympathy, and asks, “Did she suffer?” Swearengen responds, “I was gentle as I was fucking able, and that’s the last we’ll speak of it, Johnny.” Johnny walks away, and Swearengen looks up and says, to himself, “I was gonna tell him something pretty.” “Tell Him Something Pretty,” Deadwood: The Complete Third Season, DVD (HBO, 2007). The episode, and the series, concludes with Swearengen continuing to scrub the floor. What Deadwood demonstrates, then, is the sheer force of historical necessity, the way in which history overtakes individual desire. In this final episode, no amount of agency is capable of changing the course of history, just as Swearengen’s scrubbing seems to be a vain attempt to cleanse his own irrevocable guilt. Swearengen’s regret is our own regret, as aesthetics give way to necessity.

What Deadwood might ultimately tell us, as viewers, is that necessity governs our lives and our entertainment as an “unknown known,” a series of ideological assumptions about how narrative functions. The clearest example of this is the purity of our critical categories. Both O’Sullivan and I have read Deadwood as a narrative. What the study of narrative has not traditionally acknowledged is the status of narrative as a commodity. We tacitly know that Deadwood is the product of HBO, a subsidiary of Time Warner, yet when corporate interests intrude upon the narrative, when HBO abruptly cancels Deadwood after its third season, we are left puzzled and confused. When confronted with historical necessities such as the Dakota Territory’s impending statehood or George Hearst’s monopolistic dominance, the characters in Deadwood are not befuddled but quickly form alliances. Deadwood thematizes historical necessity as a condition of existence rather than an unforeseen, apocalyptic end of desire. HBO’s cancellation of Deadwood shocks viewers because that cancellation makes it clear that even commodities are finite; things do not continue to exist simply because of our desires. This is ironic because Deadwood dramatizes how that desire for stability - for things to continue on unchanged - is undone by the “stain” of history, symbolized by the stain on Al Swearengen’s floor that concludes the abruptly cancelled series. Deadwood is less an exercise in narrative possibility cut short than a case study of the ways in which necessity governs our ability to perceive the possible.