HBO's 'Deadwood' series examined by Great Plains Quarterly

Released on 12/05/2007, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., Dec. 5, 2007 -- , December 5th, 2007 —

HBO's critically acclaimed "Deadwood" series gets scholarly attention from a number of angles in the fall issue of Great Plains Quarterly, a publication of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In the opinion of David Holmberg, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, "'Deadwood' is one of the most intellectually rich television programs in years, and evidently several colleagues from across the country agree. For the fall issue of Great Plains Quarterly, editor Charles A. Braithwaite asked Holmberg to introduce researchers who explore in a series of essays the importance to the West and to the Western genre of "Deadwood," which is set in the 1870s in the Black Hills mining town.

Each essay looks at the historical drama produced by David Milch from a different perspective, including language, morality, gender and economics. The essays are illustrated with both historical photographs from the Adams Museum of Deadwood, S.D., and black-and-white photographs by Doug Hyun from the series' three seasons.

Brad Benz of Fort Lewis College examines the language in "'Deadwood' and the English Language." He begins his article with a quotation by Milch, creator and executive producer of the series, "Language -- both obscene and complicated -- was one of the few resources of society that was available to these people... It's very well documented that the obscenity of the West was striking, but the obscenity of mining camps was unbelievable." Benz places the historical nature of the show's language in the Western genre and analyzes the unique particulars of a language both Victorian and vulgar.

In "No Law: 'Deadwood' and the State," Mark L. Berrettini of Portland State University discusses the tensions between the gold miners' camp and the state in relation to the pressures of law and order. Berrettini suggests that the camp dwellers rejected their integration into the state (the mining company, South Dakota, and the nation) to retain their individuality and to prevent their transformation into state subjects. To illustrate his thesis, Berrettini looks at mining magnate George Hearst played by Gerald McRaney, who is "bent on what he names 'consolidating purposes' with the camp, and his stated goal is to own all of the mine claims in the area and to make the camp into a company town."

Anne Helen Petersen of the University of Texas explores "Deadwood's" complex relationship with women and feminism in her article, "'Whores and Other Feminists': 'Deadwood's' Unlikely Feminisms." Petersen expresses her interest in the television series, "As a young feminist, I found my initial attraction to 'Deadwood' troubling -- how could I continue to watch, or even find pleasure in watching, a show that so blatantly debases the female?" By tracing the trajectories of several of the key female figures, Petersen observes a criticism of our modern gendered failures in the series' expression of sexual politics.

In the fourth essay, "'Gold Is Every Man's Opportunity': Castration Anxiety and the Economic Venture in 'Deadwood,'" Kyle Wiggins of Brandeis University and Holmberg explore the economics of western settlement. Through the image of castration, "Deadwood" presents a sustained argument regarding the problematic and traumatic realities of the annexation of frontier space. The authors repeat Milch's point about the town of Deadwood: "The only reason the town of Deadwood exists is gold," and state that the show calls attention to the economic and historical conditions that incubated the illusory myth of self-reliant individualism in the frontier space.

Great Plains Quarterly is published by the Center for Great Plains Studies at UNL. The journal may be purchased in the Great Plains Art Museum gift shop at 1155 Q St., or by calling the center at (402) 472-3082. Order forms are available online at