The First Church of David Milch

I’ve been trying to find a way to write about the Deadwood movie since I saw it, and Deadwood in general, and David Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which he talks about in this interview in the context of writing his memoir: 

Singer: Would you pick up a new novel and read it now?

Milch: It’s not likely.

Singer: Is that because the hours in the day you’re able to focus are diminished?

Milch: To some extent. But more so I feel the constriction of possibility, what I’m able to undertake responsibly. I have only a certain amount of energy.

Singer: Do you feel like you’re in a race?

Milch: Yes.

Singer: You’re racing to finish this memoir?

Milch: More so a larger enterprise, of which this is just a part.

Singer: Can you be more specific?

Milch: I’m trying to make work, the undertaking in general, coherent. To restore a dignity to the way that I proceed, and it’s a demanding process. You’re tempted to . . . toss it in. Just to quit.

Singer: Before this, were you someone who had preoccupying fears?

Milch: No.

Singer: And now what is it you’re afraid of, if you could identify it?

Milch: I intuit the presence of a coherence in my life which I haven’t given expression to in an honorable fashion.

Singer: So this is an opportunity. Is that what you’re saying?

Milch: Yes.

Singer: The rush to get to work, that inner necessity to make something. You still have that? Do you wake up every day with that?

Milch: Yes.

Good God. And if there’s a parallel in Deadwood, which has always cast an unflinching gaze on both human suffering (the filth and the language) and human grace (the filth and the language as well), other than the above video, it’s this:

Sol Star: I’m guessing you’ve done things today you wish you could amend.
Seth Bullock: What kind of man have I become, Sol?
Sol Star: I don’t know. The day ain’t fucking over.

And:

Al Swearengen: Every fuckin’ beatin’ I’m grateful for. Every fuckin’ one of them. Get all the trust beat outta you. And you know what the fuckin’ world is.

There’s a moment in the movie (which if you’ve been putting off watching it because you loved the show and don’t want it “ruined” get thee to a TV, not only will it not ruin it, it will redeem the parts you didn’t like) that absolutely took me to church, baptized me in the waters and wrote my name in the holy book.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

George Hearst, a godforsaken cocksucker who has murdered one of our most beloved figures in Charlie Utter for a greedy grab for land, is set upon by a mob that knows what he’s done. And as they’re kicking and beating him, Sheriff Bullock, the supposed star of the show about whom I have never given even a single fuck, steps back and lets them.

Bullock, by the way, has been our Saintly Upright Guardian of the Righteous and generally kind of a prick the whole show. Not so much a stickler for the law but the kind of stickler for the right that wouldn’t allow mob justice. It’s a measure of how bad Hearst is, that Bullock steps back.

And then he looks up, and sees the wife he chose out of obligation over the woman he loved. He sees the life he’s built, the deliberate grinding work he’s done to raise something out of the muck and the mire, embodied in this woman he stayed with because he made a promise. Anna Gunn — so brilliant and maligned in Breaking Bad, transcendent here — plays his wife, whose very name is hallowed: Martha, the one who worked to serve Jesus of Nazareth while Mary sat at his feet and listened to him. 

Martha has always gotten the short end of the stick, never more so than from Jesus himself, who was all, “How dare you clean your house and cook me food when you could be living the life of the mind over here with your sister and me?” Martha was doing what we are taught to do for the stranger: Welcome him, feed him, and make him a home. As she did for Bullock, who was similarly, once upon a time, ungrateful.

So Martha looks at Bullock, and he fires his gun, silencing the mob. They back away, and he drags Hearst to jail while Hearst taunts him about how he’ll be out in hours, free to murder and steal with the impunity money and political power provide.

But that doesn’t matter, is the thing. Oh, it matters in the context of justice, but not to Bullock, in that moment. In that moment, he had a job to do, and the choice to do it or not do it.

That’s the thing, you see, with Milch.

That’s the thing he’s been trying to tell us with this dirty, murderous, erudite story of his.

The hotheaded whore Trixie, who is heavily pregnant and meant to be hiding, feels Hearst’s carriage passing by. She’s been seething for a decade, made helpless by Al’s actions and her own complicity in them, smothered in the conviction that there had been no other way but to murder her innocent lookalike so that she could live free. Hearst is only here for a moment. She should stay quiet, just stay quiet for one more second and Hearst would be gone and she and her baby and Sol and the camp would all be safe.

Strip it away. Trixie throws open the door and howls at Hearst with fury and thunder. The hell with safety. The hell with happiness. The hell with herself and her baby and Sol and the camp. Hearst will not pass her unassailed, with others ignorant of what he is. We say, speak truth to power, but Trixie screams it: You’re a killer, and the dead follow you close behind.

It can’t all be killing, though, and here comes Jane, since the day’s not fucking over. Jane, who’s been drunk for years, since Bill died, taking with him her purpose and hope and the only kindnesses she’d ever known. She’s been trying to stay away from Joanie. She’s spent years running, into the bottle and across the frontier, but all the while, Joanie was with her.

She names her demons, one by one, over the course of the film, all the reasons Joanie wouldn’t want her or couldn’t have her. Until the end, until after yet another loss (Charlie loved her as much as Bill did, maybe more) she finally steps forward. Into Joanie’s arms.

She’s nothing but bare bones, and this is what’s left: Loving, not in spite of what she’s lost or wasted but somehow, because of it. No more excuses. No more running. Just this truth, and both of them broken.

This is all you have to do, the work of your entire life, whether you’re sitting in a bank or a brothel or mining for gold: Strip out all the justifications and all the bullshit you use to get yourself out of things all day long.

Strip out your I did the best I could. Strip out your everybody was doing it, or not doing it. Strip out I was too tired. Strip out I was too old. Strip out nobody told me to, or told me not to. Strip out somebody else would have done it. Strip out nobody else would have done it. Strip out it wasn’t my job, it wasn’t my problem, it wouldn’t have mattered, no one would have known.

Disembowel yourself of everything that is not what is right, and right in front of you.

Now look at what’s left. That’s what God put you on this earth to do.

Now do it.

That’s God.

A.

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