HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06) offers an intriguing look at power. Two of the series’ main characters, both based on real people, and a character in an old movie reveal a lot about America in the late nineteenth century and America today.

Al Swearingen (British actor Ian McShane) runs Deadwood, a South Dakota gold mining camp, with an iron fist. Or tries to when competition for gambling and prostitution dollars arrives. As Shakespearean character as has existed on TV, the complex Al at first posed a mystery to me. His power and wealth seemed to have no purpose. Reared in Chicago under terrifying circumstances—his father beat him mercilessly—he employs a knife and fearlessness to his rise to the top but lacks other goals. Does he want to build a great city? Or flee with his fortune live in opulence elsewhere? The answers are no and no. Another answer takes center stage. Being a very big fish in a very small pond proves sufficient to protect Al from ever again being abused, although he abuses everyone else.

George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), the mining titan and father of newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, also comes from a difficult childhood. He sees gold as conferring power and thus respect. Hearst has a big home in San Francisco but flees at every opportunity to search for more gold in primitive areas—anywhere “the color” is available. Whereas Al Swearingen looks and acts like a cutthroat but has a sympathetic heart, Hearst displaces a courteous demeanor that hides a terrible viciousness. He freely maims and kills to secure more gold and thus more power and thus more respect.

Another fictional character also comes to mind. In the film adaptation (1965) of James Clavell’s King Rat, George Segal plays lowly Corporal King, surviving in a Japanese POW camp near Singapore. King runs the camp’s black market and rises to the top of the prisoner hierarchy. He has. Everyone else lacks and must curry favor. But when the camp is liberated, King immediately reverts to his lowly status. Back in the U.S., he likely will enjoy all the amenities post-war life offers most Americans. But unless he can exploit talents demonstrated under difficult wartime conditions, he will never again experience power.

That power can be used for bad purposes represents anything but a new concept. The Bible limits the power of an Israelite king. “Thus he will not act haughtily to his fellows… (Deuteronomy 17:20).” But what have we learned?

Today, too many “public servants” sees their task not as doing what’s best for the electorate but simply getting elected and re-elected as if holding power is sufficient to secure the nation’s wellbeing. I’m reminded of the remark made by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) following Barack Obama’s election in 2008. McConnell declared his first order of business when Congress reconvened. It didn’t concern the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It had nothing to do with bringing the nation out of economic turmoil. No, Mitch McConnell stated that his first order of business was to see that Barack Obama was defeated in 2012.

I’m not sure that Al Swearingen wouldn’t have done better.

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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.


  1. Lulu on August 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    Fascinating, thanks. I remember an old interview with David Milch, the writer of Deadwood, where he suggests that Al Swearengen starts out as the God of the Old Testament (vengeful, angry, egotistical, jealous) but gradually becomes the God of the New Testament (Christlike, community-charity oriented, selfless). Swearengen never had the insight to understand this, he just grew as he found his place as the godfather of a community, which was Milch’s focus – you don’t have to be religious or even aware of spiritual teachings, to do God’s work. Deadwood was based upon spiritual precepts, as all Milch’s projects are. Have you seen the Deadwood Season 3 promo based on The Beatitudes? Here is the youtube link:


    • David on August 14, 2012 at 4:48 am

      Interesting take on the show. I’m a bit leery about God’s different roles in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospels—this is one God after all—but we definitely see Al’s softer side, and that part of his character development makes him fascinating. And thanks for the link.

  2. Carolyn Perlstein on August 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    Power, they say, is the biggest aphrodisiac.

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