“Deadwood”, a series that teaches us the ethics of “care”

The ethics of “care” was born 40 years ago in the United States, under the pen of a psychologist, Carol Gilligan. This ethic of attention to others, of “taking care”, has since been the subject of reflection in all fields of the human and social sciences: economics, philosophy, political science and even management science. Its resonance with our time of pandemic and conflict in Europe is unfortunately all too obvious: centered on an observation, that of our vulnerability and, therefore, of our interdependencies, care manifests all its relevance. But to talk about it, it may be interesting to take a detour to… a relatively unknown TV series from the 2000s.

The philosopher Sandra Laugier has many times emphasized how essential fictions are in our understanding of this form of ethics, insofar as “they educate us in the semantics of care, offering new public expressions of it. And to add that “literature (like […] cinema and TV series) refines our perception by making moral questions appear in particular situations”.

If we share this conviction, Deadwood then appears as an exciting series to decipher with this prism. Jane Campion, filmmaker who was the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993 (for The piano lesson), also director of a very beautiful series (Top of the Laketwo seasons), cites among the “television” works that marked her Deadwood, a creation of David Milch. Jane Campion most recently received an Oscar for her latest film, The Power of the Dog, which depicts “alternative” forms of masculinity in a world where virilism reigns supreme, historically first (the far west), but also in the film industry (women who attack this genre are not legion, men who approach it differently from the side of gender roles either). From one western to another, this genre which seemed well worn and so little “feminine” therefore brings us a new wind, and Deadwood participated in this dynamic.

Kind of soap opera at the time of the western, Deadwood depicts the turbulent life of a pioneer camp whose prosperity is based on the “gold rush”. With three seasons (and an epilogue in cinematic form), Deadwood is a deliciously talkative series (great dialogues) where duels and fights are rather rare, brilliantly written and interpreted. It projects us into the South Dakota of the 1870s.

But how can it offer a reading grid, a look at the current world? Because it provides a magnificent repertoire of care, in a world that is nevertheless masculine, brutal, little (or not) regulated, in which women seem at first reading to play the supporting roles – mainly those of prostitutes without much power to act, of a widow suffering from an addiction and an alcoholic cowgirl and a bit of a tramp. In this world in the making, an epidemic of plague (hey, hey…) is raging, and without the dedication of the only doctor present on the camp, of a pastor and of the future Calamity Jane, the most vulnerable would be abandoned to their fate. (some, in fact, are). Mutual aid and solidarity, therefore, still have their place. However, the corpses of those who are ruthlessly murdered are abandoned… to the pigs of the Chinese community, a microsociety despised and shamelessly exploited. The world according to Deadwood is not idyllic, far from it.

Bursts of humanity

The most interesting concerns characters that we obviously expected less in this register of attention to others, in a form of commitment carried by a sense of responsibility that we have vis-à-vis of his “community”. Such is the case with Razanov, the dedicated employee, a Russian emigrant, of the local telegraph company, who does not hesitate to betray professional secrecy, the very foundation of his profession, to warn the community of a major risk weighing on his safety and even his survival.

This is especially the case of Al Swearengen, the central character of the series, perhaps as great as Tony Soprano could be in The Sopranos : owner of a brothel, inveterate drinker, murderer at times, greedy and cynical, he reveals a more complex personality over the seasons. Thus, when he takes care of his disabled employee, whom he likes to scold in public, when the doctor offers to make him a splint and he lets it go; or when he leaves, a little in spite of himself, one of his prostitutes to train in accounting and have a love affair with a tradesman in the camp; so, finally, when he takes the head of the community to appoint a straight or even inflexible sheriff, Seth Bullock.

These two characters, whom everything seems to oppose, will nevertheless provide the framework of a sacred union in the service of the community.

The whole series is crossed by these often clumsy, badly assumed and modest impulses, these little attentions received or lavished, which testify to a humanity which does not completely resign itself to the brutality of the world.

From acts of resistance, like that of Bazanov and those of the only journalist and editor of the camp (defender of a certain freedom of the press in a world where transparency is rarely in order), to the more expected devotion of the doctor, multiple are the caring actions that punctuate a daily life that is not spared by violence, racism, alcohol, prostitution and gambling. Like a masterful lesson in life, and even survival, when the entire community risks being destroyed by the iron will of a predatory gold entrepreneur, Georges Hearst.

A matter of the body

More than anything, the series shows itself to be powerfully fair when it shows the bodies in pain, these degraded bodies which must be taken care of despite everything: from the plague epidemic to the disease from which Al will suffer, passing through the damaged bodies and dirty which the doctor and those who assist him deal with, Deadwood reminds us how much care work is a matter of the body.

The series can also surprise, even disturb, by its raw relationship to the bodies and the sexuality of the characters. In the series, the doctor thus auscultates the prostitutes, in a frontal way, as it would happen “in real life” – they are together, without intimacy, and treated “in a chain” even though the doctor overflows with humanity ( but he has to come to terms with a harsh reality).

Wounded or even dying bodies, bloody or swollen, are shown in all their rawness. But the ethics of care questions our relationship to the body of the people we take care of, the embarrassment that can arise when it comes not to infants but to dependent or even senile old people. An often overlooked part of the work of care is thus highlighted in the series, contrary to the almost sanitized vision that predominates in this kind of representations.

And then there is this sequence, when one of the secondary characters, a man of color constantly vilified by a white man, gives up on abandoning him when he has received a violent hoof kick. Putting off leaving the camp (which he was about to do) until later, he decides to fetch the doctor and stay to take care of the horses and… this man who has never stopped protesting. ostensibly her racist hatred towards him. And this, even though his co-religionist committed suicide shortly before because of the contempt of this same white man – but above all because of the weight of a whole life as a man flouted and judged by the yardstick of his color of skin. The world according to Deadwood is also that. Because horses, too, need care, just like those who take care of them.

That Deadwood refers to each of us

Through it all, Deadwood highlights the perspective of care, which “underlines the interdependence and vulnerability of all”, when “no one can claim self-sufficiency” (Sandra Laugier, ibid., 2021). A series to see and see again, therefore, because it features fictional characters who look like us: imperfect, always under construction (and reconstruction), clumsy, sometimes fair and sometimes unfair, sometimes at the rendezvous of care and sometimes unfortunately careless, incurious about the other. “The focus in these works on the issues of care […] thus confronts us with our own incapacities and inattentions” (Ibid.).

And this interdependence, to finish, brings us back to the Ukrainian news, when a nation unites against the invader. Because Deadwood is also this series which, ultimately, narrates over three seasons the emergence of a community of women and men with sometimes contradictory trajectories and ethics, that solely economic issues seemed to bring together in a given territory. A community which, under the external threat embodied by Georges Hearst and his henchmen, is coming together before our eyes.

We wish to thank the author of this write-up for this incredible material

“Deadwood”, a series that teaches us the ethics of “care”