Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Deadwood, and exploiting narrative ambiguity to avoid difficult ethical questions

I've taken to the HBO series Deadwood like a dog to an asshole. It's so, so good: a peer, if not a competitor, to the Wire. Set in a western frontier town, the show primarily follows a brothel owner Al Swearangen (Ian McShane) and an ex-marshal named Seth Bullock (Timothy Oliphant). They are supported by a cast of pioneers, thugs, prospectors, whores (pardon the term--I wish to avoid anachronism), the town Doctor, a pressman, Chinese laborers, charletons, Eastern dandies, European immigrants, and dirt. And blood. A lot of it.

McShane is a masterful performer, and his brothel owner is fascinating. He murders, beats, bribes, and cusses his way through life, and the development of his character is perhaps the closest parallel between The Wire and Deadwood. As with the hardened Baltimore criminals in the former, we come to understand and empathize with McShane's character without ever becoming comfortable with his actions. We do not get to either condemn or acquit him: he forces us into the uncomfortable territory between morals and realities. The point is not to judge, but to understand, and McShane succeed admirably in forcing us to do this.

Oliphant's character is less successful--I think. He plays a handsome, upstanding, morally upright, courageous knight-in-shining-armor-type character. He has his moments of brutality--in the first episode, we see him hang a man (in the capacity of marshal). When the man's neck does not break and he begins to slowly choke to death inside his noose, Oliphant grasps him by the feet and pulls until his neck snaps. Further--and in the vein of classical heroes--Oliphant has his one great character flaw, in the form of a short temper. Still, the show never puts us in ambiguous moral territory with Oliphant. The men he beats and kills invariably both deserve and require the treatment they receive, and so Oliphant's character is never ethically problematic to the viewer. It's simple: Oliphant is the good guy, period.

This wouldn't bother me so much if his heroism didn't smack of revisionism. I mean, a character study in someone who defines themself by their courageous goodness (as opposed to McShane's gangster realpolitik, or the Doc's Mother-Teresa-ing) can be  plausible and interesting. What bugs me, rather, is Oliphant's inexplicable racial enlightenment. Four examples come to mind: first, Oliphant's partner is jewish; second, he treats a black prospector as an equal, going so far as to openly regret being rude to him; third, he takes action against the corrupt sheriff after the latter murders a Chinese laboror with whom Oliphant has no connection; fourth, he delays his chase after the man who murdered a friend in order to properly bury an Indian he has just killed in self-defense. In no instance does Oliphant's character display racial predjudice of any kind, and, given the context, this is bizarre. The show offers no explanation for why this is the case.

I hope it's obvious that I'm not objecting to moral lesson of Oliphant's racial enlightenment. Rather, I just have a hard time swallowing his progressive politics as plausible within the show. I worry that his attitude on race is the show's way of letting the audience off the hook: we're allowed to simply identify with Oliphant, and applaud his progressive views, and condemn the evil racists whom he condemns. In other word, I worry that this aspect of the show is post-civil rights propaganda masquerading as historicaly accuracy. Rather than depicting reality and forcing viewers to think critically, we have a clear good guy and clear bad guys, and all we have  to do is agree with the obvious moral message of (this aspect of) the show: Racism Is Bad. Which, if feel-good propaganda is your thing, is fine. But if, like me, you appreciate shows like Deadwood for their honest portrayal of human motivation and their penchant for forcing viewers to confront the ugly parts of ourselves, then you must be disappointed by the show choosing the easy way out on issues race.

To put the problem another way: Oliphant's character functions as an apologist for the racial caste system of nineteenth century America. It works like this: the show purports to portray the frontier West as it actually existed, and it acknowledges and portrays generally accurate evils like white loyalty and Chinese scapegoating. But then Oliphant the protagonist, with whom the audience identifies and who implicitly represents the Joe Public of 1870s frontier West, comes in and affirms our enlightened, post-1960s beliefs about equality and dignity. In effect, the show is saying, "Yeah, racism existed, but only assholes did it. The good guys were enlightened, like us."

Another, clearer example of this same tactic occurs in the film The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson. This film portrayed the American revolutionary war, and the filmmakers were presented with the following problem: how can one reconcile 1) the mythical heroism and goodness of the American revolutionaries (represented by Gibson) with 2) their penchant for black slavery? In effect, the filmmakers had to find a way to make the dirty laundry of American history appear clean, so that viewers could enjoy the film without being troubled by the moral failings of the Founding Fathers. One strategy would have been to simply ignore the question and exclude all mention of slavery from the film, but such an omission would have been noticed by a great number of viewers. What the filmmakers did instead was to first acknowledge and then sneakily avoid the problem. At the beginning of the film we see black laborors in the plantation owned by Gibson's character. We presume them to be slaves. Shortly therafter, though, we see one of the black laborors explain to an evil British officer that Gibson's laborors are not slaves but in fact free men who choose to work there. In this way, Gibson's character--who represents the founding American revolutionaries--is shown to reject slavery and racism. The same strategy occurs elsewhere in the film: a white revolutionary is shown at the beginning of the film berating a black fellow revolutionary. "What are you gonna do with rights?!" he crows. By the film's conclusion, however, he comes to embrace this same black soldier as his comrade. "I'm honored to fight beside you...Honored," he proclaims. So, again: "Yeah, racism and slavery existed, but only assholes did it. We need not worry about it too much."

What the filmmakers are doing in The Patriot is exploiting the fact that their characters operate on two levels: as individual characters within a drama, and as representatives of larger, historically-real groups. Gibson implicitly represents plantation owners who backed the revolution, so when his character explicitly rejects slavery and racism, we the audience see that (white) American revolutionaries *in general* rejected racism and slavery...and so we can admire and identify with them without any moral qualms. This is absurd, of course, and its absurdity becomes obvious when I spell it out explicitly: of course white 18th century Americans were racist slavers! But the beauty (as it were) of the medium of film, and of narrative in general, is that none of this does have to get spelled out. Because Gibson's representation of American plantation owners/revolutionaries is only *implicit,* the audience misses the absurdity of what they're being told. This is the art of implication, and it is an old and dangerous political tactic: say what you mean without saying it, so that people can agree with you, but if they try to disagree they'll have nothing concrete to disagree with. Exploiting ambiguity and implication is what's going on here. (Please refer to Orwell's Politics and the English Language for further explanation.)

So, to return to Deadwood, I worry that the filmmakers  are pursuing the same tactic with Oliphant's character. I worry that his inexplicable racial enlightenment functions as an apology and excuse for the racism of the time. I worry that he's our moral Virgil, taking us viewers for a tour through the horrors of his age but ultimately leading us by the hand toward the Truth: that Racism Is Bad.  And if this is the case, then I suspect (for reasons I'm not competent to exposit here) that the show's moral lesson that Racism Is Bad has less to do with whether or not racism is in fact bad, and more to do with social authority. I worry that Oliphant is there to police the truth. I worry that by easily accepting that Racism Is Bad, we cede a piece of our own moral intelligence to social authority, and we lose the opportunity to consider and understand whether and why racism is or is not bad (and, for that matter, what the term 'racism' refers to). A shorter way of saying this: there's little difference between the racist who uncritically obeys the mores of his age and the and the anti-racist who uncritically obeys the mores of his.

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