I have been thinking about westerns on and off this year – I’m working my way through Deadwood and a trip to The Searchers and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance seems in order. I might want to review the Leone / Eastwood Man with No Name stuff too but that material is much more familiar to me than the Ford / Wayne material.

The Ford stuff, if I recall correctly, presents a myth of the West in which good men compromise themselves in order to bring the benefits of law-n-order to the lawless plains. Having done so, these men find themselves unable to fit into the new framework, which turns out to be more compromised than they are (suits, showers, and building codes apparently greater burdens on the conscience than genocide and rapine). The fear and discomfort of the characters as they shift nervously in front of the newcomers, the feminized easterners, the women, is played for laughs but reflects an American media tradition of misogyny that was more actively damaging to the audiences of the time than the genocidal acts of their ancestors.

The sixties stuff sort of dispenses with the idea of nobility save as the active principals in the tales exhibit an existential morality – thus the Good is true to himself, the Bad is a paid assassin and military man, and the Ugly is fundamentally uncertain of his alliegances. Eastwood’s later Westerns exhibit a hybrid attitude between the Ford-birthed myth of the cantankerous misfit law bringer who retires to his hand-hewn cabin on far Olympus and the existential hero who only accedes to nobility when acting in the service of his own agonizingly accepted desires..

Deadwood seems to be engaged in birthing a new myth, not one that I find tremendously appealing (although the show itself I find magnificent). The show, for the uninitiated, depicts the transition from extraterritorial mining camp to incorporated American town of Deadwood, South Dakota during the Black Hills gold rush of the 1880s. As the show progresses the initial cast of bedraggled, mudspattered reprobates and refugees from the crowded metropolises of the East are increasingly joined by later arrivals, all of whom exhibit greater comfort with the day-to-day comforts and treacheries of civilization than the initial set of characters. The central hook of the show reflects a Fordian premise in contrasting the ‘honest’ savagery of the pioneer with the back-room evils of civilization. But the apparent contrast can also be viewed as a purely nihilistic view of humanity, and the theme of going along to get along is clearly the show’s central moral perspective.

If we accept the thesis that Westerns have always functioned as a bellwether of America’s self-image and value set, the show predicts a horrible and highly corrupt future for our nation. It seems unlikely that the show runners are constructing a deliberate reflection of the consequences of American actions in Iraq. They are clearly developing a self-justifying pseudohistory in which it is necessary for all members of the body politic to lie to one another and to themselves about their own actions with no sense of personal responsibility. Within the show, the only consequence of taking such responsibility is horror, death, and murder.

I would say that such a perspective appears to me to be the necessary underpinning of contemporary American corporate life, most especially including life in entertainment media.

But I exaggerate. I believe I will watch the show once more with this interpretation in mind and an eye for at the very least existential-style nobility – when a character knows their own mind and acts upon it, are they punished, or lifted up?