Film & Television · Lifestyle

Molly Fisk: Deadwood

For the first time since I was in high school, I have fallen in love with a television show. We can blame this on my friend Marilyn. She knows I’m writing a book of poems about a pioneer family, and she kept telling me that Deadwood, an old show from HBO, would be great background for the book. It’s about a mining town in 1877 South Dakota and is full of amazingly bad language. Every third word is something I wouldn’t say in front of my niece. It’s a two-part word, the first half a synonym for rooster, and the second a synonym for lollipop. You get the idea.

At first I was kind of appalled. Having been raised on Laura Ingalls Wilder, and then The Magnificent Seven, I was used to a certain tone. Even Louis L’Amour, that writer of thinly disguised romance novels for men about the West, never put more than “tarnation!” into his villains’ mouths, and usually they just scowled and spat on the floor.

In Deadwood, between exclamations of “rooster-lollipop,” someone is always getting shot or knifed or beaten to death and then fed to the Chinaman’s pigs. I don’t know if I’m more disturbed by the routine and casual slaughter or by the news that pigs eat human flesh, which is certainly going to change my approach to the County Fair. Compared to this, the language seems almost benign. And that’s part of the point.

Deadwood’s creator, David Milch, argues pretty convincingly that in this violent, lawless setting, saying “rooster-lollipop” is a safety valve, a way to express anger without having to use your Derringer. I’m not sure I believe this, but I do know that when I’m furious, stomping around the house and swearing helps me feel better. I don’t usually do it in front of the person I’m mad at, but maybe that’s where 140 years of progress has brought us.

There’s something very satisfying about all those harsh one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words ending in consonants. They’re tailor-made to spit out. They sound just like an axe hitting a tree. Try it with “truck” and “blunt.” Can’t you hear the blade sink in?

I’m not sure how Deadwood will end up influencing my pioneer poems — it’s great to see the wagons and clothes and how dusty everything is. But my people are farming and raising goats rather than mining, running whorehouses, and downing shots of whiskey every ten minutes. There just isn’t much reason to call anyone “rooster-lollipop.”

But I’ll see if somehow I can work it in.

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  • Jan Hersh September 10, 2017 at 1:10 am

    Love this piece!
    My dad was born in Deadwood but he taught us that the people who swear do so because they don’t know any better words. I made a point of improving my vocabulary as a child. When visiting with my maternal grandparents in Oklahoma I read their “Readers Digest” magazines during our imposed nap time and particularly focused on the vocabulary test. I learned to swear in college.

  • Susanna Gaertner September 9, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    I’m with Dr. Pat in looking forward to your weekly infusion of humor and good sense into a world scene of greater “swearing” and vengeance and uneducated manners than those long-ago South Dakotans could have dreamed of.
    Many and continued thanks…

  • Dr Pat September 9, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Dear Molly,
    During the endless updates about climate change hurricanes, storm surges, earthquakes, forest fires and general devastation over the last two weeks, I have looked forward to my Saturday dose of Molly’s humor, wit and good sense.
    I care deeply about the losses suffered by tens of thousands but as the pre-take off instructions for flights remind us, “Put your mask on first before helping others”. Your weekly gift is my oxygen mask.
    Dr. Pat

  • Stephen Granzyk September 9, 2017 at 7:49 am

    I watched all three seasons when Deadwood was first aired, and there is a lot to it–although the sometimes creative cursing, sex, violence, and romance certainly grab one’s attention. The relationships grow and shift over the seasons–eventually you begin to see depth and redemptive qualities in the Al Swearingen character, though if you are in season 1 that might e heard to believe. And the dialogue is always amazing, not just because of the swearing–at times it’s absolutely Shakespearean in complexity and feeling. There is an unbelievably sensitive scene between Doc and the cripple who works for Swearingen that will stay with you forever.

    • Molly Fisk September 9, 2017 at 8:12 am

      I remember that scene! The violence got to me a couple of times and I had to stop watching for a while, but you are so right about the complexity and feeling of the language, and how people changed during the course of the story. I never thought I’d love Al Swearingen, never. But… 😉