Do all truly compelling story-tellers rehearse the same preoccupations – themes, obsessions – in every story they tell? Perhaps not all. But think of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Conrad, Faulkner, the contemporary American novelist Robert Stone, Hitchcock, Orson Welles.
David Milch is such a figure, perhaps the first in the history of television to deserve comparison with the great names I’ve mentioned. Certain signature features mark his work from his first script for television, an award-winning episode of Hill Street Blues in 1982, to the HBO series Luck, just cancelled abruptly after a single tantalizing season.
There is no room for nuance in this short provocation so I’m ignoring other distinctive elements of Milch’s world. At the heart of every Milch story is a morally damaged protagonist who feels himself or herself to be beyond forgiveness. Milch discusses the evolution of this figure in my 2006 interview with him. He appears as the rogue cop Sal Benedetto in Hill Street Blues, is resurrected as detective Norman Buntz later in the same series, and as Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue. No accident that Dennis Franz played all these roles, deepening and complicating the character with each iteration. Another version of this essential Milch character was brilliantly acted by Ed O’Neill in Milch’s short-lived cop series Big Apple (2001).
Milch’s need or drive to imagine such a character is so deep that this central figure, in almost all his stories, is doubled, tripled, and replicated even further in subsidiary characters. This impulse is unrestrained in the cable series, and is maybe out of control in John from Cincinnati where nearly everyone seems to carry a burden of past transgressions, in a kind of hierarchy of addiction, failure and moral depravity. In Deadwood Swearengen is doubled by his even more vicious rival saloon keeper Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), whose crew of underlings in many respects replicates the ethically-challenged cutthroats who work for Swearengen; and then Swearengen is doubled again by the conflicted, grieving sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). Luck, too, teems with such characters, where Dustin Hoffman was developing an especially powerful, complex variation of him as the aging ex-con Ace Bernstein.
In Milch’s archetypal scene an egregious sinner, a murderer, an abject drunkard, a suicidal prostitute who thinks herself beyond redemption -- this person commits an urgent act of sympathy and compassion. In their most compelling form – as in these clips from Deadwood – such passages test our own resources of irony and sympathy. The Swearengen who kills in mercy is not so different from the Swearengen who kills for business and could not even exist without that bleak and murderous history. Still, it’s a moment of grace by and for the forgotten and the unredeemed.