David Milch's Depraved Saints

Curator's Note

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.


Thank you for these observations, David.  It’s fascinating to see how single character types emerge in Milch’s work in a complex and apparently ceaseless process of iteration and re-iteration. It seems to me (and your post undoubtedly suggests this) that this kind of obsessive characterological propagation extends beyond the working and re-working of certain types of people to include the working and re-working of certain types of relationships—human relationships far too complicated to be portrayed and addressed in conclusive, singular manifestations.  In addition to the refracted interpersonal configuration that you mention (that of underlings and their vicious bosses), one particularly important and difficult type of relationship that Milch seems to need to return to time and again in his shows involves a preadolescent child (Sofia and William in Deadwood, Shaun Yost in John from Cincinnati, Eduardo in the final episodes of Luck) forced by circumstances to be cared for by feeble or over-burdened parental figures who are not the real parents.  Barring the occasional miracle (as in John from Cincinnati), this relationship is always attended by some kind of profound grief, by a moment (or moments) of unspeakable violence, abuse or loss, and by ongoing emotional strain.  I take it that this child is a sort of haunting pre-figuration of Milch’s morally damaged protagonist, and I wonder if the challenged and challenging family configuration into which this child is perpetually forced is meant to suggest the (always unrealized) possibility of a different future--or a different life.

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