Words make order out of chaos, and so it follows that the tenuous bonds holding the town of Deadwood together are maintained, in part, by the work of newspaperman A.W. Merrick.
Merrick is a seemingly tireless optimist who looks every bit the buffoon. It’s no accident he’s brought to life by the great character actor Jeffrey Jones, who has certainly suffered his share of indignities both actual and fictional (who else could claim being the perpetual punchline of both Ferris Bueller and Mozart?). Both actor and character are perversely appropriate additions to Deadwood creator David Milch’s damaged-goods rogues gallery, though Jones’ transformation into the roly-poly, mustachioed Merrick (who, on cue, sheds sweat like some characters shed tears) is almost too much to absorb at first sight. The way in which Merrick moves tentatively forward in his introductory scene - pursuing Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) in the series pilot episode like the most timid and inept of paparazzi - blurs the line separating fiction from non-fiction. It treads cruel exploitation, but as the series progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Merrick is the secular soul of Deadwood.
In a community steeped in blasphemy and obscenity, Merrick remains an eternally wide-eyed innocent, even when forced to compromise his gifts. Such compromise rarely makes a dent in Merrick’s character - where the upper-crust widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker) can only speak in Victorian allusions, Merrick has enough of a self-made social standing (not to mention the correct member between his legs) to commit his pontifications to newsprint. The Deadwood Pioneer is the town’s living Bible—a document that both records history and shapes behavior, reflecting society back on itself. Merrick’s commitment to the printed word makes him a holy man of sorts, though one doubts he’d ever be put through as many trials by fire (whether at the hand of man or deity) as the Reverends Smith (Raymond McKinnon) and Cramed (Zach Grenier). At least the Reverends can proclaim, with some measure of certainty, that God is on their side. Wordsmiths, whatever their religious affiliations, are grounded in everyday grunt work, finding beauty and truth in the here and now while just as often acknowledging, even wallowing, in life’s unpleasantness.
Merrick is good at hiding his insecurities, cloaking them in bemused private jokes (as when he stifles a bourgeois snort while explaining the redundancy of writing “free gratis”), anxiously delving into the toys of his trade (see his giggly and protective behavior when unpacking a new flash camera) or suggesting, without a shred of irony, that Deadwood has need of a walking club (“The Ambulators!”). He’s largely blind to the literal and figurative shit surrounding him—a child let loose in the harsh world that paranoid parents are always warning their offspring about. Yet Merrick’s naïveté is the very quality that ensures his continued survival. Indeed, he never quite realizes how much danger he’s in, but this is why he can face down some of Deadwood’s more hot-tempered residents like Steve the drunk (Michael Harney) and, with the help of his simultaneously intimidating and intoxicating vocabulary, live to tell the tale.
He can be gotten to, of course, as we all can. The quintessential Merrick scene occurs at the beginning of the second-season episode “E.B. Was Left Out”, where Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) discovers—apropos of the not-so-subtle interconnections linking the press with big business—that the buildings housing the Gem Saloon and the Deadwood Pioneer are joined by a hidden doorway. Al comes upon Merrick, as the latter describes himself, in a state of “despair,” sitting amidst the remains of his printing press, which has been destroyed and shat on by hooligans. His grief is palpable, though near-completely self-centered (his expressions of concern for the new schoolteacher, who ran off upon seeing the remains of Merrick’s office, come off as the whinings of an adolescent who’s lost his new plaything). Swearengen immediately recognizes Merrick’s babblings as a motherlode of excusatory bullshit. He whacks the newsman across the face, then launches into one of the show’s finest soliloquies: “Pain, or damage, don’t end the world. Or despair. Or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man - and give some back.” Merrick’s face is ecstatic: the wordsmith has just had an inspirational, potentially life-long mantra laid out before him and he moves forward, from this point, with a renewed sense of purpose (never mind that Swearengen’s actions are not now, nor ever, entirely selfless).
As Deadwood has acquired more and more of civilization’s trappings, Merrick has come increasingly to the fore, finding a kindred spirit in Blazanov (Pavel Lychnikoff), the Russian telegraph operator who watches over his decoded missives like a Knight Templar guarding the Holy Grail. From an ideological standpoint, Blazanov is the person Merrick aspires to be. At the same time Merrick seems to recognize, more so than Blazanov, the necessity of compromise, even if one doubts he’d ever come out and explicitly say so. No, the Merrick more readily on display is the one who, in an upcoming third season episode of Deadwood, acts as host of a political debate and opens his remarks by quoting, before a hilariously disinterested audience, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “When an opinion has taken root in a democracy and established itself in the mind of the majority it thereafter persists by itself.”
Whatever the obstacles before him, whatever the compromises to which he must accede, Merrick nonetheless believes in the power of words and ideas to effect change in the populace-at-large, even if the results he desires are rarely seen right away. To this end, Merrick’s subsequent riposte to de Tocqueville stands as the wordsmith’s credo: “Tonight let us plant the seed of an opinion to take root and grow deep…”