David Milch’s “connecting interior doors”: Private Space and Commonplace, Beginnings and Ends

Curator's Note

Luck’s pilot introduces several of its major characters by immediately repositioning them, by shifting them around—physically—as if to suggest that just as this new television show takes up its initiatory residence on screen in the living rooms of its viewers (comfortably or not), these characters must find themselves in unfamiliar homes as well.  Luck can begin, just as Deadwood could, only as soon as a principal actor in the drama to come is literally removed from a jail (Bernstein pinned on one side of the Law, Bullock pinned on the other), driven optimistically west onto an American highway/wagonway by a trusted partner, and decisively installed in the particular setting-place that will be, and can only be, his space of habitation for the duration of the show.

We do not see where the lucky “degenerates” lived before Luck began, but certainly the prospect of tentative co-habitation (clip part 1) marks a high-point in four lives that might otherwise have been lost in perilous solitude—so I find it grimly ironic that the prospect of their more fully realized co-habitation (clip part 2) is both offered and foreclosed by Luck’s unexpected finale.

Milchian spaces do more than merely decorate scenes of action; they do more, even, than offer exteriorized visions of the psychic states of the characters who occupy them.  His carefully configured settings overdetermine the lives of his characters to such an extent that they become the shows’ primary loci of agency.  Even characters’ most intimate quirks, personal idiosyncrasies and rituals seem to belong more to rooms and buildings than to the people in them, as Milch’s camera (even when Michael Mann directs it) always finds people behaving in certain ways in certain places.

Milch is particularly interested in settings—hotels, theaters, saloons, casinos—that can become staging grounds where private desires and interests uneasily coincide to produce communal acts, often in ways that pointedly allegorize the conditions of producing a television show—a creative form that requires a remarkable degree of sustained collaboration. How can commonplaces emerge, Milch seems always to ask, out of a world so rigidly subdivided into private spaces? And when they do, how can one hope to sustain them?



Sean O'Sullivan's picture

Space and time

I really like your juxtaposition of the starts of Deadwood and Luck—illustrating how law, custom, and transportation serve as launches in both cases. (Language seems a different animal.)  This inevitably recalls Milch’s references to the ancestor-series to Deadwood, namely the aborted narrative about law in Nero’s Rome.  Given the Americanness that you aptly point out here, one wonders how this would have translated, or not, to SPQR.

There are many spaces in serial television whose accumulation of event and meaning, or simply whose distinctiveness of design, makes them dense resources of character and story; I am especially fond of the Fisher and Diaz funeral home, and the offices of Jennifer Melfi and Roger Sterling.  But perhaps my favorite TV space is not an interior but an exterior.  It is the thoroughfare of Deadwood, a staging ground where (to paraphrase you) visible communal acts coincide uneasily with private desires and interests.  And with accidents of all kinds.  Hence the genius of the title of Milch’s most recent series.  The luck of public meeting and avoidance serves as the crucial counterpart to the illusion of private control of the corporeal self.  I wonder if there is any truly private space in Deadwood.  Can its inhabitants ever separate themselves from the thoroughfare?


illusion of private control

Thank you for these remarks, Sean.  Unless I forget something, I think you are right to suggest that Deadwood’s thoroughfare amounts to an all encompassing space of community and publicity—yet somehow this doesn’t prevent many of Deadwood’s inhabitants from harboring an expectation of privacy—or, better, a sense of lost privacy—as if isolated personal space is always theoretically possible if not actually possible as the counterpart to constant visibility and interaction. A great example of this is provided by Alma Garret, who, in a heroically decorous but comically impracticable bid to delimit and control a personal space, uses her hotel room’s double interior doors—which can each or both be open, closed, partially open, partially closed, or some combination thereof—to signify, if not actually achieve, a complex range of different modes of privacy. 

So I see my question needs to be reformulated—but I do think Luck takes up this set of concerns somewhat differently than Deadwood does, imagining “truly private space” as a kind limit concept against which much of the show’s actual space is defined.  The beginning of Luck seems to suggest that real—if unimaginable—personal space existed before the beginning of Luck and could exist beyond the places we see.  This is apparent with the four degenerates, as their prior (or lost) isolation is inferred by their lucky joining together.  But even more striking is Bernstein’s incredible assertion that while, now, he has to urinate in front of his parole officer, before, while he was in jail, other people made “adjustments” so that he could shower alone.  Are we supposed to take him literally, here, and imagine that the shower in a federal prison could be a prelapsarian space of privacy and complete control over the corporeal self (to borrow your phrase)? I exaggerate, of course, but I think this is an intriguing and perplexing irony that speaks to a lot of my thoughts about Milch’s work.  





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