Two Shockingly Accurate Portrayals of Christian Characters in HBO’s Deadwood

Christian Characters and Hollywood

First, I apologize if the title of the article is clickbait-y, but I stand by it, because I was shocked and moved. Hollywood and Christianity have had a tenuous relationship at best. From the Passion of the Christ to The Last Temptation of Christ to God’s Not Dead to Book of Eli, films and Christianity have a sordid history of intrigue, betrayal, jealousy, and backstabbing (maybe even eye-gouging).

This means you tend to get one of two portrayals of Christian characters:

  • The Christian Propaganda Film Character(s). These types talk about how awesome it is to be Christian, how ignorant and insensitive atheists are, and how a character’s instantaneous conversion changes her life and solves every problem she’s ever had. These films are easily recognizable because at some point Kirk Cameron’s name is likely to be associated with them.
  • The Hypocritical Christian Supporting Character. This character’s black-and-white, moralistic thinking forces him to eat his own words when his fire and brimstone, self-righteous message comes crashing down around him—usually because he has an affair with another character who isn’t his wife.

If we’re being honest, it’s usually the second type of character that feels more familiar, or sad to say, more true to life. Why? The reason is a scientific one (point one for the rational atheist!): we observe the hypocritical scenario playing itself out far more frequently in the world around us. A large number of people who call themselves Christians are merely moralists, not Christ-followers. For one thing, every human being is a hypocrite, but it’s especially noticeable when said hypocrite is loud-mouthed, uncaring, and judgmental.

Because of all this, when a truly well-rounded Christian character appears in an HBO drama, it’s a little surprising. But, the Season 1 finale of Deadwood has not one, but two such characters: Doc Cochran and Reverend H.W. Smith.

[SPOILER ALERT] Before you keep reading, be warned that there are spoilers!

The Dedicated, Doubting Believer

Reverend H.W. Smith is a kind, compassionate, and helpful person. He’s meek, friendly, and well-mannered. He’s also peculiar—though not in a creepy way—and in the town of Deadwood, he stands out like a sore thumb. Where others swear, carouse, and fornicate, he offers assistance, prayer, and a helping hand. And, shockingly, he’s never judgmental, which is why when he gets a brain tumor, I was certain the writers would have him grow to resent God, become spiteful, and eventually turn away from Christ.

As the tumor’s impact on his life worsens, the reverend grows increasingly frightened. He wonders if God has abandoned him. He seeks solace inside the Gem saloon, not in the company of prostitutes or to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but rather to listen to the piano, because it helps his mind focus and reminds him that there’s beauty in the world. As he loses his eyesight and becomes increasingly confused, he seeks the company of friends.

And, though he wonders aloud why God would allow him to experience this pain, he continues to preach in the street. He continues to praise his Lord and Savior. And he continues to try to help others while he still can. He never turns his back on his hope. He keeps the faith all the way to the end. Despite the pain, despite the mental fog, and despite the temptations that assail him all around, he continues to love his Savior.

It’s beautiful, really, and poignant. I often hear Christians talk about death in light terms. They’ll say things like, “It was so easy near the end. Grandfather just sort of passed on.” But, in my own life, my mother’s death was horrific and painful (she also had a brain tumor). Despite that, she remained a Christ-follower until the end when she went to meet her Savior.

See, I had seen Reverend H.W. Smith before in my mom. Not the spiteful, resentful, loathsome Christian who has a crisis of faith in light of hardship, but rather the patient, helpful, and intentional Christ-follower who knows no other hope than Jesus Christ. Of course Christians have doubts and of course some have crises of faith, but we rarely see the ones who display grace in the midst of affliction. It was hopeful to see one portrayed on screen in this way.

The Stressed Seeker

Then there’s Doc Cochran. In contrast to the Reverend, Cochran has no outwardly obvious signs of faith, except that he gives of his own time and serves the city of Deadwood, providing medical care for all who need it. He appears more interested in the health of his patients than any sort of moral code. He’s surly and unfriendly at times, stressed out, and generally disagreeable. But, underneath that, he helps people, he points them in the right way, and he advocates for them. His work is difficult and demanding, but he does what he can. It might even be a stretch to call him a Christian at the outset, and he certainly doesn’t indicate that he is one, until…

As the reverend continues to suffer on his deathbed, Cochran (in the very same episode) falls on his knees and calls out to Jesus, pleading with Him to let Reverend H.W. Smith die. He even asks, “What purpose can his suffering bring?”

Perhaps you’ve never had this experience. Maybe this doesn’t ring true for you at all. But to me, this was a poignant scene because I have prayed the very same prayer, on my knees, calling out to God and wondering what His purpose could possibly be. And I’m willing to bet you know someone who has done something similar.

How Did HBO Get It Right?

If you’ve ever seen Deadwood, you know it’s not a morality tale. (In fact, my wife read somewhere that it had the most frequent use of the “F word” in the history of television.) And yet, the writers managed to showcase two authentic Christian characters in the midst of trial and tribulation. Fascinating. I’m not sure I can say the same thing about most Christian media!

The Reclamation Society generally analyzes sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book stories, not westerns, but I wanted to mention this because it speaks to what we’re doing. HBO wasn’t preaching to anyone. Nor did they have any apparent “message” to communicate. They just wanted to tell an authentic story with honest characters, and they did—and I applaud them for it.

What characters have you seen on television or in film that appeared authentic based on your experience? They don’t have to be Christian. They could be Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other religion. Let us know in the comments!

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