The following is a feature on Seth Bullock and actor Timothy Olyphant that originally ran in the Star-Ledger May 5, 2005. I wrote it early in the season, after having seen just the first two episodes of Season Two, which showcased Bullock’s volcanic temper and showed the arrival of his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and stepson William (Josh Eriksson) and the end of his affair with socialite Alma Garret (Molly Parker). For various reasons, the piece didn’t run until later, after weeks of Bullock’s being sidelined by domestic drama, and on the brink of an even more bleak, recessive period following his son’s death. However, Olyphant and creator David Milch’s insights into Bullock remain relevant, and are highlighted again in the first five episodes of Season Three, so for what it’s worth, I’m reprinting the piece here.
Let us now praise the law.
On HBO’s western Deadwood, the law is Seth Bullock, a hardware store owner and sometime politician who somehow wound up wearing a badge in a Gold Rush mud-hole full of hustlers, killers and thieves.
But Bullock is not your standard Western goody-two-shoes. As written by series creator David Milch and played by Timothy Olyphant, he’s Andy Sipowicz in a Stetson, a dark knight weighed down by invisible armor. His public mission to civilize a lawless town mirrors his private struggle to contain his own demons.
Bullock is a brave, righteous lawman, but also a sullen, hypocritical bully. He prizes loyalty and craves respect, but is rude to his friends and often takes their love and patience for granted. He cheats on his absent wife (Anna Gunn) with recently widowed Alma Garret (Molly Parker), yet still strides through Deadwood as if he has a lock on virtue, and thrashes any man who dares disagree.
He cracks down on common thugs and killers, yet forges a deep and curiously respectful relationship with the town’s deadliest crime boss, saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). He can spot a troublemaker from a block away, yet seems unable or unwilling to see his own flaws.
“What it comes down to is the burden of responsibility,” said Olyphant, 37, during a visit to the Los Angeles set of Deadwood in January. “It’s the burden you went out and took upon yourself. You regret that moment for every day you have to live it all out.”
At this point, Olyphant has no regrets. As the leading man on TV’s oddest, most dramatically complex series, he gets to explore powerfully contradictory feelings each week. But playing Bullock is still a challenge for Olyphant, a well-read, talkative fellow with a droll wit.