A preview of the first few episodes of Season 2. Originally published in the Star-Ledger March 6, 2005
HBO’s Deadwood, which begins its second season tonight, is the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television. It attains this distinction by doing so many difficult, contradictory things at once. It is, in no particular order, a western, a gangster picture, a political drama, a lewd farce and a comedy of manners; an operatic potboiler chock full of sex, violence and profanity; a sustained long-form narrative that interweaves parallel plots tighter than hangman’s rope; a satire on American hypocrisy and greed; a portrait of needy, ambitious people who see through other people’s illusions but cleave tight to their own; a revisionist look at frontier life; a case study of a civilization struggling to create itself, and a weekly showcase for characters and dialogue so rich in complexity and contradiction that they deserve to be called Shakespearean.
In comparison, even the most noteworthy television seems inadequate. HBO’s The Sopranos is a gangster potboiler, a social satire, a kitchen sink drama and a riff on psychology and dreams, but rarely all at once. NBC’s Hill Street Blues and ABC’s recently departed NYPD Blue were panoramic urban dramas, police procedurals, morality plays and character studies, but not simultaneously. Deadwood, in contrast, operates on multiple levels in every scene and sometimes every line.
The first four episodes of the second season showcase Deadwood at its most ambitious, imaginative and confident. Be warned, though; like other serial dramas, this one tosses newcomers into unfamiliar narrative waters and expects them to swim, and the water is deep and dark. Tonight’s premiere contains a nasty fistfight and an even nastier gunfight ending not in glory, but in embarrassment and painful injuries; the second episode includes a frank, protracted sex act and a bloody autopsy scene, and the third and fourth installments revolve around a singularly painful medical procedure performed without anesthetic. Ugly? Yes. Gratuitous? Rarely. Like the shooting of the police captain in The Godfather or the blinding in King Lear or the psychologically intense sex scenes in Last Tango in Paris, this western’s graphic content aims to shock audiences out of their complacency. The series earns its freedom by putting the nastiness in context: It was a hard time and place, inhabited by hard people.
There are no heroes in Deadwood, but two characters dominate: saloon owner and powerbroker Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and newly appointed sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). On first glance, Swearengen seems a 19th century mob boss—a mustachioed godfather in a stinky suit, making a fortune dealing dope, liquor, gambling and sex in his saloon, The Gem. Bullock seems a terse, tightly wound man of action in the Gary Cooper-Clint Eastwood mode. (His ramrod posture and machine-like stride suggest he really does have steel in his spine.) Yet both men are more complex, at times confounding, than this summary suggests.
Swearengen is a vicious sociopath who lectures employees on the right way to clean up a bloodstain and delivers ornately profane monologues while being serviced by prostitutes. But he has a weird tender streak. He claims to employ a handicapped cleaning woman, Jewel (Geri Jewell), to give penniless johns a hooker they can afford, but that seems a macho lie. Al dominates and abuses another of his prostitutes, Trixie (Paula Malcomson), but seems incomplete and unsatisfied now that Trixie’s taken up with Bullock’s business partner, the Jewish frontiersman Sol Star (John Hawkes). In last season’s finale, when the Reverend H.W. Smith (Ray McKinnon) lay dying in dementia from a brain tumor, Al strangled him to end his suffering.
If Swearengen is an evil man with good in him, Bullock is his opposite - a straight-laced, married businessman who intervenes in other peoples’ troubles yet seems incapable of controlling his own volcanic rage. These flaws combined, to devastating effect, in last season’s finale, when Bullock’s lover, widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), received an unexpected visit from her ne’er-do-well father. When Garret’s dad tried to blackmail Garret by threatening to spread rumors that she killed her husband and took over his gold claim, Bullock went berserk and beat the man to a pulp in the middle of a crowded casino, then asked a visiting Army colonel (Peter Coyote) to protect the man against various enemies, Bullock included. “We all have bloody thoughts,” the colonel told Bullock, a half- statement that completes itself in the mind.
Bullock and Swearengen’s psychological-poetic connection forms the core of Deadwood. They’re surrounded by characters every bit as psychologically tangled, from Swearengen’s murderous right hand, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), who clings to Al the way a toddler clings to daddy, to Swearengen’s chief competitor, saloon maven Cyrus Tolliver (Powers Boothe), who treats his onetime employee, prostitute-turned-madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), like an ex-wife, a surrogate daughter and a business rival, all at once. The show’s complexities are embodied in Milch’s dialogue, which weds profanity to poetry, encloses thoughts inside thoughts and back-loads its sentences in the manner of pre-20th century verse, unpacking its components in order of importance and withholding the most potent image or idea until the end.
Tending a wounded Sol Star, Trixie says, “I pray to God your shoulder pains like some sharp-toothed creature’s inside you and at it and gnawing.” Swearengen chides smart-mouthed henchman Silas Adams (Titus Welliver), “Over time, your quickness with a cocky rejoinder must have gotten you many punches in the face,” and heals a dispute with Dan by promising, “Whatever looks ahead of grievous abominations and disorder, you and me walk into it together like always.”
All Milch’s characters are this rich and slippery. With her doe-eyed “respectability,” flirting skill and secret drug habit, Garret is part sturdy frontier widow, part femme fatale. Swearengen’s emissary and foil, the appointed mayor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), is a scheming little weasel, but he’s got an agile mind, a poetic tongue and grand ambitions. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is a one-man board of health and an angry hermit drowning his Civil War nightmares in whiskey. Trixie’s gutter mouth and matter-of-fact carnality contrast with her devotion to Sol, Swearengen and an orphaned girl.
Deadwood pairs up the characters private struggles with larger events. In the fourth episode of Season One, famous gunslinger and dying alcoholic Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) was shot dead by Jack McCall (Garret Dilahunt). McCall’s flight, capture and subsequent trial were public events, the outcome of which affected every citizen. Milch presented the shooting not just as a random act of murder, but as a celebrity assassination and a signpost marking the end of the old West as both fact and legend. Last season’s finale mirrored Bullock’s accepting his destiny as sheriff with a cavalry garrison’s arrival in town - complementary images of order confronting chaos.
This pattern continues, and deepens, in this season’s first two episodes. Titled “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2,” they raise Swearengen and Bullock’s conflict to a boil, then gradually turn the heat down to a fine simmer. The fight begins when Swearengen publicly calls out Bullock as an adulterous hypocrite. Bullock loses his gun, badge and hat to Swearengen a loss that symbolically expresses Bullock’s loss of sanity and legitimacy to rage.
Bullock and Swearengen must come to an understanding because the town is becoming more domesticated a fact illustrated by a private and a public event. The first is the surprise arrival of Bullock’s wife and adopted son, which reconnects Bullock to his past and forces him to rethink his relationship with Garret. The second is the construction of telegraph poles, which connect the once-isolated mining camp to the larger world.
This two-parter insists that real history and official history are different things and whether that history is epic or personal, the dynamic is similar. Bullock’s fight with Swearengen isn’t just a feud, it’s a struggle to determine Deadwood’s future. When Bullock vows to recover his gun, badge and hat, he’s trying to put a happy ending on his own personal narrative effectively becoming the fearless hero that his wife, son and fellow citizens want him to be - while correcting an error in judgment that could damage the town’s progress. Milch directly connects Bullock’s climb back to respectability with the myth of Deadwood, a wild place that became civilized.
But did it really become civilized? Does anyplace? We want and need to answer yes. But Milch hints that this, too, is an agreed-upon lie. Chaos never succumbs to order, it just adapts.
This idea is illustrated in the second episode, which contains a revealing conversation between Swearengen and newspaper editor A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones). Swearengen wants Merrick to print a version of the Swearengen-Bullock showdown story that omits the most unpleasant details because it will be good for business. Merrick wants to recount the whole story, “. . . the facts rendered fully, within social standards and sensibilities, without bias or abridgement.” “Why do I imagine a snake swallowing its tail?” Swearengen replies.
The episode ends with two Swearengen monologues, one suggesting an idealized official version of the day’s events, the other getting closer to the truth.
“Tonight throughout Deadwood,” Swearengen dictates to Merrick, “heads may be laid to pillows, assuaged and reassured, for that purveyor for profit of everything sordid and vicious, Al Swearengen, already beaten to a fare-thee-well earlier in the day by sheriff Bullock, has returned to the sheriff the implements and ornaments of his office. Without the tawdry walls of the saloon The Gem, decent citizens may pursue with a new and jaunty freedom all aspects of Christian commerce. . . .”
Later, in solitude, Swearengen offers a postscript. “A full fair-mindedness also requires us to report that within The Gem, on Deadwood’s main thoroughfare, comely whores, decently priced liquor and the squarest games of chance in the hills remain unabatedly available at all hours, seven days a week.”