It had to be one of the quickest seductions in the history of television.
When Silas Adams (Titus Welliver), the emissary for the territorial government in Yankton, comes face-to-face with the cunning ambition and focused mercilessness of Al Swearengen in season one, he’s already half wooed. When they consider the problem of corrupt Yankton magistrate Clagett, Adams’ boss, who’s extorting Swearengen—and the town—with an old murder warrant from Chicago, Adams sees the light.
“Maybe the magistrate needs to die,” Swearengen muses.
“Maybe he does,” Adams agrees.
“And the person who did it,” Swearengen adds. “It would only be the beginning of his usefulness to me.”
“If that person didn’t come back with the warrant on you quashed, he’d be a fool not to think he’d be the next one killed.”
“That’s why he’d be so useful to me,” Al says. “Thinking that far ahead.”
It’s a dance, both men taking each other’s measure, but recognizing their kindred spirits. They disagree on the price: Al offers two thousand for the magistrate’s murder and the quashing of the warrant. Adams asks for twenty.
“Do it for two,” Al says. “You gotta believe the job would open the door to your future.”
And it does. Despite being a bit of a dandy (“shorn and groomed to a fucking fare-thee-well,” Al opines) and having the best hair in the camp, Adams quickly becomes Al’s right-hand man in matters of deception and strategy. But this romance was already off to a good start. When they first meet, Adams is the only one in town willing to answer Al’s insults and profanity with his own. But he also realizes he’s in the presence of a master, especially when he watches Al drown one of his own men, the hapless junkie Jimmy Irons, as both a troubleshooting measure and an object lesson to those present. Adams recognizes Al as the patriarchal powerbroker he is, someone adept at both strategy and the knife.
Once he joins Swearengen, Adams (a totally fictional creation, with no historical equivalent) fills a role that seems to have been waiting for him all along. Al’s henchmen, Dan Dority and Johnny Burns foremost among them, are loyal to a fault but more than a little thickheaded—and shortsighted. But Adams is capable of supplying key information to Al to help formulate his plan to deal with the annexation of the camp, as well as personally hammering out an agreement in writing with the territorial authority. He’s a sharp mind as well as a strong hand, both of which Al requires if he—and the town—are to evolve. Al needs him, and Adams knows it and isn’t afraid to crack wise with his mentor. After the bruising fight between Seth Bullock and Swearengen in season two, Adams reveals that Bullock’s well-being could strongly affect whether South Dakota or Montana—where Bullock most recently hailed from—hold sway over the camp.
“In the thoroughfare, as I readied to stab the cocksucker,” Al asks. “Did you have no impulse to hinder this?”
“Moment didn’t seem right,” Adams answers.
“Over time, your quickness with the cocky rejoinder must have gotten you many punches in the face.”
“Depends what you call many.”
Al also trusts Adams because he’s not afraid to give him an answer he may not want to hear—or no answer at all. His desire to make Al happy doesn’t obscure his reading of the events around him.
This competition for Al’s fatherly affections naturally causes friction between Adams and Al’s other “son”—barkeep and bodyguard Dan Dority. Dan, who’s genuinely brave as well as ruthless, almost comes to tears when he feels Al is favoring Adams over him. But despite the jealousy Dan feels toward Adams (“There’s another fucking clever one” Dan pronounces at one point), they gradually come to terms, especially during the brutal Chinatown raid in the season-two finale. In that fight, intended to consolidate Swearengen’s power, Adams saves Dan’s life—on the same day he helps finalize the annexation agreement. “A day’s full course,” Al compliments him. “Inside and out.”
But Adams isn’t simply an opportunist. He does have his own ragged moral code. He seems to genuinely want Dan’s acceptance, or at least some sort of uneasy truce (”’Any chance you and me don’t end in blood?” he asks ), and is clearly pained when he realizes the extent of Al’s illness at the beginning of season two. And it’s his chivalrous nature that allows Miss Isringhausen (Sarah Paulson), the undercover Pinkerton agent working as a tutor for little Sofia, to play him so expertly. When she first approaches him, he looks away and shuffles his feet like a schoolboy. It’s only when she says she’s in fear for her life that he snaps to attention and offers her his protection and the use of his room (“I can sleep anywhere,” he says. “I’m like a dog in that regard”). And though he’s soon, as Al would put it, “cunt struck,” he quickly catches on that Isringhausen is using him to help forge a deal with Al. As he sits in on that meeting between these two master schemers, he realizes how out of his depth he is. When it comes to women, it seems, he’s half smart at best.
But misguided chivalry aside, Adams is a man of his times, smart, crafty and tough, forward-thinking and bloody-minded. He’s uniquely equipped to serve his own interests and Swearengen’s. And as Swearengen’s destiny entwines with that of the town, Adams becomes a key player in a much bigger picture, whether he realizes it or not.
Wallace Stroby is an editor at The Star-Ledger, author of the crime thrillers The Barbed-Wire Kiss and The Heartbreak Lounge, and publisher of the blog Live at the Heartbreak Lounge. For more on Deadwood, see “The Deadwood Columns” in the sidebar at right.