Deadwood Season Two (HBO)
Written by David Milch, Jody Worth, Elizabeth Sarnoff, Ted Mann, Victoria Morrow, Steve Shill, Regina Corrado, Sarah Hess, and Bryan McDonald
Directed by Ed Bianchi, Steve Shill, Alan Taylor, Gregg Feinberg, Michael Almereyda, Tim Van Patten, and Dan Minahan
For those who like to think about the Old West as a time of genteel masculine honor, a show like Deadwood will disappoint you. This is not a cowboy show about the white hats taking down the black hats. David Milch had no interest in making a show that propped up myths of that sort. That doesn’t mean Deadwood is a dead-accurate show; it is still a piece of fiction. However, I suspect it may be one of the closest things we’ve ever had to detailing what life was like in the lawless places of America once upon a time. This is a visceral show that doesn’t shy away from the grotesque nature of a world where medicine was not commonplace and bodily fluids flowed as much in public as in private. The Old West was a filthy disgusting place. People who romanticize it wouldn’t be able to handle it if they were sent back there. Remembering what a shithole it was helps us understand why it is so vital that we move the needle forward on the human race.
Seven months have passed since the conclusion of season one. Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) has been having an affair with the Widow Garett (Molly Parker), which they think is discreet, but everyone in town knows about. Bullock continues his tenuous alliance with Deadwood’s de facto leader Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), but tension boils over, and it comes to blows. It just so happens that their fight goes down as Bullock’s wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and son Willam arrive in town. They are his brother’s family, joined with Bullock after his sibling’s death. So that makes the affair a little less torrid than otherwise. While Bullock deals with settling his family while avoiding his lover, Swearengen struggles with a swollen prostate and kidney stones. Both are pains in the ass of the respected sufferer.
Meanwhile, Joannie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) starts her own brothel, Chez Aime, with a new partner (Alice Krige). The much-lauded millionaire George Hearst has sent a representative, Francis Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), to town to begin manipulating a rush of claim sales. Wolcott is a violent man with dark tastes, and he’s made arrangements to terrorize the poor whores of the Chez Aime. Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) eventually learns of Wolcott’s depraved hunger and thinks he can leverage it as Hearst’s grasp on the town grows. Of course, all the other characters are here and have their own subplots woven throughout. However, the core arc of this season is Deadwood slowly conceding to the idea of being absorbed by the Dakota Territory and therefore coming under the scrutiny of the United States federal government.
I am so happy that a show like Deadwood was made, as we do not get shows like this much or really ever. The writing in the series is such a high bar; the writers made sure these people spoke in the way they would have in the period. It’s Victorian-style English that some express more eloquently than others, but everyone’s words are poetry. The contrasts in speech and character are some of my favorite bits. E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) remains one of my favorite weasely characters. His dress is always the dirty uniform of an English gentleman, complete with a frilly cravat. His speech is full of metaphors and lyrical elements. Yet, he is such a nasty little bastard, cunning & a liar, but never clever enough to keep from digging his hole deeper.
The mixture of the profane and the poetic makes this show work. Al Swearengen has an ongoing plot where Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) has to treat him, and it involves, among other things, inserting a steel rod up the man’s penis. The scene plays out just as squirmingly painful as you might imagine. There’s even a moment where Al makes one of the sex workers at The Gem root around in his ass so that she might push a blockage aside, and he can finally shit. It’s not explicit, but there’s no doubt about what happens in these scenes. Yet, Swearengen gets some incredible monologues this season. He’s probably in the most danger of losing his status in Deadwood due to its incorporation with the States, and he talks a lot about his plans and machinations. It’s pure Shakespeare, you cocksuckers! He’s an evil man but also a product of the rotten world he was born into. He knows how the game is played and plays it as it is. As his second-in-command, Dan (W. Earl Brown), remarks, “We’re joining America, and it’s full of lying, thieving, cocksuckers that you can’t trust at all – governors, commissioners, and whatnot.”
While it would be easy for Deadwood to be the Bullock & Swearengen show, the sprawling cast of supporting characters also gets their due here. Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), the prospector for Mrs. Garret, takes on a more prominent role, eventually coming to see himself as a person that could help her deal with problems that arise. He’s one of the few genuinely good people on the show. Wu (Keone Young), Swearengen’s equivalent in the Chinese quarter, is made to deal with Lee, an agent of Hearst’s who brings in cages of Chinese sex workers. Trixie (Paule Malcolmson) continues to develop & grow, refusing to be the charity of any man trying to wash away his sins. She wants to make her life for herself on her own terms, not by submitting to another man as she has her whole life.
There are some surprise breakout characters here. Sarah Paulson appears as Mrs. Isringhausen, a tutor to Mrs. Garret’s adopted daughter. There is far more to this character than I expected, and she goes toe-to-toe with Swearengen himself. Garret Dillahunt’s return to the series in an entirely different role is inspired. As Wolcott, he is a vile human being, yet the writers do an excellent job keeping him from being a one-dimensional mustache-twirler. He does express a lack of control over his actions, probably dissociating, but it’s never given as an excuse for what he does but an explanation. Richardson (Ralph Richeson) steals almost every scene he’s in, a childlike old man who takes to praying to the god of antlers in the hopes that Mrs. Garret is shown some kindness in her life.
Bullock remains a conflicting character in all of this. He is not the lawman out to set things right. He’s a human being. There’s selfishness and his decision to concede to Swearengen more often than not. Most media presents being a “good guy” as comically simple. Deadwood is a place people depend on, yet it is overflowing with vice & horror. People throughout history, even those we like to think of as good, often settled despite injustice happening around them. It’s because one person can’t change the world. As much as we’re sold that bill of goods in school, it is not true. But a group, a society, a collective of people working to make things better, now that is something that can make a difference. For me, the heroic characters in this show are the women and the marginalized. Despite living in a world that constantly tells them they are worth nothing, they keep going. David Milch said he made Deadwood explore how societies are carved out of chaos, and I believe they don’t happen because you hand someone a badge. Instead, they emerge when people like Trixie, Richardson, or the wonderful Jewel keep going and refuse to submit to the tyrants.