The second season of Deadwood has started on Movie Central with Episode 13, “A Lie Agreed Upon (Part 1)”. Deadwood, like other HBO shows, has started numbering episodes by absolute consecutive numbers. Movie Central uses the absolute episode number in its online program guides.
Randy raved about Deadwood last year – I didn’t have the right channels then. I got digital specialty channels last fall when I switched to MTS Digital TV. Movie Central has replayed the first season twice. I missed the first couple of episodes on the first round but eventually I saw the whole first season.
The acting craft is extraordinary. I had underrated Ian MacShane in his semi-comical role in the British series Lovejoy. His Al Swearengen is a masterpiece of brutality, cunning, and avarice. Brad Dourif, seem as Wormtongue in LOTR appears as a shell-shocked surgeon practicing frontier medicine. William Sanderson, who played the sad sack Larry (this is my brother Daryl… ) on Newhart plays the compulsively meretricious E.B. Farnum, Greek chorus on the moods and whims of the mighty Swearingen and frightened, starving, bold jackal at his feasts. Keith Carradine does a star turn as the alcoholic, doomed, Wild Bill Hickock. Molly Parker flutters and smoulders in corsetted gowns as the New York socialite trapped in Deadwood by a laudanum addiction and a marriage to a fool, then by her husband’s death, an uncertain inheritance, and surprizing loyalties to an orphan girl and to Trixie, one of Swearengen’s whores, and a growing attraction to Bulloch. Robin Weigert is brilliantly bashful and baleful as Calamity Jane, an outsider in a society of outcasts. Powers Booth is sinister, decadent, controlling, abusive and violent as dapper saloonkeeper Cy Tolliver. There is a host of colourful characters, all skillfully played. And Mr. Wu’s pigs dispose of the bodies.
The writing is superb, deliberately evocative of Shakespearean drama. Characters talk about their plans in extended dialogues and monologues in archaic, almost Elizabethan, language – broken by extraordinary and authentic vulgarity. The characters are involved in great violent struggles for money and power, and they are rich, intense, complex characters. Seth Bulloch is a paragon of the Victorian virtues, and angry violent man. Swearengen is a cold and calculating judge of the price of whiskey, cunt and politicians, a brutal killer, an alcoholic, a compulsive fornicator, the survivor of brutal abuse in the slums of England and urban America, devoted to dwelling on the insults of the righteous and the hypocrisy of society, yet surprizing vulnerable for the most unforeseen reasons.
It plays out as a harsh story of the settlement of the frontier, from the displacement of the Sioux, the chaotic arrival of miners, the saloons and brothels, the newspaper, the drifters, the farmers, the businesses, the settlers, the politicians. The historical setting is realistic and credible. The culture, the educational system of the day left a lot of unlettered people wandering around, straight from the slums of Chicago and New York, or the back woods of Tennessee. The diseases of the day, the aftermath of the Civil War and the limits of the medical arts of the day left many individuals with physical deformities, dementia and post-traumatic disorders. The Territory is populated by drunks, eccentrics, and the walking wounded.
It also plays out as rich allegory of building society out of a hypothetical Hobbesian state of nature. Swearengen tries to exploit the chaos of the mining camp by power and manipulation, and is forever caught by the fact that he has to live with the people he is trying to exploit and rule. He is driven to seek the creation of a civic government to keep the peace, the better to carry on his ventures. He seeks to corrupt and control the law, and is forced to accept Bulloch as Sheriff to make the town credible to more distant centers of power. He finds that no matter how harshly and brutally he wants to act, he is constrained by empathy and a conscience. His rules and limits are radically different, but he is not a free man.
I have not seen anything like this on TV. A few other HBO shows feature comparable acting and drama, but it is unique in its historical and social vision.