Deadwood leaves me in a state of mental and emotional overload. Like The Sopranos (maybe even more so), this is not relaxing TV that washes over you like a digital Xanax. Deadwood rewards the most intense level of attention. Even for someone as resistant to the western genre as I am, this series yields more treasures with every viewing: the dappled cinematography, the rapturous use of profane language, the grand performances that send flares of human emotion soaring out of this 19th-century hellhole.
Deadwood is a nowheresville, an anarchic mining camp that sprung into half-assed existence and then proceeded to organize itself into a sort of town over the course of one year and one 12-episode season (now available on DVD, by the way, and highly recommended for novices). The population of rogues, screwups, and whores is transient by its very nature, with plenty of characters meeting an unexpected and hasty demise. That means several key figures are gone this season and new ones are arriving, including a rather sizable infusion of women that will surely have a dramatic effect on the town’s fluid and tenuous ecosystem.
As the second season opens, power is up for grabs. Some of the town’s prostitutes (who also serve as de facto nursemaids and secretaries) have opened their own bordello, run by Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and a crafty new madame named Maddie (played by the estimable Alice Krige), who may have her own treacherous agenda. The most virtuous man in town, Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), seems paralyzed by his own ambivalence and by his passion for the local widow. Or as one character proclaims in Deadwood-speak, “He is fuckin’ cunt-struck. They’re afloat in some fairy fuckin’ bubble, lighter than air. Him, her snatch, and his stupid fuckin’ badge.” And the show’s titanic alpha male, saloon owner-crime boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), is in steep decline. He’s got mysterious penis troubles, an inspired plot twist for a man so obsessed with his dick—the show’s writers literally have him by the balls. Adding to that, he is terrified that his self-appointed authority over the camp may soon be eroded by the U.S. government, which is increasingly interested in gaining control of this outlaw community.
“We’re joining America,” says one of Swearengen’s henchmen. “It’s full of lying thieves and cocksuckers you can’t trust at all—governors and commissioners and whatnot. . . . You’re gonna have to get used to it.” This has always been the underlying theme of the series: an uncensored, slug’s-eye view of American democracy in formation, with the dirty dealings and brutal compromises left intact. Swearengen sees signs of civilizing forces everywhere, and they make him awfully nervous. Even the new telegraph poles that have popped up get him going—they send “messages from invisible sources,” he rails bitterly. “Don’t we face enough fuckin’ imponderables?”
The town may be coming together, but the series itself is the most visually decentralized show on TV. There’s so much bustling action in every corner that not even the characters themselves know what’s happening. And the dense underbrush of ornate conversation just adds to the sense of bedlam. But if you’re going to drown in language, I’d say Deadwood‘s not a bad place to die.