To me, the second season of Deadwood is the greatest achievement of the televisual form. As far as sheer consistency of quality, there are a few seasons that can match it (the fourth and fifth seasons of The Simpsons, perhaps), and as far as overarching narrative structure, there are a handful of seasons that can stand up to it (The Wire’s fourth season, for one), but the second season of Deadwood takes a tightly constructed narrative that runs through 12 consistently great episodes (I’m ditching the grades for this season because they’d all be A’s) and adds on to that a layer of thematic precision that says something new and interesting about both the world we live in and the American nation that is the subject of the show.
I’ve long been saying this to folks and meaning every word of it, but as I restarted my trek through Deadwood season two this week, I was shocked by just how firmly I meant it. In “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 and 2” (which I’ll look at as one big story since that’s what it is), the series is already laying the groundwork for the events that will pay off throughout the season, foreshadowing untimely deaths in interesting ways and suggesting the way events will twist and turn in the weeks to come. Since I labor to write these pieces as if I’ve never seen the series before and don’t know what’s coming, I won’t point these out but obliquely, but hopefully, but the time “Boy the Earth Speaks To” rolls around in six weeks, you’ll see what I mean.
If Deadwood’s first season was all about establishing the characters and their connections, painting a small series of portraits with a thematic and plot link, then the show’s second season is about uniting those individual portraits into an overriding tapestry. It’s cliché, of course, to describe anything with as rich and detailed a narrative as this as “weaving a tapestry,” but that’s what’s done here. The groundwork laid out, the series is free to now explore the connections (or lack thereof) between its characters and delve even more deeply into its major themes, those of community and the human organism and the tiny kindnesses we pay each other and the great sins we can visit on each other. It’s a massive, sprawling work, novelistic by design but intensely personal in its focus, and there’s really not a lot like it out there.
When the second season begins, it’s several months after the events of the first season (I mark it as about six, based on a throwaway line from Alma in the second episode). The camp is growing by leaps and bounds, and the first image we see is a stagecoach, bearing both new whores and Bullock’s wife and stepson. (His wife is played by Anna Gunn, now on Breaking Bad, and it’s a bit jarring to see her here initially now that she’s had such great success on that other series.) Not only are new forms of lucre coming to the camp (the whores will work in Joanie’s new Chez Ami) but domesticity is as well. And the stage, a venerable symbol of the Western genre, didn’t visit the camp in season one at all, when the camp was still an outlaw outpost in the middle of Indian territory. Now that the camp is on its way into the United States proper, new forms of progress gallop faster and faster toward it. Significantly, the second thing we see is a telegraph wire being erected just outside of town. Civilization can reach out via dots and dashes whenever it wants.
The first episode of the season takes its time reintroducing the characters and the camp itself (my favorite reintroduction may be Jane’s), and it’s actually a bit enthralling to see everyone again. Even as I rewatch this without the years in between seasons that marked the show’s HBO broadcast, the series conveys enough of a passage of time between “Sold Under Sin” and “A Lie Agreed Upon” that the week I spent in between the two episodes felt like the months the characters lived. David Milch, now knowing the kinds of stories he wants to tell and the kinds of ideas he wants to explore, moves confidently in this premiere, reintegrating us into the political machinations of Al Swearengen or the strangely passionate coupling of Seth Bullock and Alma Garrett. And he trusts that we can catch up, that we can grasp quickly enough that Eddie Sawyer has bolted the camp or that Sol and Trixie’s relationship has continued, despite the kibosh Al tried to put on it late in the last season. He knows he can get away with quite a bit without having to over-explain everything that’s going on. Even the somewhat complicated plot to figure out a way to get Yankton to allow for local representation for the Black Hills on the county boards is explained just enough for us to get the gist of things (to say nothing of how Al comes to realize that Seth may be a valuable bargaining chip when Seth doesn’t even realize it).
There’s a lot going on in both episodes, two of my favorites of the whole series, but I think the central idea Milch is exploring here is the grief you feel when you realize that your life is not actually your own. It may be up unto a point, but any time you decide to become a part of a larger community or even just a family, you find yourself forced to contend with what other people want, with their wishes for what you might do or not do. We can see this in the haunted look in Seth’s eyes throughout these two episodes. The wife and child he kept saying he was awaiting the arrival of in season one are both finally here, and he couldn’t be more miserable. His relationship with Alma has reached a height of passion that might seem unlikely between the two rather chilly characters, but when they’re in each other’s presence, they are uncharacteristically warm and open (Alma laying sensually post-coitus, her shirt draped about her languidly, her arms back to expose the hair growing in her armpits; it’s a surprisingly intimate shot). Now, despite all the work he’s gone into to prepare a home for said wife and son, he’s looking for ways to escape that home. The end of the first episode echoes, in some ways, The Searchers, Seth stopping short just outside of the large house he’s built his new family, unable to go inside it, both for practical concerns and for the simple fact that he is as much an outsider to his own family as he is anything else. He’s finally found a place in Deadwood, and now that place is being ripped out from underneath him. Timothy Olyphant’s work in these episodes may be his finest in the series.
Both of these episodes paint Seth and Al as the twin axes that Deadwood hinges on. So as Seth has his newfound sense of life and purpose taken away from him, Al finds himself strangely powerless. One of the major arcs of the second season (without spoiling too much) will be the gradual increase in the powerlessness of Al, and it begins here, as he’s going about his normal business, scheming and twisting arms and playing the political mastermind he is. Seth, though, both newly emboldened by his office and angered by the cavalier way Al mocks his relationship with Alma, strips off his badge, gun and hat when he enters Al’s office and then sets upon him with fists, the two brawling out onto the balcony, then tumbling from it to the muck below.
As I theorized in the show’s first season, Seth is the one god in Deadwood who’s not afraid to wander about in the mud with the little people, while Al is the one who is most content to stand above everything else and watch what’s going on. Seth, then, drags one of the gods down from on high to see everything from his level, and the process seems to almost kill Al, first putting him in intense pain (in part two, his face is a strange, warped visage) but also seeming to have other effects, from hindering his ability to pee to forcing him to confront his humanity. Obviously, Seth dragging Al down from the balcony didn’t cause Al’s urinary tract problems (and we’ll find out what is next week), but that’s the feeling the show imparts. More significant, I think, is that Al, as always, has come to the fight with an unfair advantage. He does have a knife, and he’s going to use it to stab Bullock in the back, when he’s at his most defenseless. And he’s stopped by the sight of a child. (And then he spits out perhaps the series’ best line: “Welcome to fucking Deadwood. Can be combative.”)
We got hints of Al’s essential humanity in season one, but he was mostly a self-centered character, working toward his own goals as quickly as possible. Here, though, dragged down from on high, he’s forced to see the others from the camp less as ants and more as fellow humans. He has no idea that the young boy he confronts is Bullock’s son (technically, William is Bullock’s stepson, yes, but I’ll be referring to him as his son throughout this season, since that’s how Bullock primarily refers to him). He’s just unable to gut the sheriff in front of everyone when there’s also a child watching. Later, he seems a bit taken aback by this, a bit thunderstruck that he couldn’t do it, and we realize that Al, too, is feeling a bit of grief at the way his freedoms have been compromised, at the way he’s no longer leading the life he wanted to lead. He’s been trapped both by the propriety of civilization and the increased focus on law and order. He could run, sure, but then he’d have to leave behind what he built. So he stays, and he is forced to change, even if he can’t quite put his finger on why he’s changing.
Bullock’s quest to get his gun and badge back forms the spine of the two episodes, and the way he gives up the things that make him the figure in Deadwood that he is simply because Al says a few choice words about Alma makes his later grief over the arrival of his wife and child that much more haunting. If I have a complaint about these two episodes, it’s that the tension between Seth and Al seems to build much too abruptly. Obviously, having seen season one, we know that these two are at odds more often than not, but the latter half of the season seemed to suggest they’d have to pull together in some ways just to get things in the camp going. Here, the show almost seems to force the conflict between the two in a way that will reintroduce us to that conflict and provide maximum dramatic impact. The series gets away with it, for the most part, but that initial fight seems a tiny bit forced.
That said, the episodes revolve around the two confrontations between the men. The first is expertly built to, the tension growing and growing, as Ed Bianchi’s camera cuts from Seth striding towards the Gem to Al waiting for what’s coming to Cy and Joanie looking out over the camp to the approach of the stage that will bring both the new whores and Seth’s new doom. Everything here is twisted to within an inch of its absolute breaking point, but not so far that Bullock can’t remove his gun and badge before plunging into the fray. The whole thing takes a sickening twist in its closing moments, Johnny Burns firing upon Charlie Utter and Sol, injuring Sol fairly seriously and grazing Charlie’s ear, and then William arrives and breaks the tension.
The second confrontation, late in episode two, feels as though it might turn into something more, but it, intriguingly, fizzles out. Al, having realized that he’s outgunned, simply strides down from his position on high (the series had Al do this in limited fashion in season one, and he’s already done it twice in this season) and returns Bullock’s gun and badge. Al is usually the guy with the substantial backup, but here, he’s bested by Bullock, who’s able to pull together something of a posse and get back what’s his. Seth, in some ways, represents the law-abiding future of the camp, and in this regard, his besting of Al in this moment is another crossroads point for the two characters: They’re both growing toward different ends.
The episodes’ other major plot thrust deals with Cy and Joanie working out their split, as Joanie has finally found the building that will become her brothel, and Cy’s repressing what appears to be a great deal of anger about it. The Chez Ami will become fairly important later in the season, but for now, it’s mostly a way for the show to emphasize how Joanie and Cy’s split continues to grow larger and larger and how Joanie’s new ambitions clash, in some ways, with the town’s perceptions of what she’s capable of. Here, it’s perhaps just enough to see how Cy and Joanie seem to have healed their split from last season but not really and to see how angry Cy is that she actually took him up on his offer. Milch is great at showing us the various ways people react to each other, and the Cy and Joanie relationship is one of his finest creations.
There’s also the matter of Jane’s return to the camp after a rather substantial disappearance, having sat out the latter three episodes of season one, upon which time she quickly fits back in with both Charlie and Doc Cochran. She’s been drinking a lot, it becomes apparent, even in the first episode (where hers may be my favorite character reintroduction, as she sits up in a drunken stupor atop her horse and screams “Cocksuckers!” at the passing stage), and yet in the second episode, she’s dragged back into the day-to-day life of the camp, even helping out Seth as he returns for his badge and gun. In real life, Calamity Jane was a fixture in Deadwood, but on the show, it often seemed as if she would leave town for good in the wake of Bill’s death, the show’s other famous historical character turning into a historical fizzle, perhaps another comment on the era of the Western. Instead, Robin Weigert imbued the character with so much humanity that there was perhaps no way the character couldn’t come back, and the work here, Jane stumbling towards respectability again, is excellent.
There’s also the small matter of the deaths of both Bummer Dan and Slippery Dan (who gets 12-pointed!), a wry comment on the fact that the camp is now big enough that people are having trouble telling all of the Dans apart (though perhaps it’s fitting that our Dan – Dan Dority – would have such a role in the death of one of the other Dans), and the serious pummeling that Silas’ old partner Hawkeye gets. All of this feels a bit like stuff that might have happened in season one, but there’s a sense that things in the camp are getting too hectic to let much more of this go on (Wu’s even charging people to feed corpses to the pigs, while Cochran is performing supremely disgusting examinations of the corpses). Things will need to be spruced up if the camp is going to join America.
But all of these things are mere side plots in the episodes’ true central story: the enmeshed lives of Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock. Again and again, the episodes keep paralleling the two – they both even get the monologues that close each episode – and by focusing so narrowly on the two main characters, the show is able to sketch in who everyone else is quickly and ably. Take, for instance, the moment when a delirious Sol, high on medication after the surgery to repair his shoulder, chastises the cold and uncaring Bullock about his plans to leave the camp with Alma (since he figures he can run off with her or stay and they can separate). Sol, usually happy to go along with what his partner wants, is quick to tell Bullock that he hasn’t thought this plan through, that there’s no way to avoid shame and sadness in both cases (“It’s life either way,” he says, another defining line of the series). And yet, he backs up Seth when the latter goes to confront Al to get his gun and badge back. Or look at how Trixie and Sol’s relationship is mostly established in the background of the scenes where Seth stews about the turn his life has taken.
Another scene I love here is the one where Alma comes to the hardware store to deliver the basket of goodies to Seth’s newly arrived family. Everything here is right on the surface (the writing only conveying the pleasantries exchanged between all of the players), but the dull ache in both Seth and Alma’s eyes shows just how painful this moment is for both of them, just how much they can sense what they will have to give up to be together and what they will have to give up to stay in the camp. It’s a bold, delicate scene (look at how Charlie, who understands what’s going on, diffuses the tension by joking about the perils of Deadwood’s postal service, just as a friend might in real life), and Milch’s choice to let everything play out in subtext shows what faith he has in his cast (and he has every reason to have that faith).
Still, the final moments here in both episodes are given over to Seth and Al, and these final monologues, working at cross-purposes to what we’re seeing onscreen as they play in voiceover, are among the series’ finest moments. As Seth turns away from the house he can’t quite commit himself to live in, he walks through the town, eyes empty and aching, the soundtrack full of the letter he wrote to his wife about the house he’s built for her, the new life he hopes she’ll be happy to lead, even as we see him walk back to Alma, to the woman he actually loves, the camp drifting about him. Seth, who usually moves with such purpose, seems utterly lost here, and as the letter plays out, we see that everything he’s told his wife has been something of a lie. He’s not waiting for her to come. He would have delayed her forever if he could have.
Al, at the end of the second episode, dictates an article to Merrick (who doesn’t want the truth of what happened; rather, he wants the decent truth) about the altercation between Bullock and himself. In counterpoint to the roiling tensions seen throughout the long day (neatly bifurcated between day and night in the two episodes) we’ve just witnessed, Al tries to reassure everyone that nothing has changed, that business continues as usual, that the Gem will offer “a new and jaunty freedom” and Bullock will continue to be sheriff and everything is just fine, even as we can see the injuries covering his body, can see the town rousing itself for a new day, the indecision on Seth’s face as he chooses to enter the house he built for his family for the first time. I’ve talked before about how the series Deadwood is full of lies agreed upon, and there are a large number of those lies in this episode, but Seth and Al are telling deeper, more personal lies here. Seth and his wife have agreed to tell the lie that they’re in love, that this life is what they want and who they are. Al lies to Merrick, to say that everything will be OK and things will proceed as normal. So far as anyone else is concerned, these lies are fine, so long as they ARE agreed upon. That almost makes them truth.
- Deadwood’s second season was actually the first I watched of the show, and I had no idea what was going on at the time, but I could sort of tell I loved it. It’s often fun to dip into a heavily serialized show like this at a point much later in the run than you’re intended to and try and suss out what’s happening.
- It needs to be said: Al’s E.B. Farnum impression is absolutely spot on.
- Look at all of the people added to the opening credits! Jim Beaver goes from recurring guest player to fourth billed, and players as diverse as Jeffrey Jones and Kim Dickens pop up where they were guest players in the season before. Deadwood saw a substantial bump in funds allocated for production in its second season, and much of that must have been dedicated to expanding the camp and the cast.
- Sarah Paulson, who would go on to play an unbearable character on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, turns up for the first time here as Miss Isringhausen and mostly keeps to the background.
- The show occasionally seemed at a loss as to what to do with Cy in the latter portions of the first season. Here, they get good mileage out of mostly turning him and his prostitutes into a Greek chorus.
- The loss of gun and badge and Al being outgunned also signify that this season will, in many ways, be about the characters being stripped of the things that either make them powerful or make them who they are. It will come up again and again.
- Next week’s piece may go up a bit late. I’m getting back into town late Tuesday night (when I usually write these things), and the writing may get pushed back until Wednesday morning. Don’t hate me if this is the case.
- Finally, quotes!
- "Don't we face enough fucking imponderables." – Al Swearengen
- "He is that fucking cuntstruck." – Al Swearengen
- "Look at him. Striding out like some randy maniac bishop." – Al Swearengen
- "Who could it be? President Hayes? Maybe it's jugglers or face painters." – Cy Tolliver
- "Wave a penny under the Jew's nose. If they've got livin' breath in 'em, brings 'em right round." – Al Swearengen
- "We're joining America, and it's full of lying, thieving cocksuckers that you can't trust at all." – Dan Dority
- "We lose more letters than we deliver." – Charlie Utter
- “Being unfinished, they look like unfocused eyes.” – Seth Bullock
- "You think shame would end when you cleared the fucking camp?" – Sol Starr
- "Over time, your quickness with a cocky rejoinder must have gotten you many punches in the face." – Al Swearengen
- "I'd settle for a vigorous hand-holding." "You are a funny fuckin' Jew." – Sol Starr and Trixie
- "Talk about one person fuckin' up another person's entire fuckin' day." – Al Swearengen
- "I choose to believe that truth and decency need not be at odds." – A.W. Merrick