Deadwood is possibly the most coruscating indictment of American capitalism ever aired in primetime. Here the frontier requires order but has no use for law. Yet it represents a critical moment in history: in the decade between 1877 and 1887, four and a half million migrants flooded the Western plains. As an earlier PopMatters reviewer noted , in the mining camp called Deadwood, power is male, Anglo-Saxon, and utterly amoral. The rich — like Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) — buy death, loyalty, and sex. The poor snivel and duck and, in the words of Swearengen’s acolyte, Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers), try not to “guess wrong.”

It’s hard not to. No one escapes corruption: at the end of last season, shopkeeper and lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) abandoned impartiality when he fell in love with Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), a one-time Eastern belle and former laudanum addict who is also the richest woman in town. At the same time, A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), editor of the Black Hills Pioneer, spun mayhem into another iteration of that myth of exuberance and tempting prosperity called America.

Greed brings a modicum of order to Deadwood. In the second season opener, both Swearengen and Tolliver see their saloon profits under siege. The tentacles of territorial government and modern communication (the arrival of the telegraph) force Swearengen to contemplate a future in which the wholesale killing that’s served him so well may no longer assure his survival as the camp’s undisputed strongman. Meanwhile, Tolliver’s madame and lover, Joanie (Kim Watkins), compounds emotional withdrawal with a business blow: she’s setting up a brothel in town, with her own madame and her own girls.

This revisionist vision of the pioneer myth is not wholly original. Both the sepia-toned, low-contrast palette and the focus on what 17th-century thinker, Thomas Hobbes christened the “nasty, brutish and short” life of human beings bereft of strong government, owe much to McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Clint Eastwood’s sequence of Westerns which closed with Unforgiven (1992), and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985). Deadwood capitalizes on the tv series’ spacious format to strip the last vestiges of retrospective nostalgia from the frontier. The humor is cruel, irony pitiless, and cynicism almost absolute. Even Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) can’t stand aloof from this spectacle of natural selection in action: he patches up the injured so they can return to the life-and-death struggle.

But the characters’ internal coherence, elliptical plotting, and, above all, the consistently risky acting by a remarkable ensemble of more than 20 all crack the confines of the screen, evoking the barbed intensity of live theatre. The second season opener offered zero concessions to new viewers, and stretched the patience of regulars, with its barrage of obscenities, fragmented dialogue, and lines delivered as actors turned away from the camera. While creator Steven Milch’s previous work — Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue — courted his audience by perfecting the “deeply flawed but deeply touching” character, the clinical detachment of Deadwood is unrelenting.

As a stunned E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) muttered at the close of a lightning quick shoot-out that left three men bleeding, it’s like “some Greek thing.” Indeed, as the bursts of (sometimes stomach-clenching) violence occur onstage, the most shocking parts of the show lie, as they do in classical Greek drama, in how the characters think, not how they act.

The deadliest changes in Deadwood occur in its quietest moments. When Swearengen reads in a letter from the governor that none of the three newly appointed county commissioners comes from Deadwood, Silas Adams (Titus Welliver) and Dan Dorrity (W. Earl Brown) think murder is the solution. But Swearengen holds them back. He drops his usual bluster, surmising that violence is exactly what the governor wants. In a fleeting moment of calculation, conveyed by a slow glance away from the camera and an abrupt cut to a wider shot, Swearengen seems to reevaluate his whole approach to running the town, understanding suddenly hat one might view politics as violence by other means.

Equally pivotal is the scene when Bullock abandons his last attachment to abstract standards of right and wrong. After a drunkard’s practical joke leads to murder, the inadvertent killer asks anxiously what his “obligation” might be. Bullock mutters wearily, “You didn’t kill the man you meant to kill or mean to kill the man you did,” a gesture of impotence in the face of the unfathomable moral universe. Swearengen recognizes the fundamental change in the younger man, handing him back his gun and bade, now robbed of their danger, and saying, “I offer you these in hope you’ll wear ’em for a good long fucking time, and in this fucking camp.”

McShane seems to relish Swearengen’s carnality, whether he’s conveying the satisfaction of lust or the agony of broken ribs, as if the script itself were an elaborate feast for his personal delectation, and Boothe imbues Tolliver’s impassivity with myriad levels of threat. But the strange pleasures of Deadwood don’t revolve around elemental themes and impressive acting. A steady stream of incidental historical details delicately reveals aspirations and vulnerabilities in the characters which trigger unexpected emotional responses. In the letter back East to his wife, in which he describes the house he is building for her and her son, Bullock bemoans the inadequacies of the glass he’s found for the windows and boasts of the fine timbers and sophisticated joints in the carpentry.

In such diurnal details, he reveals as well his longing for the beginnings of middle-class life in Deadwood: unlike Tolliver, Swearengen, and his partner in the store, Sol Star (John Hawkes), Bullock wants to live apart from the filth, to separate himself and his family from the business of survival. Swearengen’s own social aspirations emerge when he tells his minions to open cans of peaches, still luxuries in a mining camp, and serve them in bowls on the bar, whenever he wants to impress his peers or a threatening newcomer. His reading of his letters through a hefty magnifying glass hints at an inexorable encroachment of a potentially fatal physical vulnerability. Here lies the powerful drama of Deadwood: no one is normal, but everyone, in some way or other, is human.