HBO’s reign as the king of serialized drama may be drawing to a close, what with the end of The Sopranos looming near, the finale of Six Feet Under almost a year behind us, and only reflected glory yawners like Big Love arising in their place. Then there’s the plethora of captivating stories being told on networks elsewhere — many owing a debt to both of those shows — which reinforce the idea that HBO, once an innovator, has been upstaged by its own legacy. With the abrupt cancellation of Carnivale and the expensive period piece Rome taking two years to produce between each season, only the Western drama Deadwood is left to carry the torch.
Now, as it turns out, Deadwood too might be headed for Boot Hill, as HBO began the summer by announcing that the show’s third season, beginning June 4, may be its last. For detractors who never got into the show’s black-hearted take on the American West, its complex web of character interplay, or — more likely — its dense vocabulary of anachronisms and liberal application of the word “fuck” this is hardly a surprise. But for those who have taken the time to appreciate its oily charms, the subtle shifts in dynamics between the show’s unreliable heroes and villains, and its unparalleled ensemble of character actors, Deadwood is one of the most arresting and original series in TV history.
Centered on the machinations and complex power struggles taking place in a small mining town in the Black Hills of South Dakota circa 1876, what may sound dully educational is actually grittier than your average Sopranos episode. Characters speak in a fit of purple prose, fiery invective, and a command of vulgarity that can make the (frequently used) word “cocksucker” sound positively Shakespearean. They solve problems the old-fashioned way, by shooting them in the gut and dumping the bodies off with Mr. Wu, a local “celestial” who feeds them to his pigs. In between they pound shots of whiskey and frequent the whores while plotting against each other, often delivering seething monologues while some poor painted-up tart works diligently at their fly. These are not the John Wayne cowboys of yesteryear, nor are they a Ken Burns vision of ordinary men forging an extraordinary path to tomorrow; our ancestors, as Deadwood tells us, were just as brutish, nasty and mean as the rest of us.
In the show’s second season, the camp is moving towards annexation, with all that implies. Becoming a recognized part of the U.S. territories would mean prestige and riches for those who would help to orchestrate it, but at it also spells an end to the lawlessness and autonomy that made those men powerful in the first place. While occupying much of the season’s time with almost incomprehensible maneuvering against outside inspectors, the wrest for control takes its most satisfying shape between newly-minted sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and menacing saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), with their frequent boil erupting in the very first episode into the fight scene that all of season one seemed to be building towards. With both men beaten badly and licking their wounds, they are equally surprised at the arrival of Bullock’s adopted son and wife, whom he took as his own some years back as a gesture of honor to his fallen brother. This naturally spells the end to the burgeoning romance between Bullock and the widow Garrett, whose gold claim meanwhile is yielding the sort of returns that make less scrupulous men salivate and the notorious Pinkerton agency suspicious. It also means that now Bullock has more at stake than ever. Swearengen, naturally, finds ways to work this to his advantage, simultaneously taking up against new rival Cy Tolliver, a criminally weak but conniving player who all too frequently lets his emotions or smug self-satisfaction get the better of him.
The underrated Powers Boothe plays Tolliver with every line ending in a shark-toothed sneer, but he also allows a hint of vulnerability that lets the pitiful need for acceptance shine through, particularly in his scenes with his ex-employee and right hand Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), who leaves him to start a whorehouse of her own. That whorehouse becomes the scene of a startling reveal when Francis Wolcott, a mysterious scout for millionaire George Hearst, arrives and begins frequenting their parlor; Garret Dillahunt, who played Wild Bill Hickok’s murderer in the first season, returns as Wolcott, lending that character a similarly mannered menace that develops into one of the more surprising arcs of the season.
Along the way there are alliances and betrayals, deaths and dismemberments, troubled romances and doomed proposals — plus the comically slithering charm of hotel proprietor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), made honorary mayor out of pity and yet boasts of it to great comic effect — all against the backdrop of an emerging nation. Frequent nods are made to the encroaching of developing technology — and with it, outside influences — on the untamed wilderness, such as the introduction of the town’s first bicycle (and its subsequent implication in a character’s death, of course). Early on, Swearengen looks out at workers erecting telegraph poles and remarks disgustedly, “Messages from invisible sources: what some people think of as progress.” To Swearengen, the approaching future means the end of his gleefully lawless life; to Deadwood fans, it’s possible that that near future means the end of one of the richest dramas on television, with only a smoking bullet hole in its place.