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Dead Good

Ian McShane is the dirty soul of Deadwood, a Western that rewrites myths to revive a genre.

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Illustration by Christopher Sledoba  

If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who arrived in Deadwood just a muddy year ago, in 1876, wanting to start a hardware store, has wound up instead as town sheriff. This is like being appointed hall monitor in hell. Deadwood, located in the black hills of the Dakota Territory somewhere between Casablanca and No Exit, is the anus of the Old West. Through these portals pass the primitive accumulators of capitalism’s oral-anal stage—the evil-smelling and flesh-peddling flotsam of Manifest Destiny: Indian killers, claims jumpers, real-estate swindlers, road agents, opium addicts, and the saloon girls who love them anyway. Bad enough that Bullock has to wear a badge in such a cesspit, when who should arrive on the morning coach but his blonde wife, Martha (Anna Gunn), and young son, William (Josh Eriksson).

Of course, Bullock has been bedspring-bouncing with Alma Garret (Molly Parker), the rich and comely widow known to hit the laudanum bottle in her hotel room when nobody but the camera’s looking. Nor is there much erotic spark between Seth and Martha, probably because she is also his sister-in-law, widow of his brother Robert, a cavalry officer killed in Mexico. Seth Bullock, like certain Dudley Do-Right tribes in the Balkans, believes in the extended family. Which makes him the only man in Deadwood who believes in anything other than money or booze, except perhaps for his ex-partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), who is rumored to be Jewish, and maybe the Chinese, who aren’t talking, and possibly the pigs, whose devouring of corpses could very well be ritualistic.

When Keith Carradine, playing Wild Bill Hickock, was shot in the back at the poker table in the fourth hour of the first season of Deadwood, I thought executive producer David Milch had killed off the most interesting character in his Gothic Western. I see now that he was clearing space, slashing and burning, to make room for Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, a brothel keeper straight out of the Jacobean tragedies of Thomas Middleton and John Webster: no pity, all terror. To McShane, Milch gives most of the reverberating lines, a sort of pornographic King James singsong, from “grievous abominations” to “fucking imponderables.” (Like a contemporary stand-up comic, if you removed “fucking” from his vocabulary, he would be powerless to modify his speech at all.) Everybody else seems to speak in the Iroquois English of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer novels, except when they are talking about blow jobs, which is surprisingly often in the Old West according to Milch.

Anyway, Olyphant’s Bullock and McShane’s Swearengen are rolling around in the dirt, trying to kill each other, when the stagecoach arrives this Sunday. By next Sunday, after a symbolic exchange, these two arrive at a fragile truce to which we are likely to accord the same confidence that attends our reading of the latest news from the Gaza Strip. But after the extermination of the savage Sioux, telegraph poles are coming, so is the federal government, and so must some semblance of law seem to be in place among these squalling squatters. Meanwhile, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) is so mad at Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), and Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) is so mad at everybody that they could both eat dirt; Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) has returned to town needing a liver transplant Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) is helpless to provide; and E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson) is still as creepy as a sandworm.

Years ago on the volcanic island of Santorini, looking at a Bronze Age dolphin, it occurred to me that, from the point of view of Minoan civilization, Agamemnon and his Myceneans must have looked like thugs. Deadwood suggests a similar rewrite of the creation myths of the American Republic.

Deadwood
HBO. Season Premiere
Friday, March 6, 9 p.m.


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