Blood and gold
By JON GARELICK  |  June 6, 2006

DEADWOOD: If anything, it’s denser and darker than The Sopranos.

The ways of HBO dramatic series are hard — with the long layovers between seasons, who can remember the wealth of detail? Who remembered that nefarious saloon and brothel owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) got gut-stabbed in last year’s Deadwood season ender? Yet here he is, in the first episode of the new season (Sunday at 9), bedridden but on the road to recovery. On the other hand, it’s reassuring to see rival saloon operator Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), in one of his frequent soliloquies in his office above the Gem Saloon, roll his chair to a cupboard, fling open its doors, and address a hat-box-sized wooden container therein as “Chief.” Ah, yes, Chief. Who exactly was Chief? And how did he come to lose his head? It matters not, and anyway, the plot point is lost to the sands of premium-cable time. What’s important is that life goes on in Deadwood, as do Al Swearengen’s deep ruminations.

If anything, Deadwood is denser and darker than The Sopranos . For all its innovations and wonders, the mob family saga rolls along on modern slang humor and the familiarity of gangster-drama conventions. Deadwood is built on the familiarity of the Western, but as has been pointed out, creator and head writer David Milch has a taste for Shakespearean locutions, not to mention those soliloquies. And one gets the jostling of manners and social types over a cauldron of murder and fear in this lawless frontier gold-rush town. The titular “Mayor” of Deadwood, E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), in filthy frockcoat, ruffled shirt, top hat, and kid gloves, passes by some former henchmen giving him the evil eye and comments, “Such acid scrutiny by former boon companions!”

Obscenity never had it so good as in Deadwood . “When I say, ‘Fuck yourself,’ Sheriff, will you put that down to drunkenness or a high estimate of your athleticism?” Or: “I told the man to fuck himself.” Reply: “Tactic or true position?”

This season — the third — has been penciled in as Deadwood ’s last, Milch moving on to other projects. Too bad — there’s still plenty of gas in the tank, or gold in the mine. George Hearst continues his machinations to control the town’s mining interests. (Here Milch risks diverting too far from the facts of his real-life model: the father of publishing magnate William Randolph became a US senator, so the show can’t exactly kill him off.) Swearengen has emerged as the good guy opposing Hearst. Romantic entanglements continue; regal widow Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), now remarried, might be back on the dope; and a theatrical troupe has come to town with Brian Cox as the impresario.

“So what are we waiting for?” asks one of Swearengen’s men in one of this season’s later episodes

“See what hell breaks loose,” Al answers.
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