And with that prophetic opening line, we're back in the blood and shit-stained thoroughfare of "Deadwood," for a season premiere filled with negotiations, circumlocution and more than one bloody outcome. More after the jump, for the benefit of anyone who hasn't watched it yet. (And if you haven't, Deadweek is a great way to put yourself in the mood.)
Thank God for the Johnny Burnses of this show, because there were large chunks of the premiere where I badly needed someone to explain the plot to me. And what purpose does The Gem's barkeep serve if not to allow Dan or Al deliver several foul mouthfuls of exposition?
So let me make sure I have this straight: the Cornish workers at Hearst's mining operation have been agitating for better pay and conditions, so Hearst sends a couple of his goons to kill one of the Cornish at The Gem, sending two messages in the process: 1)Organize against me and die, and 2)I can do whatever I want, wherever I want in this camp -- up to and including the place of business of Deadwood's unofficial mayor. And Swearengen, knowing that Hearst needs the elections to go forward as much as he does (elections legitimize the government, which in turn speeds up the process of annexation and helps assure a level of independence from Yankton), plays the one card he has at the moment by postponing the campaign speeches. That sound about right?
As Al put it to Dan, "Don't I yearn for the days a draw across the throat made fuckin' resolution?" Amen, brother.
In all seriousness, while Milch sometimes makes the plot and dialogue so labyrinthine that I feel the need to hire a Talmudic scholar to keep track of it all, I wouldn't want Al to still be the self-interested cutthroat from early in season one. Change is the dominant theme of "Deadwood" -- the change from lawlessness to order being the biggest, but personal change for everyone -- and no one has changed more than Albert (did we know that was the full name?) Swearengen. Anyone who watched the pilot episode -- in which Al looked like the black hat destined to go up against Wild Bill and/or Bullock -- and then jumped ahead to this one would probably be stunned at his transformation into this paragon of community. He helps stage elections! He buys Sol Starr a house! He sets things up so Trixie can essentially move in with Sol with no one in town being any the wiser!
Which isn't to say that Al has become Fonzie circa the episode where he got his library card. He's still a hard man, capable of staring down one of the richest men in America, downing a bottle of the man's whiskey in one sitting and making a power play that could bring down more trouble than he, Dan, Johnny and Adams can handle.
It's hard for me to judge this episode in isolation, because I've seen the season's first five. In that group, this was one of the weaker hours, but it's just so great to have this show back, to hear Ian McShane wrap his tongue around Milch's dialogue, to witness the show's various two-person comedy teams (Joanie and Charlie, Jane and Mose, Farnum and Richardson) go through their assigned roles, to watch Tim Olyphant play the mental switch-flip between Stick Up His Ass Bullock and Homicidal Rage Bullock... so many pleasures. How the blazes could HBO have canceled this show?
Before I start approaching Norman Mailer length, some other random thoughts:
- Cy Tolliver lives. Powers Boothe's presence at a press conference on the set last summer (an eventful day that included Paula Malcomson explaining how the actresses use "snatch packs" to keep cool in their unforgiving wardrobes, not to mention me getting a double blow-out on my rental car) spoiled the surprise, if you can even call it a surprise. Milch has too much affection for Boothe (who was the second choice to play Swearengen, in between Ed O'Neill and McShane), and with Al morphing into a vaguely more benevolent figure, we need Cy to illustrate the darker side of humanity.
- He'll get even more of a showcase in the coming weeks (episodes three and five in particular), but I'm amazed by how good Gerald McRaney is as Hearst. He's a guy I always thought of as a reliable meat-and-potatoes actor, no more and no less. Here he's playing the Gene Hackman part and playing it well. Sometimes, all an actor needs is the right material to show his chops, and shockingly, neither "Simon & Simon" nor "Major Dad" qualified.
- Getting back to the idea that the pilot was setting up a Swearengen Vs. Bullock paradigm, it's almost comical to see the two act as allies, albeit allies whose interests only occasionally intersect -- and to see Bullock downgraded from our hero to this hothead who routinely loses his shit and pummels someone over Alma.
- I haven't rewatched the season 2 finale in a while, but was there talk of Alma and Ellsworth having a house built or buying a pre-existing house? Because that's an awfully nice place to be ready only six weeks after the end of last season, show-time.
- Milch has talked for years about wanting to depict the possibly apocryphal story where Wyatt Earp shows up in town and Bullock sends him on his merry way. I understand that, very early in the writing process for the premiere, the "Parp" gunman was going to be revealed to be Earp himself. I still wouldn't be shocked to see the famous lawman pop up before the season's out.
- I know HBO claims they don't do product placement, but can't you imagine the endorsement opportunities for Ian McShane and some kind of cleaning product? "If it's good enough to scrub blood off the floor of Al's bar, it's good enough to get orange juice off your couch, by God!"
- "It's my family luck, over centuries," Steve tells Harry Manning, "to get repeatedly fucked up the ass." So is that why you fucked the horse in turn, Steve?
- Having lost his ownership of the hotel and seemingly on the verge of losing the mayor's job to Sol, Farnum really doesn't serve a purpose to the community or the show anymore, except as a fool. His scenes with Richardson are the most blatantly Shakespearean this show does (at least until Brian Cox rolls into town in a few weeks), and I alternate between cringing and loving them.
- Who do you think is filled with more self-loathing: Jane or Joanie?
- In case you missed Wu, he won't be back until episode three, but his entrance is a beaut.
- "As to your meeting with Hearst, if the chances comes up natural, stomp on the cocksucker's foot."
- "Wash and stack, shit-monkey. Or ready yourself for worse!"
- "My snatch is clean!"
- "Another day on the right side of the ledger far as pus."
- "Hell of a beating for EB to take if he's innocent,"followed by "Oh, he's still way ahead of the game."
- "Custer was a cunt. The end."