Given David Milch’s well-known fondness for horse racing, it’s appropriate the producer’s brutal Western opens its second season by surging out of the starting gate with a tense confrontation between its two pivotal characters. At times beyond gritty in a “You’ve got to be kidding” sort of way, “Deadwood” will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but it stands as one of HBO’s most fully realized dramas since “The Sopranos” and exhibits no signs of fading in the second leg of its run.
Often lost amid the show’s bluer than blue language is Milch’s remarkable ear for dialogue and feel for character, in this case juggling a huge cast of miscreants, whores, alcoholics and human flotsam in the frontier camp of Deadwood, circa 1877. In that respect, he goes beyond revisionism to create an almost wholly original vision of the Old West, whose rough edges have never been quite so bluntly depicted.
Season two begins on an engrossing note, centering on a conflict between the show’s twin titans, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the taciturn former sheriff thrust again into that role; and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the amoral saloonkeeper, who this year delivers a second speech while receiving oral sex, which must be some kind of TV record.
Although the subplots are too labyrinthine to be done justice here, Bullock has begun a not-so-secret affair with the widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), and their raucous trysts prompt an offhand remark from Swearengen that triggers a long-coming showdown. At the same time, Bullock is faced with his own moral dilemma, as the wife and child he inherited from his late brother arrive, forcing him to choose whether to honor that commitment.
Beyond the cheapness of life in Deadwood, the show is characterized by bursts of dark humor and an unusually strong ensemble. The list ranges from Powers Boothe as Swearengen’s equally vicious business rival to Brad Dourif as the camp’s world-weary doctor to Robin Weigert’s hilarious Calamity Jane, whose first appearance — marked by the simple utterance of a favorite compound word — marks one of several laugh-out-loud moments.
Ultimately, however, all roads lead to Swearengen and Bullock, and their feuding in the first two episodes sends tremors through the camp. Then again, Deadwood itself is almost a breathing organism — a muddy, grim landscape of freewheeling brutality, where death comes quickly and pigs literally devour the evidence. Meticulously shot and scored, it’s a perfectly realized backdrop to Milch’s exploration of the depth to which people will plunge — or not — in lawless surroundings.
Subtracting from those assets is the fact that the narrative unfolds slowly, and the web of characters has grown even more impenetrable to the uninitiated, tempering “Deadwood’s” appeal. In addition, the lewdness at times feels there for its own sake, as if testing precisely where the boundaries lie.
Having earned a loyal core constituency, the program will also be without original episodes of “The Sopranos” to lead a posse of viewers in its direction, meaning ratings will likely diminish at a time when HBO could use an original hit. Such commercial considerations notwithstanding, Milch and his collaborators have given us a Western like virtually none other and a rough ride that remains well worth the taking.