Elevated to a cause celebre among fans by virtue of its pending extinction, the third season of “Deadwood” jumbles the characters and introduces a new dynamic, pitting its once-warring titans — saloonkeeper Al Swearengen and sheriff Seth Bullock — against another real-life figure, mining magnate George Hearst. After a slow-going premiere, series kicks into another gear in the next four episodes previewed, mixing brutality, scheming and the sheer poetry of David Milch’s nothing-else-quite-like-it dialogue. With HBO’s Western melodrama now fated to become a morsel for Wu’s carnivorous pigs after a pair of wrap-up movies, it’s destined to go out in style.
Unlike most dramas that juggle A and B plots, Milch’s 1870s Western operates in the A through K range, requiring at least an episode to become reacquainted with the show’s intricate web of characters (HBO’s release lists 27 of them). Indeed, despite having watched every episode there are elements that still have me a little addled.
This season, however, features a more cohesive thrust thanks to Hearst (Gerald McRaney), whose arrival poses a threat not only to Swearengen (the consistently brilliant Ian McShane) as the camp’s most ruthless bastard but also the authority of Swearengen’s former nemesis, Bullock (Timothy Olyphant).
Determined to consolidate his holdings in this Dakota Territory mining camp, Hearst enters into a bizarre chess match with Swearengen, who joins with Bullock as an unlikely ally. For everything that’s transpiring (and there’s quite a lot), this confrontation provides a more intoxicating hook than the second season, which kept piling on new characters with impunity.
That isn’t to say there aren’t other pleasures to be found, from the booze-addled Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) addressing a class of schoolchildren to Bullock and his Jewish partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) running for office — the latter against incumbent mayor E.B. Farnum (the hilarious William Sanderson), who responds to the challenge with a brazenly anti-Semitic election speech.
At the same time, the wealthy Alma Garret (Molly Parker) is carrying Bullock’s baby but has wed the genial if awkward Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) to give the child a name. With Hearst coveting her mine claim, Garret’s difficult pregnancy fuels uncertainty regarding her ability to keep him at bay.
Seldom has any series been this densely layered, sometimes to its detriment. It’s that level of storytelling, more than the colorfully coarse language, which sets the show apart — though there’s also a fight in a later episode so grisly anyone remotely squeamish will likely be fumbling for the remote.
Nevertheless, under Milch’s unwavering hand “Deadwood” remains a series like none other. Buoyed by a top-flight cast newly augmented by Brian Cox as an old chum of Swearengen’s, the show is rife with sly humor while presenting a glimpse of the West that extends beyond mere revisionism, creating a living 19th century community populated by entrepreneurs, thugs and whores, in roughly that order.
In such an environment, life is cheap and can be snuffed out at a moment’s notice, whether out of malice, caprice or simply bad timing.
Kind of like TV.