Staring balefully from the roof of his saloon, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) sees telegraph lines slowly slinking into Deadwood. News can now slip into town over wires any old time. ''Don't we face enough f---ing imponderables?'' he mutters.
Season 2 of HBO's pungent Western finds Swearengen the crudely but aptly named pimp, killer, de facto ruler unnerved. The territory's new governor has bestowed all power positions upon outsiders: Strangers will soon be fingering around in Swearengen's gold-rush town. Those telegraph lines mean 1&@# reg'lar people will get information he isn't privy to. Plus he feels like crap: The only thing that relieves his kidney stones involves a whore and her thumb. Swearengen on the defensive is bristling, especially as played by Golden Globe winner McShane, radiating violence like a scent. His broke-down antihero is less a man than a domesticated wolf that should have remained feral.
When creator David Milch introduced Deadwood last year, he teased viewers into thinking this was a new spin on Westerns. Look: real-life characters, like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane! And they scream jarring profanities, like c---sucker! It was like stamping BeDazzlers on a perfectly good pair of Wranglers. Fortunately, Deadwood became even more interesting after shedding its Hickok hook. (Played by Keith Carradine, the gambler was killed off partway through season 1.) A year later, the rootin'-tootin' cadences of Calamity Jane (Emmy nominee Robin Weigert) have settled into a familiar, unshowy rhythm. Even that word is no longer a showstopper.
In short, Deadwood has become one hell of a great gimmick-free Western. As if to celebrate their newfound identity, the writers have provided a traditional, roiling showdown in the season premiere. (But first, viewers must get past the mystifying first 10 minutes, filled with dense discussions of government appointments and gold rights, as uncompelling as those trade-route taxation debates in The Phantom Menace.) In High Noon style, the prefight tension builds throughout the day: Reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is carrying on a plaster-smashing affair with the Widow Garret (Molly Parker). Knotted by the imminent arrival of his wife and son in Deadwood, Bullock becomes enraged when Swearengen yells out a filthy remark about his mistress. The resulting fracas is over-the-balcony fisticuffs filled with flying blood, cracked ribs, and a really big knife. For Western lovers, it's like ringing the dinner bell and screaming ''Come 'n' git it!''
Like any good oater, Deadwood has capital C characters, but they stop a blink short of caricature. Skittery E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) Swearengen's puppet mayorócould have been plucked from one of the venal river towns Huck Finn visits. Morose and full of liquor, Calamity Jane offers comic relief, right down to farting after a fall from her horse. But she's never fully ridiculous, because her boozing is fueled by the death of her best friend, Hickok. ''Promise when I'm dead you'll plant me with a view of Bill,'' she requests. Dramas rarely offer such pure expressions of friendship.
Like its macho HBO brother The Sopranos, Deadwood revels in blurry-quick flashes of viciousness like when a drunk gets impaled on a set of decorative antlers (Ouch!). Just as stinging are moments that smack of evil to come. When saloon owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) thickly, tensely wishes luck to his former love Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) as she opens her own brothel, it feels like the beating he'd like to give her has simply gone up ahead to wait in ambush.
The violence real and imagined makes the instances of grace so poignant they're almost painful. Sol Star (John Hawkes), injured by a bullet, sways into the street to back his friend Bullock when he faces Swearengen. Civil War-rattled Doc Cochran (the brilliant, water-eyed Brad Dourif) takes in stray humans, when he'd rather get pickled. These are mere air pockets of decency, as Deadwood is deeply unromantic. Viewers craving lush locales and romantic pairings should keep moving. Deadwood is packed with mud and stink and man-eating hogs; bodies are revealed mainly as sources of pain and humiliation. It's a heavy, nasty vision of America past.