Several years passed - I'm not quite sure how - between the day I removed the last disc of Deadwood's second season from my DVD player, and today, when I pressed play on the opener of its third and final season. It certainly wasn't from lack of affection for the series, which, warts and all, remains one of the most inventive coherent worlds ever created for television.
Looking back over the vastness of intervening time, I thought I might need a refresher in plot, so I gamely clicked on the second season summary. Several minutes later, utterly unenlightened and desperately seeking subtitles, I sallied forth into the muddy, piss-soaked streets of Deadwood once more. Here's what I found:
It's election season, and campaigns have made odd bedfellows. Not least of these is Sheriff Seth Bullock, pillar of granite-browed rectitude and widow-fancying hearth-throb, who finds himself uneasily and passively allied with lord of misrule (and bar-owner by night) Al Swearengen, who had spent the previous two seasons like a canny spider at the center of the web of greater Deadwood, waiting greasily for vibrations along his sticky strands of influence. These two are the most dynamically entwined of former-enemies-turned-allies, but it seems everyone in town is either agitating for an office personally or using threats and promises to control the outcome. "I've got an idea," a friend helpfully says to one candidate, "Instead of running for office and tending bar, why don't you just tend bar and let everybody punch you in the face?".
Although most of the characters are embroiled in plots that cycle them rapidly through rage and despair, the centre around which the gyre of Deadwood widens and widens is always Al Swearengen. This week he is grappling with sinister mining magnate George Hearst (future Senator and father of yellow journalism prophet and Rosebud-mutterer William Randolph) to determine which of them can exert the most complicated, subtle, and devious hold over individual citizens of the town. Hearst, as an opening gambit, has arranged for his own employee to be killed in Swearengen's bar, presumably to have an excuse to come down on the establishment, filled with the mighty rage of the wronged. But then, oddly, he chooses not to follow up on the incident, telling Bullock that it won't be necessary for the sheriff's office to look into it any deeper. It must be hard, Swearengen insinuates oh-so-kindly to the genial Hearst, not to see events like this as part of a larger conspiracy against you personally. Oh, I have long since giving up on seeing everything as a conspiracy against me, Hearst cannily replies, recognizing only the top layer of Swearengen's irony.
"You ain't the centre of the universe, in other words," banters back our villainous hero.
"Don't that lead you to despair?"
With a charm born of utter honesty, a Swearengian reply: "You're stronger minded than I."The best lack all conviction, while the worst - the poet tells us - are full of passionate intensity.
When I call him the Lord of Misrule, I don't mean to conjure up jolly images of surrealist jokers and Mardi Gras kings. Swearengen is famously, hilariously, generatively profane - at one point he demands the truth from the craven toady of a mayor E.B. Farnum with these words:
"I will profane your fucking remains, E.B."
"Not my remains, Al!"
"Gabriel's trumpet will produce you from the ass of a pig."But rather than being a fully Falstaffian figure of plump, rapscalliony good humor, his is a darker kind of chaos. He holds Deadwood together in more or less sinister ways (his efforts at town improvement have led to more than a few corpses being subtly fed to the pigs in the dead of night), but his is not a leadership of coherence and calm. Rather it is a dynamism that courts collapse, that never rests content with what is. He is the centre that cannot hold. The power that finds itself only by reacting to its own potential overthrow.
In talking to Hearst, Swearengen walks a thin line between asserting this centrality, this control, and convincing the more powerful man that he can be harmless and even supportive given the right incentives. In the conversation, he draws a distinction between being "dangerous" - a short-term, destablizing threat - and being "powerful" - the long-view steadfastness of balanced control. And of course, he claims to be the first (dangerous when riled by bodies on the floor of his bar, but easily appeased) without being the second. This naturally leads us to wonder whether he is as powerful as he is dangerous. Or is danger the trademark of the chaotician, the radical, the experimentalist, while power is only ever within the reach of the stable, the conservative?
It is one of the great truths of this show that its central concern is the Law - How is it built up at the frontiers of both nation and imagination? How does lawlessness like Swearengen's drift inevitably towards political structure, and then subsume the Law into its own processes of misrule? Now that Swearengen and Bullock have joined forces, the nature of power and moral structure is in the town is a muddier issue than ever. Bullock finds himself asking whether his explosive temper (think what a rage you would have built up if you had been glaring repressively at people for two solid years) should disqualify him from running as incumbent sheriff. He is particularly unsettled by an episode in which he beats the slimy but sadly innocent Farnum within an inch of his life, thinking that the notorious gossip has told Hearst about Bullock's sexual entanglement with a now-pregnant widow.
As he is being pummeled by the sheriff himself, E.B. cries out for the law, and his wizened cook goes running across town without a second thought to fetch Al Swearengen. This is his instinct for the political structure of the town and its system of justice. Looking in on this tawdry scene, we have to wonder - what has the law come to in Deadwood?