This second episode of HBO’s new series makes it clear that the writers aren’t going to waste a lot of time setting up conflicts. Tonight the lines were firmly drawn between bad guys and good.
On the bad side is, first and foremost, the saloon owner Al Swearengen, who is so consistently, awfully awful that I have to admire Ian McShane’s ability to add some depth to an otherwise fairly flat character. There’s no low where Al won’t go, including ordering the murder of a little girl who threatens to expose one of his subsidiary ventures — the ambush and slaughter of pioneer families to grab the little bit of money they might have, with the added touch of making sure the whole thing gets blamed on the Sioux. This little girl, the sole survivor of one such attack on a Norwegian family by Al’s henchmen, has thus far survived Al’s attempts to see her murdered. Right now she is the pawn around which the central conflict is being built.
On the other side of Al and his cronies are the doctor, who is neither a drunk or an addict for once, Calamity Jane played here on the fine edge of hysteria by Robin Weigert, the former lawman from Montana Seth Bullock and his partner Sol Star who have come to Deadwood to set up a legitimate business, the fatally flawed Wild Bill Hickok and his friend Charlie Utter.
There are a number of subsidiary plotlines that haven’t been woven into this central bit yet, but that can’t be far off. Tonight we saw the first face to face confrontation between a paranoid Al Swearengen and an edgy Seth Bullock, in a scene so tense and tightly played that it sparked. I have to admire the pacing and complexity of the plot and the performances, although I’m hoping that as one of the few female characters Calamity Jane will break out of the fairly predictable range of emotions they’ve set up for her.