The plot – and the mud – thickens

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen


SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – There’s a lot of hustle and bustle on the set of “Deadwood,” which has been built here on the late Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. Horses struggle to drag covered wagons through the river of mud that courses through the main street of the ramshackle mining settlement.

In front of the hardware and supply stores, extras dressed as dudes, miners and cowboys go about their business. The only unnatural elements are the cameras and lights manned by technicians in sneakers and baseball hats. It’s a strange amalgam of present and past.


“It’s amazing that a story of this size can be told in such detail and over such a large spate of time,” says actor Powers Boothe, who plays one of Deadwood’s main power brokers, the entrepreneur Cy Tolliver.


David Milch, the creative force behind the HBO series, which begins its second season tonight at 9, describes the South Dakota frontier town as a midway point for everything America was up to 1876-77 – and as a symbol for everything it continues to be.


“It’s the most obvious example of how things we’re all familiar with start – politically, economically – in the rawest form,” Milch says. “The town came out of nowhere and created itself from scratch. But that isn’t to imply that things were simple. There’s a good deal more gray than there is black and white, when you try to see past the primordial ooze of the place.”


Deadwood is probably best known as the town where gunslinging gambler Wild Bill Hickok (played in the series by Keith Carradine) was shot by Jack McCall in August 1876. Hickok’s death came at the end of the fourth episode.


In some ways, “Deadwood” is like “Survivor” set in the old West. Life is cheap, and the only law comes at the point of a gun or the flash of a knife. But behind the violence is the kind of ruthless business maneuvering that remade the nation after the Civil War.


Boothe says that, in the new season, “you’ll see my character shifting his alliances and vying for even more power when new economic interests come to Deadwood.”


He’s referring to the arrival of George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst), who actually did come to Deadwood in 1877 and bought up most of the miners’ claims.


“Hearst also had the ability, the technology and the knowledge to dig for the Qq Poker Online gold, whereas up to that point most of the mining was done by sifting through the dirt and panning in the river,” Boothe says. “He changed everything.”


Tolliver’s chief competitor is Al Swearengen, who, like Tolliver, runs a saloon, brothel and gambling house. British actor Ian McShane took home a Golden Globe this year for his canny portrayal of Swearengen.


“Tolliver is a little slicker, and his services are a little more expensive than Al’s,” says Boothe, “but we actually work together pretty well for the most part. I think of Tolliver as the Cro-Magnon to Swearengen’s Neanderthal.”


“Swearengen is the most self-aware character in the story – he’s the guy who really knows himself, and when he messes up, he knows he’s messed up,” McShane says. “He’s not at peace with himself, God knows, but he’s at home with his own character and he knows exactly who he is. And although he seems at times like the villain of the story, the more you watch him the more sympathetic he becomes.”


As the show and the town continue to evolve, the role of peace officer will fall to Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who is the traditional white-hat figure in this Western saga. But like the others in Milch’s tableau, Bullock is not quite what he seems.


“With Swearengen you know who you’re dealing with straight out of the gate,” Olyphant says. “Bullock is more complicated, mainly because he isn’t sure who he is or who he might become. Does he stand for right and wrong, or is he some kind of a maniac?”


Bullock’s life will be affected by the arrival of his wife and stepchild in the new season. Also coming aboard is Hearst’s psychotic geologist, Samuel Wollcott. He’ll be played by Garret Dillahunt, who played McCall in the first season.


“The second season is certainly as ambitious as the first,” Milch says. “Mark Twain will make an appearance, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) returns, as does Doc Cochrane (Brad Dourif) and Alma Garret (Molly Parker), who plays a much bigger role as the story evolves.


“The first two episodes take place on the same day, when Bullock and Swearengen nearly kill each other, and there will be a rival warlord in the Chinese section of town. Needless to say, blood is spilled.”


Dustin Herrera

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