Season Two, Episode One: “A Lie Agreed Upon: Part I” (Season Premiere)
Note: each writing will spoil the episode in review but will not discuss any future episodes.
It’s been attributed to Napoleon, Voltaire, and Nietzsche to have said a variation of the quote, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” (Other variations include, “History is the lie commonly agreed upon” and “What is the truth, but a lie agreed upon.”) Fitting, seeing that while Deadwood remains historically accurate on some levels, elsewhere, it’s not quite close.
Also, the camp is right in the middle of some of its own history, and a lot more is coming. Since the end of season one, the camp has endured a winter so there’s a months-long time jump here to begin. By my calculations, the first season ended around middle or late August (Al even references that Bullock put on the badge “last summer”) and now it’s spring, according to Cy Tolliver when he speaks to Joanie taking in the morning. Not only has Bullock been the sheriff in that time frame, but he’s also continued his affair with the widow Garrett: everyone in camp knows about it, which brings together many awkward situations in “A Lie Agreed Upon.” Bullock, though, has managed to finish his house on the outskirts of the camp. Charlie Utter has become a deputy. Silas is a regular in the camp and often brings news from Yankton. Joanie has gotten a piece of property to start her own whorehouse and has sent for an old friend to help. Eddie Sawyer has fled. And maybe most importantly, the camp is now under the officiating of a governor.
The episode opens with significant visions of change. Poles are being erected for telegraphs. A stagecoach brings in new ladies of the night, Bullock’s wife Martha, and his adopted son William. Deadwood itself seems bigger, more crowded. Alma Garrett is significantly richer than even she knows.
Al, Silas Adams, and Dan contemplate the news that Silas brings concerning Governor Pennington’s notion to divide the Deadwood hills into three counties but not have anyone from Deadwood as commissioner. Not only that, but Governor Pennington sends Al a letter to let him know exactly why he’s appointed only Yankton men for the positions: to keep Al at bay. This hinders any of Al’s plans to retain control and also brings him to a near rage the more he thinks about how the camp could be slipping away from him. It’s funny that Dan’s first and only instinct is just to kill and cut to solve any problem. He even tells Al that he’s willing to cut down the telegraph poles after Al warns him that the only news that ever comes from such is “[b]ad news! Or tries against our interests is our sole communications from strangers, so by all means, let’s plant poles all across the country, festoon the cocksucker with wires to hurry the sorry word and blinker our judgments of motive, huh?”
It’s that rage that takes Al to drink straight from the bottle — a bad sign for anyone around him — and yell out to Seth Bullock in the thoroughfare to get his head straight. Bullock takes his insult for the moment, but promises to return. But Al is trying to get Bullock’s attention because of these incoming, unpredictable outsiders. The look on Al’s face after yelling to Bullock says that he knows he’s stirred a fight and that this time, he may be in the wrong. Bullock, though, is no man to let an insult be tolerated, especially since the insult was, in part, as much about the widow whom he loves.
Bullock comes back, finds out the new intel from Al, and preps for a fight. Other shows would’ve built to this in season one, but not Deadwood. Side-stepping and subverting such expectations, writer David Milch has his two main characters finally fight one another in the first episode of the second season, and not as sheriff versus criminal. It feels like a realized promise even if the show doesn’t dally in such tropes. The intense fisticuffs carries the two over the balcony and hurts both, but Bullock mostly gets the upper hand until Dan cracks his head with the butt of a gun. Dan even considers shooting him, but a steely Silas Adams knows that Al wants all the help he can get with the future now in the present. Al himself even debates killing Bullock but it’s Bullock’s son who seems to stop. (Al later admits as much, though it’s hard to say whether or not he simply is trying to create the excuse in the moment.) In the fray, Sol ends up getting shot in the shoulder and Charlie Utter gets his ear grazed. It’s a lot of blood, though everyone ends up alive, just angry and injured.
In the stagecoach is Joanie’s friend, a Miss Maddie, brought in to help with recruitment of prostitutes and management of Joanie’s new business, called Le Chez Ami, or “House of Friends.” Cy, like others in the camp dealing with change, is furious at the thought of Joanie finally making a place for herself even though he commissioned as much in the first season. It’s as if he though it would never come to be, but now that it has, he realizes he’s been duped by a missing Eddie Sawyer and it doesn’t help that Joanie is moving forward with Ms. Maddie, a lady Cy disdains. He sends with them a whore from his business whom he threatens to gut if she isn’t taken in at Le Chez Ami. Cy is getting more ruthless and vile, if possible. Powers Boothe is to be commended for his performance. He was always a great and complex villain.
While Al gets his wounds bandaged in the Gem, Dan explains to even less intelligent Johnny about why Al would want the likes of Bullock in his circle with the Yankton threat looming. It’s in this scene where it’s most evident that all of the actors are thoroughly comfortable now with Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue. Listen to Dan as he recounts, very much in a way that Al would, why Al would keep Bullock alive despite his hatred towards him. Not only does it mirror Al’s voice but it shows a fluidity with the writing. W. Earl Brown and his accent are very welcome in every episode.
Bullock, Sol Star, and Charlie are all getting seen by the Doc when the uncomfort arrives in the form of Alma Garrett and her welcoming basket. She uses the opportunity to greet Martha and William to check on Bullock and lots of silent glances ensue. It’s likely that Martha read the room correctly as on her walk to her new home, she lets Seth know that he doesn’t have to explain his working relationship with Alma Garrett to her as he already had in his writing. As it turns out, he has probably not done as much.
The episode ends with a stiff voiceover of Seth reading a letter to Martha, which lacks any love or romance and instead is just a recounting of materials and ideas he has for their house. Instead, he goes to Alma for comfort from the day’s events while outside the conman yells for people to buy soap for the chance at a prize.
- A brief glimpse of Jane as she drunkenly slouches on her horse just outside of camp only to arise to cuss the dusty stagecoach!
- Seth and Alma have such intense sex that the plaster from the ceiling of the hotel dining room below falls on the patrons, particularly young Sohpia and Ms. Isringhausen, Sophia’s tutor.
- Al’s quote on the telegraph poles (“Invisible messages from invisible sources, or what some people think of as progress”) could easily be applied to today.
- Tom Nuttall tells Bullock that the murder in his saloon was “only Bummer Dan.” Hilarious!
- Amazingly, the shyster with the soap with the prize inside lasted through the winter. It’s a wonder Bullock hasn’t arrested him or beat him to death.
- In perhaps one of Ian McShane’s funniest lines yet, he tells E.B. not to take Bullock his gun and badge back. “Here’s your hardware, and as he looks a cunt anyway, Al would like you to have this rose!”
- By the way, Seth still doesn’t have his gun and badge by episode’s end.
Quote of the episode:
E.B., trying to get away from Johnny in order to fulfill his orders from Al on finding out more about the newly arrived girls: “Let me suss out that new trim, Johnny, before I earn some added rebuke!”