July 31, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Deadwood”: The Earp brothers ride in

Ever notice how every time Deadwood throws famous historical characters into the mix, the actors involved grab hold with relish? Is it that they’ve done massive research and gone all Method on the role? Has HBO invented a Mr. Peabody-type time machine for them? Beats me. My point is that addition of the Earp brothers (following the appearance of Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and George Hearst) added a spark to tonight’s episode that we haven’t seen in a while. And that spark = Danger. But Danger for whom, you ask? Well, it’s still too early to tell which side Wyatt (Queer as Folk‘s Gale Harold) and Morgan (Austin Nichols) will land on. But the boys’ farce of being money-wagon saviors didn’t fool Bullock or Al for a second, and the elder Earp clearly has a plan. This should play out in the next episode. In the meantime, we’ve got a few more players to join the game whose allegiance is still undetermined.

Other good matchups this episode:

Hearst vs. Merrick Once again the show does a stellar job of proving that Hearst didn’t become a titan of business by being a fool. He knew exactly why the letter was printed, and he wasted no time letting Merrick know he knew. Looks like Merrick just picked a side, whether he likes it or not.

Bullock vs. Mrs. Bullock Just a quick dip into the Bullock household to show that while Seth is a tough guy to the world, his wife has him wrapped around her little finger. Ah, marriage.

Jane and Joanie vs. the innkeeper After a night of Sapphic togetherness, who wants to wake up to a bigot yapping about the rules of cohabitation? I was unclear on how he knew what they were doing. I can’t imagine it was that odd for two women to share a room with each other during that era. Was he peeping? Either way, it was highly satisfying to see Jane pop him one in the belly.

Steve the Drunk vs. the horse So Steve is now a vegetable. And I thought it was the booze that would do him in. In a moment sure to be appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan, Steve got brain damage while trying to keep the General in town, proving that no attempt at interracial bonding goes unpunished in Deadwood. The problem, of course, is that Steve is so unlikable it’s hard to muster up any sorrow about his fate. I know that they were going for an Archie Bunker type, and that Steve was so, so, so racist that it had to mean he really cared. But he was so, so, so racist that it made it hard to care. That oatmeal looked tasty, though.

And now, the winner of my weekly Deadwood Standout Role Award: Morgan Earp, a breath of fresh comic air (best guffaw of the night: Morgan suggesting they join up with Bullock and, if not, then they kill Bullock, all in one breath) who isn’t just around for comic relief. E.B. is an amusing fool, but that’s really the only purpose he serves anymore. Morgan Earp reminded me of Joe Pesci’s character in GoodFellas, with his twitchy unpredictability and Helter Skelter eyes — only taller.

The most disappointing — and, frankly, lamest — combination of characters this week was Langrishe and Hearst. I’ve made it perfectly clear I think that Langrishe is a wasted character and that the time spent on him and his troupe of thespians is doubly wasted. His weird Pilates-yoga-Deepak Chopra moment with Hearst really seemed out of place, and reeked of trying to shoehorn Langrishe into the main action of the story. And then Hearst catching Langrishe drinking with Al? Would a master plotter trying to worm his way into an enemy’s good graces go for a nightcap on the balcony across the street? The Watergate burglars had more scheming sense than that. Overall, a weak subplot .

But it did lead into the best (and last) moment of the night. Hearst’s posse has arrived with whoops and shouts and torches burning. If anything, Hearst knows how to make a statement. Those few seconds have set the tone for the final episodes. With a slow increase in tension, it looks like war is coming to Deadwood.

While I enjoy having new characters introduced, the complete lack of progress on many of the story lines that we’ve been following just seemed like poor planning on producer David Milch’s part. Where was Mrs. Ellsworth and her drug habit? Trixie and Sol’s relationship ratchet? Doc Cochran and his lousy lung? Hell, Tom Nuttall and the fire engine? These aren’t major factors, but it was disconcerting to have so many plot threads dropped, and if you were like me and watched last week’s episode as a refresher before the new ep, the disappearances were glaringly obvious. And for the love of all that is sacred, I want my Wu!

To think about for next week: Can the town find enough firepower to battle the Hearst 25? Will those actors ever move into their new digs? Is Ellsworth getting back together with Mrs. Ellsworth? And what is the Earp boys’ secret plan?

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