Want to make a superlative episode of Deadwood? Than may I suggest following a pretty specific rubric -- "A Day in the Life of Al Swearengen."
Other characters have grown on me, even compelled me. Jane is a pistol; Doctor Cochran is irascible but has a heart of gold, and everything from the world-weary charm of Charlie Utter to unassuming decency of Elsworth to the complexity of Trixie ensures that there's more than enough interesting personalities to populate around Deadwood. But it all revolves around Al, both in terms of the town, where he is clearly the thing holding this loose association of prospectors and scoundrels together, and in terms of the show, where he gives a singular performance that is the most consistently entertaining and notable in the show.
And here, we see Al face a decision, a series of decisions. When Mr. Wu comes to tell him that a pair of dope fiends killed his courier and stole the product, he quickly figures out who the culprits are. One is a loyal enough, apologetic man who says all the right things and makes every effort to get back the good graces of the man he works for. The other, Leon, is a shit, who's racist, pompous, and brazen about his whole situation.
It sets up an incredible dichotomy that follows Al throughout the episode: the difference between the things he wants to do, and the things he feels he has to do.
It comes through in his dealings with Mr. Wu. Despite Al's complaints about the "dirt-worshipping" Native Americans, he shows a respect to his Chinese associate that no one else in his enterprise does. The scene where the two of them try to understand each other, with Al lamenting that he taught Wu the word "cocksucker," and a delightfully vaudeville bit of who/Wu confusion, is the most hilarious thing in the show so far, but it's also emblematic of the way that Al is willing to engage with Wu, that it's a pain in some ways, but that he's willing to make the effort because he respects this guy.
And yet, he still makes Mr. Wu go out the back; he still creates a pretense for him entering Wu's butcher shop rather than being seen openly negotiating with someone of Asian descent. He even endeavors to make Wu seem like a big man to his people, because he understands where Wu is coming from, that he holds a similar place in Deadwood's Chinese community that Al holds in his. That doesn't mean that Al's inviting Mr. Wu to join the city council, but you get the impression that he might like to, but he has to deal with the rest of the racist ecosystem he exists in, and that would be bad for his plans.
The same comes through in his dealings with Reverend Smith, whose condition is worsened and who stops into the Gem at the sound of Al's new piano. The first time it happens, Al politely explains to Reverend Smith that a man of the cloth in a saloon is bad for business, but shows him sympathy by bringing up his brother who had a similar affliction, and even offers to sate any sinful desires the pure-hearted Reverend Smith might have after hours. Al has no malice in his heart for the reverend; to the contrary, he seems to feel for, or at least empathize with him, and want to accommodate him. But when the rev's mental condition deteriorates and he forgets having been shoo'd out before, Al isn't so yielding the second time. Al warned Reverend Smith once, and at the end of the day, Al has to look out for his own interests, whether it's the atmosphere of the saloon or bribes he has to collect in Yankton.
And last but not least, he has to decide which of those dope fiends to hand over to Mr. Wu so that he and his pigs can exact their revenge. Al never says a word about it, but it's clear that he wants to hang onto his own guy and turn over Leon. He subtly appeals to Cy, who less subtly rebuffs him and won't give his blessing to Leon taking the fall. Al never says it out loud, but you can tell at the way he looks at one versus the other that he wishes to god he could just drag Leon that miserable prick over to Wu and give his own guy a second chance. But that's not practical, and Al is above all else, ruthlessly practical. So he drowns his own guy, shocking Leon and the corrupt emissary from Yankton, and hands him over to Wu to make things right.
It's hard to say whether it's a tough decision for him. The episode takes time to toy with the audience as to how much Al is conflicted about this, whether he's going to take the advice to let them draw straws to nominally relieve himself of having to choose. But in the end, he does.
It's not the only comparison like this on the show, though. In the beginning, Merrick wants to start a walking club, something to heighten the sense of community, but neither of the hardware boys nor Charlie are interested. But at the end, when the reverend is out of sorts, Bullock and Star are there to take him for an evening stroll, not because it's what the community requires, but because it's what they want to do, out of the goodness of their hearts.