We’ve waited a long time for this, haven’t we? When the third season of Deadwood ended, those of us who soaked up every vulgar phrase spouted in iambic pentameter, chased by frequent smatterings of blood, anticipated that there would certainly be more. For reasons still somewhat shrouded in mystery, it was not to be. What we were left with were three incomparable seasons that added up to an incomplete masterpiece—as if a corner of a Van Gogh canvas was left blank. You could still adore what was there, but that empty space, that feeling of the unfinished, has nagged at every one of us diehard fans these past thirteen years.
So, it was with near rapturous enthusiasm that the rumors of a Deadwood movie were met. I suspect the news that Deadwood writer and creator—the mercurial and so particularly talented David Milch—was suffering from Alzheimer’s added a heavy weight for many of us. The disease is a fate too cruel for anyone to suffer, but for the gifted wordsmith who put Shakespeare and Mamet in a blender and somehow reinvented the Western… we would need a new word for such a terrible outcome.
As ghoulish as it is to contemplate, there is almost no way to look at the Deadwood movie other than, quite likely, the last work of the man who gave it such a vibrant life. It’s not what he deserves, but as Clint Eastwood said in his own groundbreaking western, Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
What do we make of these final two hours, then? It would have been easy to reintroduce these characters to us and lean on nostalgia to carry it home. (As if Milch would ever consider such a thing.)
Instead, what we got is, essentially, a supersized Deadwood episode—full of slow burn and sudden outbursts of violence (as well as wondrously mellifluous profanity). It’s not easy to make c*nt and c*cksucker sing, but that has long been Milch’s bailiwick… You’ll find that skill undiminished here.
As we re-enter the world of Deadwood, we find our anti-heroes greatly impacted by the years. While some have worn better than others, all have weathered. (The occasional well-placed flashbacks show us just how much.) Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock may still be strapping, but he looks practically ancient when moments from previous seasons are interspersed.
No one has suffered the whips and scorns of time more than Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. Once the most formidable citizen in a town full of tramps and thieves, Al is shown on his last leg. The years of churning his liver with impure liquids have left him clinging to his dignity as tightly as he once clung to his status as head man in Deadwood. It’s hard not to see Al as Milch’s proxy over these final two hours. Swearengen sees the end coming. He’s not fighting it so much as he is trying to remain relevant for as long as he can.
While the news of a muted and all but disabled Al might sound disappointing in theory, his withering state is played with weary aplomb by an unparalleled McShane. Al is the last of his kind—the Deadwood that he dragged into existence and ruled over with disrepute is dying too, soon to become a part of proper civilization.
During the show’s brief three-year run it was wildly underrepresented by the Emmys and the Golden Globes when it came to nominations. But, to be fair, in supporting categories, where do you even start? It’s maddening to think that Paula Malcolmson’s Trixie never received any awards notice, but the plethora of rich performances probably led to a massacre of vote-splitting.
Among the lead roles, there was only room for McShane when the votes were tallied—and it’s easy to understand why. Al Swearengen is such a singular character, and McShane’s unique brio made the character into the role of a lifetime. It is sad, however, that recognition for McShane often overshadowed the equally impressive work of Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock.
For Deadwood to work as well as it did, it needed a flip-side of the coin to McShane’s mangy Al. Olyphant’s Sheriff Bullock supplied that in spades. It would have been simple to present the town sheriff as a figure of rectitude to counter the saloon and flop house-owning Al. But the real trick was making Bullock as psychologically complex as Swearengen, and amazingly, just as violent. You always got the sense that Bullock was barely holding on. As Al’s henchman Dan once said of Bullock, “he doesn’t know whose man he is.”
The two-hour finale actually puts Bullock more in the forefront than Al (if only by a little). Deadwood the movie finds Seth Bullock wiser and (slightly) more in control than before, the streak of grey running through his hair and the massive ‘stache lingering over his upper lip symbolizing the added maturity that should come with age. Though, that personal growth is tested every time he comes into contact with George Hearst (played with seething malevolence by Gerald McRaney).
There’s a great scene between Al and Bullock, in which they discuss how to deal with Hearst’s “putrid fucking nature” which he shields with the typical trappings of power and money. In that moment, Swearengen questions Bullock’s blunt tactics in facing off against Hearst after his murder of a beloved friend.
“You ever think, Bullock, of not going straight at a thing?”
In that succinct exchange, the two linchpins of the series are defined.
In taking on Hearst, they find themselves to be strange bedfellows. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old saying. Once near-mortal foes, they close the show as unlikely allies.
Was this the Deadwood conclusion we all hoped for? I’ll leave that for others to decide. The better question might be, is this the Deadwood conclusion we deserved?
I would say: unequivocally, yes. The weary, elegiac tone of this belated finale suits a group of characters on the edge of a modern world not all of them belong in. South Dakota is welcoming statehood and Hearst is bent on bringing the telephone to the West. Both of these advances seek to refine a town that was birthed in mud, blood, double-dealing and treachery. The main characters of Deadwood have only so much interest in civilization. You would swear the town itself has even less.
It’s hard to reverse a train once it hits full speed, which seems to be the lesson in this long-gestating coda to one of the greatest shows television has ever known. Life goes on. And one day, it will go on without us. If we are lucky, we’ll be remembered for a spell. David Milch’s creation will carry on long after we all are gone. I suppose you’d call that a legacy. Should these two hours of Deadwood be his final statement, let it be said to the extent my voice may reach: it was a grand one.
There’s a beautiful line of dialogue between Bullock and his former lover, Alma Garrett (played by the luminous Molly Parker), when they reconnect after many years. In speaking of their unlikely and sure-to-be-brief reunion, she describes its serendipity like so:
“As a dream might come alive to draw a breath.”
One might speak of these final two hours of Deadwood in much the same way. As unlikely as it once seemed, and for as many years as it took to come into being, for two hours on Friday night, May 24, 2019 the dream came alive and drew glorious breath.
Think of our good fortune that we were here to see it.