'Deadwood: The Movie': A Proper Goodbye to TV's Unfinished Masterpiece - Rolling Stone
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‘Deadwood: The Movie’: A Proper F-ckin’ Farewell for TV’s Unfinished Masterpiece

Twelve years after HBO abruptly canceled the series, David Milch revisits his profane, profound opus about the lawless American West for a fitting — and very emotional — finale

Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane reunite in 'Deadwood: The Movie.'

Warrick Page/HBO

This column contains full [Ed note: like, VERY full] spoilers for Deadwood: The Movie.

Early in Deadwood: The Movie, former lovers Seth Bullock and Alma Ellsworth share an awkward reunion at the hotel Seth owns with Sol Star. Their feelings for one another remain intense, but Seth has long since recommitted to his wife Martha, and neither knows quite what to say to the other. As a woman of means, though, Alma has experience making small talk in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, and she sincerely tells him, “You having so lived in recollection, marshal, it is my considerable happiness to see you again.”

In its original run, Deadwood didn’t have much use for meta commentary. This movie, though, can’t help but feel self-aware. It’s not just Alma’s line, but the film opening with Calamity Jane saying, “Ten years gone,” or Charlie Utter reacting to Alma and her daughter Sofia’s arrival with, “What a grand surprise after such a piece of time.” It’s Al Swearengen asking Seth, “Where you been, Bullock?” (“Right up the fucking road, Al,” Seth quips.) It’s everyone reflecting on the passage of time — of Al being sick, of Cy Tolliver being dead and gone, of some figures like Jane being stuck in emotional stasis, while others like Seth have changed considerably since last we saw them. Deadwood: The Movie feels as much about the experience of bringing the show back to life as it feels about this particular story. And this great series having so lived in recollection, it is my considerable happiness to see it again.

The movie is not a flawless piece of work — but then, neither was the show. David Milch’s improvisational approach to writing the series meant that it was often stronger in individual moments than as a long-form narrative. As Timothy Olyphant told me, “My recollection of what made the show great was never the plot. What made the show great was spending time with these characters.” This holds true in the film.

The story feels hastily glued together in spots, like Trixie’s rant at George Hearst alerting him to the fact that Al pulled a fast one on him back in the series finale. It’s unclear whether Hearst has been back at the camp since he rode out at the end of the series finale, “Tell Him Something Pretty.” But even if this is his first return visit, Trixie’s outburst plays more as something Milch simply needed as an inciting incident, rather than something even the show’s most impulsive character (and an extremely pregnant one, at that) would absolutely do in that moment.

The desire to bring back as many former regulars as possible, coupled with the logistical challenges of doing so, contributes to this occasional sloppiness. Molly Parker could only fly down from Vancouver (where she was filming Lost in Space) on weekends, so Alma’s presence feels more like a notable cameo than the full arc someone so important to the series deserved. Some of the supporting players get moments that feel significant and true to character, like Mr. Wu (who now speaks a bit more English) trying in vain to get Al to try his herbal remedies. Others play more blatantly as excuses to shoehorn in old favorites. Why is Con Stapleton now the town minister? Had to give him something to do here, and there’s historical precedence of a former Cy Tolliver henchman becoming a man of God. Why is A.W. Merrick running the auction for Charlie’s land? Because leaving him to just take the perp walk photo of Hearst wouldn’t have felt like quite enough.

But Olyphant’s recollection of what made Deadwood great is exactly right. That the story is thin — and in many ways a rehash of the series’ final episodes, with Charlie’s murder standing in for Ellsworth’s — is almost besides the point. Plot-wise, Deadwood: The Movie concludes in no more certain a spot than “Tell Him Something Pretty” did. We end with Hearst locked in Bullock’s jail. We know he’s likely to skate on all involvement in Charlie’s death, but we don’t know how. We have no idea if his next attempt to have Trixie arrested for his attempted murder will be more successful than the one Seth foiled at the wedding reception, nor what Trixie in freedom might do as new owner of the Gem.

Olyphant and John Hawkes in ‘Deadwood: The Movie.’
photo: Warrick Page/HBO

And I don’t give a tinker’s damn, because I was enthralled by almost all of this movie, and a weepy fucking mess for the final half hour.

Endings have generally not been David Milch’s strength. Men plan and God laughs, so this man has historically opted not to plan far in advance. But circumstances — first the cancellation, then his Alzheimer’s diagnosis — mean he’s been working on some version or other of this script for years. As a result, the movie has an incredibly satisfying, at times emotionally overwhelming, final act. It’s not much of a conclusion to the story of Deadwood, but it brings the experience of it, as well as the arcs of its two main characters — plus notable supporting figures like Trixie and Jane — to resting places that feel as perfect as they can, given the unusual and often difficult birthing process.

Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane in ‘Deadwood: The Movie.’
photo: Warrick Page/HBO

 

The film’s self-aware nature extends well beyond the idea that the full ensemble is reuniting for the first time in years. Every moment Ian McShane is on screen is informed by Milch’s health problems. Milch pours a bit of himself into all of his characters, but Swearengen got more of his creator’s spirit than anyone else ever has, and that sadly continues here. All the characters have visibly aged, but the others all look as if they’ve grown comfortably into their advancing years. The contrast between Seth and Alma in bed at the Grand Central and the two of them making small talk at the Bullock and Star Hotel is striking, but both are healthy and largely at peace with the choices they’ve made in their lives. (Albeit Seth more than Alma.) From the moment we see Al, though, he looks like death: jaundiced and slow and a shell of the master of the universe he was when the show began. (It’s not just the years, but how he carries himself; compare McShane here to him on American Gods, where he’s playing a far older character who’s nonetheless much fuller of life than Swearengen at this point.) He can’t keep track of the days of the week. As this new trouble with Hearst arises, he’s barely of any use at all. Where once he was the man the camp looked to in times of crisis like this, now he’s largely a passive observer — or, worse, the man the others have to care for on top of trying to find a way out of the mess Trixie created.

Because Al is in such a weakened state in his final days on this earth, the movie is dominated by Bullock in a way the show only was in its first few episodes. I think Olyphant is tougher on his performance in the series than he should be, but he’s also grown significantly as an actor in the years since. The Olyphant of 2006 might not have been up for the complicated journey Deadwood: The Movie takes Bullock on. Present-day Olyphant is, to a spectacular degree. Where other characters have failed to evolve in the passing years — or, in cases like Joanie, have backslid into behavior they had seemed to move beyond — Bullock has finally grown comfortable in his own skin at the time the story resumes. He and Martha have had three sweet, adorable kids in the years since William’s tragic death. He’s a lawman again (a marshal rather than a sheriff, so he’s not subject to any of Hearst’s rigged elections). His businesses with Sol are thriving. He’s become a community leader in a way he never wanted or knew how to be in his early years in the camp. He’s the one Charlie goes to for advice about whether to sell to Hearst, and when Hearst’s goons kill Charlie, it’s Bullock who presides eloquently over the funeral. (It’s a marked change from how distracted and angry he was at Wild Bill’s funeral back in the day; his oratory is the kind that the late Reverend Smith would be proud to hear.)

But then old friends and enemies start returning to the camp, and Bullock’s cozy little life gets upended. Alma’s return is more of a surprise than a genuine threat to his marriage. He’s startled to see her, and still feels a deep connection to her, but he chose Martha all those years ago, and nothing has shaken him from that. (Even Martha seems mostly secure in her understanding of this. There’s a moment when she sees Seth hug Alma after the auction where she briefly looks concerned, but she’s also the one who insists that Seth put the two Ellsworth women up at the hotel.) Alma has a harder time keeping old feelings under wraps, but she’s also embarrassed by that. She gets to do her great deed in keeping Charlie’s land away from Hearst — a fitting act of heroism in a world that always treated money as a more powerful weapon than guns or knives — but otherwise has to content herself to the life she’s had with Sofia and her business holdings.

It’s Hearst who provides the greater disruption to the peace in the camp, and in the life of its top cop. The movie covers only a few days (most episodes of the show spanned just one), yet in that time, Charlie, both of Hearst’s assassins, several of Hearst’s bodyguards and Harry Manning(*) are all shot and killed, while poor Samuel Fields is on the verge of dying from injuries suffered in the assassins’ interrupted lynching. Even leaving out Al’s death by natural causes, this is a staggering body count for what is supposed to be an assimilated, civilized American town. Hearst taunts Seth about it from his balcony, even as the industrialist and politician is responsible for most of it, yet it’s Seth who assumes the blame (“not proud of it”). This kind of thing shouldn’t still be happening on his watch, he believes, yet the fact of it threatens to undo all of his emotional maturity and send him back to the raging, repressed, self-destructively stubborn man he used to be. That Seth shoots and kills one of the would-be lynchers to protect Wu’s grandson Mengyao is an understandable, even controlled act. That he then begins savagely beating on the surviving assassin is Bullock going back to an emotional place he hasn’t been since the series, maybe all the way to his tooth-loosening dispatch of Alma’s father at the end of Season One. (In both cases, it’s Sol who has to break the spell — this time taking an inadvertent elbow to the face for his trouble.)

(*) Some of the returning characters get scanter screen time than Harry, but he probably suffers the most from the limitations of doing this as a film. Where a full season of TV might have allowed Milch to introduce a seemingly loyal new deputy, then reveal him as a Hearst mole, there was no runway to make that happen here. So instead Harry — who on the show was a decent guy whose biggest sin was running for sheriff as a roundabout way of starting a fire brigade (still in operation, and sent to put out the fire Seth starts with Hearst’s lumber) — has to be corrupted, with no real explanation, to make the plot work. It’s not hard to imagine Harry growing susceptible to Hearst’s bribery as he gets older and sicker (always complaining of gout), but it’s a big blank to fill in for a relatively minor figure.

With Hearst more insulated than ever due to his elected office in the U.S. Senate, with Swearengen mostly unable to help, and with friends of his being attacked or threatened by outside law-enforcement officials, Bullock turns very reckless over the course of this story. By the time he has once again slapped cuffs on the powerful Hearst, he’s far gone enough to allow a collection of unruly hoopleheads to administer some vigilante justice. Earlier, Seth explains, “My job ain’t to follow the law, Al. My job is to interpret it — then enforce it, accordingly.” But we know that mob justice falls outside his interpretation of the law, going all the way back to the series’ very first scene, where Bullock executed a prisoner himself to prevent a crowd of drunks from doing it. That he stands back for a few moments to let the beating happen is a sign of just how irresponsible he’s become. It’s only the sight of a horrified Martha rushing the kids home that breaks the spell and reminds him of the kind of man, and lawman, he wants to be.

After Jane foils Harry’s assassination attempt, Seth returns to Doc Cochran’s house to be with Samuel in his final moments. The two were never exactly friends (Jane was the one who enjoyed drinking with the man once known as the N—er General), but they share a complicated bond. It was Seth who rescued Samuel from being lynched (with tar, rather than a rope) by Steve the drunk and his pals back in the day, and it was Samuel’s runaway horse that fatally kicked William Bullock not long after. When Seth holds Samuel’s hand and cries as the dying man speaks of God’s witnesses, is he thinking of his late son? Of the fact that he failed to prevent the fate Samuel predicted from the moment Seth and Harry put him in a cell? Of the other failures of this week, or of his entire time in the camp? It could be any of those things, and is probably a combination of all of them. Seth Bullock is a man conditioned to bottle up his emotions — and if one is ever allowed to come out, it’s usually rage. He rarely lets himself stop and consider all the burdens he’s had to carry. But in this quiet moment, after witnessing in short order Alma’s return, Charlie’s funeral, Samuel’s lynching, Sol and Trixie’s wedding and the mob attack on Hearst, he has this quiet moment to reflect on all he’s lost, and all that he’s been unable to prevent, and the grief flows out of him. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, and the kind that the show’s leading man has grown into playing since we last saw him in this role. And it informs the beautiful final moment for the character, where he makes his way to the end of the thoroughfare to find Martha waiting for him on their porch. “I’m home,” he tells her, kissing her passionately and reaffirming the choice he made back in Season Two to commit to her as his wife, rather than as his brother’s widow. Their marriage and their family are palpably real now. The events of the movie briefly throw Seth back out into the mud like the bad old days. But he remembers who he is, and he makes it home to this good woman and their good life together.

That Seth is alive long enough to have that cry, and then that kiss, is thanks to the sharp instincts and sharper marksmanship of Calamity Jane. Jane is the first character we see after all these years (and the first to comment on the passage of time), and she has one of the richest arcs of anyone in the film. As Robin Weigert put it to me when we spoke on the set months ago, “She’s allowed to have a boy-to-man journey, because she’s such a child in the original.” Jane still seems childlike when we catch up to her. She has a new hat and has taken to wearing skirts instead of pants, but underneath the costume, she’s the same immature, insecure, self-loathingly tragic figure she was when we met her traveling with Charlie and Wild Bill to Deadwood. Whatever growth she achieved through her relationship with Joanie has been abandoned (along with Joanie herself). She returns to the camp hoping to make things right with her ex. That happens, but more importantly, Jane’s old friends help her to finally recognize her own value.

When she approaches Charlie (in what neither realizes will be their final conversation) for advice on what to say to Joanie, he tells her that she already knows what to say, and urges her, “Go find your girl! Go get her!” Joanie, fallen back into bad old patterns after inheriting the Bella Union from Cy, isn’t particularly happy to see her. But Charlie’s death brings his mutual friends back together to have some honest conversations about their past and, potentially, their future. And in the moment of the film that made me bawl more than Al’s death, more than Charlie’s funeral, more than the wedding or Seth and Alma’s hug after the auction, or anything else, Jane attempts to ascribe her rescue of Bullock to Wild Bill’s spirit watching over her. “No, Jane,” Joanie tells her, simply but forcefully. “That was you.” This is an idea Martha Jane Canary has needed to understand for her entire life. Charlie and Joanie and others have tried to tell it to her before, but she hasn’t been in a condition to hear or believe these words. In this moment, though, she is. She isn’t just the sidekick, isn’t just the pathetic drunk, isn’t just the butt of everyone’s jokes. She has done good things, even great things, in her life. She’s a goddamn hero, too, and Joanie finally helps her see that. Bravo, Joanie Stubbs. Bravo, Calamity Jane.

The movie’s other journey to adulthood comes courtesy of Trixie. She has found some measure of peace in the intervening years, too. She and Sol are still together, and, as she colorfully puts it, “awash in the miracle of a whore my vintage being pregnant at all.” But Jen’s murder — the concluding bit of bloody business necessary to procure the camp’s safe absorption into America — weighs on her more than it does on anyone else. Even Johnny, still smitten with Jen after all this time, doesn’t feel as much guilt, because he’s not the reason she was killed. Trixie is still reckless and filled with regret enough to have that outburst in front of Hearst. She has still refused to marry Sol after all this time, and even her promise to wait until after baby Joshua is born seems a bit hollow. It’s only her awareness of Al’s impending demise that gets her moving on this front.

Paula Malcomson as Trixie in ‘Deadwood: The Movie.’
photo: Warrick Page/HBO

But over the course of the film, we also see a Trixie who has grown and learned to understand her true worth and how the world ought to work. She is loudly obstinate as always when we return, but late in the story, she’s soft-spoken and even deferential to Bullock when he asks her to keep out of trouble. The movie spends a fair amount of time on Caroline Wooldgarden, freshly-arrived in town and eager to become Al’s new favorite. (And naive enough to not understand that any favor she curries with him won’t last long enough to help her.) It’s hard to work a new character into a story this brief, in the middle of a crowd of old favorites who don’t all get much to do themselves. But her presence is less about Caroline herself than about what she represents to others. To Johnny, she’s a chance to redeem himself for his failure to protect Jen; ironically, she instead winds up protecting him, stitching up the bullet wound one of Hearst’s guards gives him. To Al, she’s a reminder of what he once had with Trixie, before his abusive behavior (and the fundamental awfulness of being a prostitute in the Old West) drove her from the Gem forever. And she’s a reminder of the path Trixie was able to take herself off of. After Caroline is done holding the baby during the wedding planning, Trixie asks if she believes she was born to be a whore. Caroline sheepishly suggests it’s the only thing she’s fit for, to which Trixie replies, “How hard do you suppose the bastard turned you out had to work to make you think that?” It’s a bit of wisdom Trixie might have understood during the events of the series, but not something she would ever want or be able to articulate to someone else until now. That she does it demonstrates a level of maturity and kindness that will serve her well in her new role as owner of the Gem, even if she opts to make it into a dance hall. So the passing of the torch ultimately isn’t from Trixie to Caroline, but from Al to Trixie, who even wears Al’s trademark pinstripe coat as she stands on the balcony and looks down the thoroughfare at her husband and child. The specter of Hearst may continue to loom, but for the moment she’s gotten the happy ending she is only just starting to accept that she might deserve.

Which brings us back to Al Swearengen himself. In many ways, his character arc was over long before the series ended. He had already made his transformation from ruthless crime boss to pragmatic but mostly benevolent community leader. He had made peace with Trixie leaving him for Sol, with Alma keeping the lucrative gold claim he foolishly sold her first husband, with the idea that the success of the camp was more important than the size of his own personal fortune. So the movie is less about bringing him emotional closure than simply giving him the chance to say goodbye to his many loved ones, and vice versa. And since many viewers see Al and Deadwood itself as interchangeable, it’s a chance for us to say goodbye as well, to both him and almost certainly to this wondrous experience.

And what a goodbye it is! We’ve seen Al laid low before, in the early Season Two arc where he nearly died from kidney stones. And in that same arc we got to see Doc, Trixie, Dan, Johnny and Jewel all rally around him. This plays differently, though. It’s a quieter, more resigned situation. Al is older. The town is more peaceful and prosperous. He matters to the emotional lives of his employees, past and present, but he’s not as essential to the camp’s well-being in the way he once was. And where the crisis with the troublesome gleet was agonizing and temporarily crippling, here Al is just substantially slowed down from the vibrant hustler we used to know. His time is running out, and everybody understands it — Al most of all. There’s a wounded dignity to McShane’s performance throughout, but particularly in that closing half-hour as Doc’s medicine gives Al the strength to make it through this final, glorious day. This is Al in full Santa Claus mode. He gives away the bride in his bar, after promising to give away his bar to the bride. He encourages Sol to re-enter politics (which the real Sol Star did around this time, holding various local and state offices for the rest of his life) and affirms that Trixie made the right choice of man in the end. He tries bequeathing his remaining cash to Dan and Johnny, though Dan wants no part in profiting from his friend and mentor’s death. He makes fun of Jewel’s singing, but their relationship has long been based on a foundation of chop-busting; when she actually begins to sing “Waltzing Matlida,” he joins in with some of his final breaths.

The song is an anachronism, having been written in Australia in 1895, and not even published until 1903. But then, so is Al’s death, and many of the other events of the story. The real Al Swearengen died penniless, far from Deadwood and years after the movie takes place. The circumstances of Charlie Utter’s death were also much later and very different. Sol Star never married. And so on. That’s what happens when you tell a story that mixes historical figures like Al and Seth with fictional ones like Alma and Trixie. This has never been a straightforwardly factual account of those years in Deadwood. Rather, it’s been David Milch using some of these people and events to tell a story about many of his own interests, like struggles with addiction, or the compromises necessary to live in a community of laws. Now, sadly, Milch himself is sick. He discussed his condition in emails with me, and at some greater length with Matt Seitz and Mark Singer. He was able to complete the script while in the grips of this terrible disease, and to continue making small changes to it throughout production. But he was no more the Milch of old than Al is the Al of old in the movie.

Swearengen is Milch. Milch is Swearengen. Hopefully, the real version has many years left, and many good days (or even good moments) through those years. But it’s not hard to understand why Milch would be focused on mortality in this script — to open it with Jane preparing herself to “lay me down and rise no more” in the same hill where Wild Bill is buried, and to close it with Al dying while Trixie holds his hand. Between Milch’s advancing condition and the sheer difficulty of bringing the cast together again, this will almost certainly be the end of Deadwood as we know it. And Milch manages to give almost everyone a perfect final note, like Jane and Joanie walking arm in arm through the falling snow. He saves the best, of course, for the character closest to his heart.

As Al’s life slips away, tearful Trixie decides it’s finally time to call on a higher authority, praying, “Our father which art in Heaven…” Al finds he has just enough strength for one last rejoinder: “Let Him… fucking… stay there.” Al Swearengen has no more use for God than the Lord would have use for Al. But the almighty creator of this great TV show, and this superb farewell film, bestows exceptional kindness and generosity upon his greatest creation here at the end.

This was fuckin’ Deadwood. Could be combative, but the parts I’m apt to remember most were the ones of profound beauty, compassion and poetry.

William Sanderson as E.B. Farnum.
photo: Warrick Page/HBO

Some other thoughts:

* Jane, Alma and others refer to 10 years having passed, even though Season Three’s events took place a dozen years before the movie’s setting. That’s not hard to reconcile, though, because most of these characters were still living in the camp at the time of the series finale. (Alma specifically sells her claim to Hearst so she won’t have to leave town.) So they could have moved away a few years later, thus creating the decade-long gap. That, or Milch just liked the sound of “ten years gone,” and we shouldn’t interrogate it too closely beyond that.

* Not all the surviving regular characters could come back. I imagine Titus Welliver was busy filming Bosch, for instance, and Adams always felt enough of an outsider in the Swearengen crew that it’s easy to imagine him moving on since we last saw him. But it feels very satisfying, and true to form, for Garret Dillahunt to come back as the first drunk to throw something at Hearst after Seth arrests him. Dillahunt had already famously played two roles on the show. This cameo (under a heavy beard and other makeup) felt like an homage to both: like Jack McCall, he’s a resentful hooplehead who feels bitter about the fame and fortune of others in the camp; and like Francis Wolcott, he’s tied to George Hearst.

* Movies and TV shows tend to be shot out of order. As luck would have it, though, I visited the set on consecutive days when consecutive scenes were filmed: Seth and Sol preventing Samuel’s lynching, and Seth confronting Hearst in the thoroughfare with Dan and Johnny backing his play. After the first few takes of the latter scene, director Daniel Minahan gave Olyphant freedom to try alternate versions of Bullock’s scripted reply to Hearst threatening to come for him: “Expect you will, Senator.” Olyphant tried a few that neither of them liked as much as the original line, then noted that if this was Justified, Raylan would say, “Let me know, Senator. I’ll circle the date.”

* William Sanderson is, as always, an utter comic delight as the craven E.B. Farnum. He’s mayor again, even as he acknowledges it’s a “largely titular position.” (His pronunciation  of the phrase brings to mind E.B.’s contempt back in the day for the man he referred to only as the “tit-licker.”) Farnum isn’t hugely necessary to the plot, as Bullock could have found out about the threat to Samuel some other way. But Milch clearly wanted to let Sanderson strut his stuff — muttering to himself while playing Peeping Tom inside the hotel walls; his terror and then wonder at using a telephone for the first time; using the phrase “wanton leakage” — and rightly so.

* Bree Seanna Wall never acted on screen again after the original series (nor before it), so Lily Keene steps in as the teenage version of Sofia. It’s interesting watching Sofia watch her mother around Bullock. She was a very little girl, and a very emotionally scarred one, at the time of Alma and Seth’s affair. But she was aware of some of it then, and clearly understands all of it now with the way she becomes so protective of Alma whenever her lost love is nearby.

* In 2019 money, the $3,500 that Charlie’s land was allegedly worth would be close to $100,000, while the $5,000 that Hearst offered him would be about $140,000.

* It wouldn’t be Deadwood without A) someone (Jewel, in this case) putting out the canned peaches, and B) someone (Dan in this case) objecting to its specific use in this setting.

* Finally, though I mostly sang the praises of Olyphant and McShane in this great big whale of an essay, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that everyone in the cast was fantastic. This show meant a lot to all involved. For most of them, these would be the richest characters they would ever play. So nobody sleepwalks through this return, and that energy is palpable from Molly Parker, Robin Weigert, Dayton Callie and Brad Dourif and everybody else. This movie was a reward for us, but it was a reward for them, too. I’m glad we all got it.

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