Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Powers Boothe, Gerald McRaney, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, W. Earl Brown, Dayton Callie, Jim Beaver, Jeffrey Jones, Sean Bridgers, Titus Welliver, Brian Cox
Mood: If you love Deadwood and are finally emotionally ready to see how it all ends and you have the movie handy to watch right away afterward because the way it all ends sucks. But Deadwood is still its own mood.
I couldn’t get my brother to watch Deadwood, because he said he knew he’d love it and then be crushed that it was canceled* after three seasons.
I thought that was stupid. “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, right? Why deprive yourself of something so insanely awesome? Lots of great shows have declined in later seasons, so it actually seems better to end too soon and leave everyone infatuated.
Well. Now that I’ve seen Deadwood’s third season, I can say that I’d have been absolutely f*cking MISERABLE if I’d watched it when it first aired.
Season one and season two expertly delivered a mid-season climax and a full-season build of action to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Season three starts out with tons of action up front, which makes you think it will be the best season yet.
Spoiler alert: it’s not. And if this was 2006 and I didn’t think I’d ever step foot into the Deadwood universe again (because no one knew there’s be a Deadwood movie 13 years later), I’d be gutted. This ‘ending’ would have been my greatest TV series disappointment of all time.
Season three still has enough brilliant acting and engrossing subplots that it’s worth almost every minute. But I have a LOT of f*cking feelings about those failed minutes.
*Deadwood wasn’t actually cancelled. Warner Media and Paramount couldn’t come to an agreement over how the profits should be split, so they just gave up and didn’t engage the options in each actor’s contract for a fourth season.
Deadwood Season 3 starts shortly after the second season ends. George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) is making moves to assert his dominance, including having someone killed in the Gem Saloon and killing his own miners.
Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) spends the entire season begrudgingly kissing Hearst’s ass, on the promise of getting to manage all of his many juicy mining holdings and taking a cut. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) pushes back, testing Hearst’s strength and finding Hearst to be fond of Al’s own rough torture methods.
Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) is pressured to sell her claim to Hearst, the only local one he doesn’t yet control, and he scares the shit out of her in a meeting. She suffers a personal trauma and ends up back on the laudanum, which threatens to destroy her new little family with Ellsworth (Jim Beaver).
Hearst and Swearengen spend all twelve episodes doing a dance to see who has the bigger brain AND balls. This results in a lot of Al’s trademark epic monologues, and a particularly long and horrific fight between Dan (W. Earl Brown) and Hearst’s man Captain Turner (Allan Graf).
Typical of Deadwood, lots of subplots unfurl:
- Fields and Hostetler return to camp after their runaway horse killed Bullock’s ‘son’; drunk, belligerent racist Steve has been running the livery, so Bullock has to form a plan to keep the peace
- Bullock is campaigning to be officially elected sheriff, and Sol Star is running for mayor against E.B. Farnum
- Trixie is slowly letting down her guard with the much-in-love Star
- Hearst’s cook Aunt Lou gets a surprise visit from her son, who makes the mistake of trying to scam Hearst over gold
- Jane is back in town, and bunking under the growing affection of Joanie Stubbs
- Al’s old friend Langrishe (Brian Cox) arrives in town with a theatre troupe, buys the Chez Amis from Joanie, and tries to find a way to be useful to Al, which ends up being a sad metaphor for his character’s existence in Deadwood
- Hearst brings a small army of Pinkertons into town to threaten its leading men, and Wu has an army of Chinese workers waiting in Custer to move on Al’s command
What’s frustrating about this season is that it feels like NONE OF THAT F*CKING GOES ANYWHERE. Usually all those subplots are critical to the bigger picture. But in season three, the show suffers from a bloated cast of new characters. I often felt like the lens was focused on something or someone I didn’t care about, when I was DYING to know what was happening elsewhere.
For example, season three was the strongest one yet for Al’s boys: Dan, Johnny, and Silas reach peak character growth, and get some really great moments and dialogue. Trixie is now kinda sorta officially seeing Sol Star. Doc, one of the best characters in the entire series, seems to be DYING! Yet instead of getting lots of scenes dedicated to those beloved characters, we’re forced to watch scene after scene about the theatre troupe, Aunt Lou’s short-lived son, and Cy going on confusing rampages to various new prostitutes.
Brian Cox is fantastic as Langrishe, who is somehow both a flamboyant showman and the kind of sharp, strategic thinker who Al would naturally trust and befriend. But the whole theatre troupe subplot is a total waste of screentime. The characters go nowhere and do nothing of any value to the overarching story, so I ended up annoyed every time they were on camera.
After waiting three seasons for her to do something, Joanie (Kim Dickens) officially did nothing. She wandered the entire f*cking series with a worried face, a wavering voice, and no real purpose.
Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Ellsworth continue to handily portray strong, kind men that you just want to hug, and more of them would have been awesome. I would have LOVED a little more focus on Ellsworth at the claim. The one scene we do get with him and his dog toward the end of the season is so achingly moving that it seems like an insult – too little, too late.
When Cy Tolliver first arrived in Deadwood, I was so ready for him to be Al’s perfect nemesis. But throughout season three his character’s actions make almost no sense, forcing the great and powerful Powers Boothe into a kind of one-note ragey performance.
And seriously, where the f*ck is Doc all season? I get that he’s in bad shape, but we’re so invested in his character at this point that we deserve to be right there by his bedside, like he was for so many citizens of Deadwood.
And to top it all off, the last episode was the least exciting of the whole season – a massive disappointment given the edge-of-your-seat thrills in the previous two season finales. We’re accustomed to the final episode revealing how Al bested the season’s villain by thinking two steps ahead, and instead the f*cking bad guy wins and that’s that.
I get that it’s realistic. The real Hearst lived a long and freakishly wealthy life. But Deadwood took creative liberties with many other characters, including Hearst himself. It just seems off brand to provide neither a satisfying conclusion nor a gripping cliffhanger.
It’s a vicious slap in the face when the final credits roll and you realize that’s it. You were waiting for nothing.
Here’s the thing though: there’s still a lot to love in Deadwood season three:
- Dan’s fight with Captain Turner is one of the best fist fights I’ve ever seen in any TV show or movie, from the action to Dan’s psychological buildup and fallout expertly portrayed by W. Earl Brown
- Timothy Olyphant finally gives us range as Bullock! He’s still mostly smoldering, but you get to see more softness and restraint in the mix
- Ian McShane is on fire, delivering the most versatile performance of the series and his strongest to date
- Aunt Lou and Richardson form just about the sweetest friendship you could ever imagine, and it’s so f*cking beautiful and totally the storyline Richardson deserves after two seasons of being kicked and punched by E.B.
- Johnny (Sean Bridgers) is finally on somewhat equal footing with Dan and Silas, even outsmarting Al in one scene with Wu; his character gets a ‘becoming a man’ growth that’s thoroughly satisfying
- Al and Wu’s relationship is as entertaining as ever, and you get to see a little of Wu earning more respect and being even more confident
- Merrick and Blazanov’s friendship is extremely heart-warming, and Jeffrey Jones continues to provide earnest (if at times desperate) elevation to his surroundings as Merrick
- Al has one gloriously brutal scene that’s like the Swearengen of season one; he viciously beats one of Hearst’s men, citing all the nasty things the man did, and you can feel Al taking shots for the people he cares about
Deadwood is still a f*cking triumph, despite this ‘ending’ which obviously was hinged on there being a fourth season. I will definitely be rewatching Deadwood over and over again forever – and not just because it takes me 2-3 viewings to understand half of the dialogue.
If you watched Deadwood as a fan of great TV, and not as a connoisseur of the Old West – read up on the real people of Deadwood! I had fun nerding out over which characters were based on real people, how close they stuck to the truth about those people, and which events were real vs. great TV fiction.