Starring: Everyone from Deadwood except Powers Boothe, Ralph Richeson, and Titus Welliver
Director: Daniel Minahan
Mood: If you love Deadwood so much that you just have to know what happened to everyone and are okay with letting go of a lot of the things you really loved about it in the first place.
“Ten years gone, ‘proaching that self-same hill I thought to lay me down and rise no more… Oof! Give me wide berth, that’s just passed wind! Possibly worse.”Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert)
I’ll skip my usual preamble and get right down to brass tacks: is Deadwood: The Movie the ending we all deserved?
Thirteen years after Deadwood season 3 dropped the unexpected – and unsatisfying – series finale, most people had given up on ever again stepping foot into the Deadwood universe. Then, out of the blue in 2018, HBO confirms a Deadwood movie! Most of the original cast was signed on. It was touted as the proper conclusion that both the fans and the characters deserved.
Well, this Deadwood fan was left wishing for more.
It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a good ENDING. It delivers this instant, powerful, all-consuming joy at seeing those favourite characters again… and then it takes that joyful spirit and crushes the f*ck out of it under its boot heel. With spurs. And somehow even though your spirit is under the heel, you also feel the spurs.
You’d better believe I’m gonna elaborate. At great length. It’s what I do here, people.
Deadwood: The Movie takes place 10 years after the series finale, in 1889. And in case you didn’t binge the series right before the movie, there are plenty of flashbacks to jog your memory on key storylines driving this new plot.
Deadwood (the town) is celebrating South Dakota entering statehood. Barbaric asshole senator George Hearst is in town to smile and wave, and to try to buy up Charlie Utter’s land because it’s blocking the progress of his telephone lines.
A very pregnant Trixie hurls obscenities at Hearst from a balcony, making Hearst realize that Swearengen f*cked him over when they last saw each other. (Remember that time Swearengen pretended to kill Trixie for shooting Hearst, but had instead killed another of the Gem’s ladies? Yeah.) So Hearst blackmails Swearengen, with threats of retaliation against Trixie if Al doesn’t back his bid on Charlie’s land.
But then Charlie refuses, and winds up dead with only one witness – Sam Fields, who can’t testify to what he saw because he’s a Black man up against rich white dudes. Marshal Bullock has a pretty big problem on his hands.
My beef with the plot of Deadwood: The Movie stems from my own loathing of change – the town no longer FEELS like Deadwood. The streets are clean. The people are old and polite. And kingpin Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) spends the entire movie on his deathbed, which means no violent outbursts, no 10-minute blowjob monologues, and absolutely no strategic plotting.
Ian McShane still gives every fibre of his being to the role, but this is a weakened Swearengen so even though he’s present in many scenes, he’s no longer the centre of the story. It’s partly because they had to cram so many ‘where are they now’ subplots into the movie. But it also seems like Swearengen is a metaphor for the camp itself, a certain breed of man blinking out of existence, obliterated by progress.
His first scene with Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is like a straight-up role reversal from the show – Bullock asks Swearengen what move he’s planning, and Al says he has no ideas. Then Bullock rides out to take care of business. BULLOCK. The man who spent three seasons constantly being tugged and pushed and reined in.
Yes, in Deadwood: The Movie we finally get an enjoyable Bullock. As the older, wiser Bullock, Olyphant is giving you a little Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp from Tombstone – a powerful drive for justice, but with a softer and settled side. Olyphant finally has somewhere to go with the character, between avenging Charlie, fighting for justice, being a good dad, and sustaining that undying-but-taboo chemistry with Mrs. Ellsworth (Molly Parker).
He also has a moustache worthy of my praise. It’s so good.
Gerald McRaney as Hearst is actually a great Western villain. Like, I legit hate him – McRaney puts so many dark layers into the performance. He’s a cold, ruthless c*cksucker who hides behind a wall of disposable strongmen. He loves the sound of his own carefully rehearsed voice. He genuinely thinks he’s doing the right things. He’s so used to winning that even a hint of resistance drives him to murder. And he does all of that with just a handful of facial expressions.
The rest of the series cast is peppered throughout the movie’s framework – some vital to the story, and others given a convenient job just to get their faces on the screen:
- Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) is in FINE f*cking form: headstrong, mostly unphased by age or pregnancy, and loyal to Al to the very end
- E.B. (William Sanderson) is still mayor, and gets to deliver a few of his classic muttered protests; his clothes are now nicer, and he seems to have developed a moral compass (but he’s still too chicken to show his spine in public)
- Brad Dourif as Doc is as flawless as ever, yet distractingly healthy despite what appeared to be advanced effects of tuberculosis in the third season… like, that shit doesn’t go away just because Al told you to suck it up
- Jane (Robin Weigert) leads the intro to the movie in a manner that’s hilariously on-brand, but then you don’t see much of her other than strapped to the Joanie Stubbs storyline, which I still say is a waste of Weigert’s phenomenal acting – an LGBTQ+ arc was an awesome addition to Deadwood (and earned the movie a GLAAD award nom), but Joanie is literally the most useless character in the entire series while Jane is a work of f*cking performance art; with that said, Jane’s last scene is FINALLY a morsel of redemption for her amazing character
- Wu (Keone Young) is briefly shown as thriving in Deadwood, which is awesome, and he’s still close with ‘Swegen’
- There’s nowhere near enough camera time for Al’s boys – Johnny (Sean Bridgers) has one scene being sweet with a new girl in town, but otherwise he and Dan (W. Earl Brown) don’t really DO anything and that’s a f*cking shame
- There’s also not enough of Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), which is too bad because his presence always brought a fun shift to the mood in his scenes – and I really wanted to know if he was still BFFs with Blazanov!
- Aunt Lou (Cleo King) is stuck with a sort of midwife/Doc’s apprentice role to Trixie, obviously just to get her into the movie, while Con Stapleton (Peter Jason) is shown as the town minister for the same reason
- We get to see Garret Dillahunt as a shaggy and uncredited extra in one of the final scenes, which is his third role in the Deadwood universe; on a side note, Deadwood reminded me how much I freaking LOVE Dillahunt in Raising Hope, so I just finished bingeing those DVDs
The acting is on point and the sets and costumes are, as always, exceptional. But the script for Deadwood: The Movie feels like a pair of episodes rather than a stunning conclusion to three seasons of Western TV brilliance.
There wasn’t enough time to do justice to the supporting characters, and getting back to my original issue – it’s missing what makes Deadwood DEADWOOD. It’s not until the final brawl in the street that you feel the essence of that gritty, brutal mining camp that won our hearts.
To give us the ending we deserved, or at least the ending I feel like I f*cking deserved, Al Swearengen should have gone out fierce and fighting, making some brilliantly strategic and defiant last stand (even if it was through Bullock). Al’s boys should have finished Hearst, although I’d have been happy with anyone doing it.
I feel like Fred Savage losing his shit on his grandpa at the end of The Princess Bride. “Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end. Somebody’s gotta do it. Is it Iñigo? Who?” “Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.” “You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa! What’d you read me this thing for?”
But if series writer David Milch can change countless facts about other characters that were based on real people including killing ones who actually lived, WHY THE F*CK CAN’T YOU KILL OR AT LEAST PERMANENTLY DAMAGE HEARST?!
We didn’t even get the consolation prize of knowing someone cunning and worthy stepped into Al’s spot. It’s like the whole point of the movie is that there was no longer a place for an Al Swearengen and that’s that.
I GET that it’s more historically accurate to how the country developed and blah blah blah. But I didn’t want to watch Al Swearengen Settles His Affairs: The Movie. I didn’t want to begrudgingly like Bullock because he was the only one left doing the thing. I wanted Deadwood to live on exactly as it f*cking was, in some kind of Westworld bubble that I could trust and believe in and visit any time.
Deadwood: The Movie seems to have thrown me into some kind of existential crisis. Maybe I’ll watch it again, if and when we come out the other side of 2020. Maybe it won’t feel so terribly sad and hopeless when the rest of the world doesn’t feel the same way.