Want to hear an audio version of this article? Visit our Patreon and become a 25YLSite patron.
HBO’s Deadwood was cancelled after three seasons. There are many of us who haven’t been able to get over that, all these years later. No wrap-ups, no payoffs, no closure. Then, a few years ago, a ray of hope shone. David Milch, the show’s genius creator, hadn’t given up the ghost. Nor had the cast. Almost everyone involved was dying to return to the Black Hills as much as I wanted to see them there. Slowly, achingly, a movie evolved. After a seemingly endless dance of scheduling, planning, and writing, it premiered on May 31, 2019. The profanity-laden alleluias rang out throughout the world.
Some shows, you watch them and you see a bunch of actors doing a job. They can be very good at it, but it is clearly a job. Sometimes, however, the show becomes its own community. They don’t feel like actors anymore. They feel like neighbours. They feel like family. Watching the show, you can feel the joy they are feeling just to be there. You become extended family. Deadwood has always had that magic.
Warning: spoilers ahead
The story picks up ten years after we left our heroes. Back then, you may recall, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) was running everything, from gambling to women to whiskey. His nemesis was George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who had finally left the camp. Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) was married to his brother’s widow (Anna Gunn), despite twinges of heart he still felt over Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker). Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and “Calamity” Jane Cannery (Robin Weigert) had found each other, and were trying to figure out a way for two such damaged people to be happy. Official statehood loomed over South Dakota.
Ten years later, the first thing we see is a train heading in to Deadwood. The last time we saw people coming and going from the camp, it was by horse or buggy. Telephone poles are now a common sight. The town is thriving, South Dakota is finally a state, and the camp gathers to celebrate. Some people had left town, now to return. Jane comes back, just as sassy and profane as we remember her. Apparently she had gone to see the world. Now, she’s coming back to find Joanie, to see if there is anything left there. Joanie has taken over running the Bella Union, after Cy Tolliver’s (Powers Boothe) presumed death. Alma and her now-grown adopted daughter Sofia are on the train into town. Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) welcomes them back. He’s got a considerable bit of land to his name now, and is doing well.
Also back in town is George Hearst, now a Senator. Right away he clashes eyes with some of the same folk he alienated last time. Trixie (Paula Malcolmson), who is living with Sol Star (John Hawkes) and vastly pregnant, welcomes Hearst back to town with a public berating. This only serves to make him realise that he had been duped ten years ago. When Trixie shot him in the shoulder and he demanded payback, another girl was substituted as the necessary corpse. Hearst recognises Trixie as the one who shot him, and the wheels start to turn.
The reason Trixie is still alive is Al Swearengen. He didn’t just push her into the arms of Sol Star ten years ago because he knew it would be better for her. I think his pride was a factor too, because for the first time, she had real feelings in a man other than himself. Al isn’t the type to compete for that sort of thing, when he is so defensive about his own emotions to begin with. Nevertheless, he loved her then and he loves her now.
You could say that the years have been less than kind to Al. My private opinion is that once he lost Trixie, a lot began to go downhill for him. He hasn’t been happy with a woman since, and is apparently drinking more. His body is giving out on him, and his mind is not as sharp as it once was. When we first see him, it is in consultation with Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), who tells Al that his liver is failing. He needs to take medicine and drink less liquor, neither of which Al is disposed to do. No longer the imposing figure we remember from his balcony, he spends much more of his time in his dressing gown. He built this town, and these days he mostly watches it happening without him. It is Bullock, the still-smouldery family man, who wields most of the real power now.
When Charlie Utter declines to sell Hearst his land, Hearst responds in the way we have come to expect of Hearst. The henchmen who did the wet work were observed by Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye), and Bullock deals with it the way Bullock deals with most things. When the henchmen go after Fields in the thoroughfare, Bullock takes them both down. Leaving the second one alive (mostly at Sol’s insistence), Bullock beats all but a confession out of him in front of Hearst. The battle lines are drawn.
Trixie gives birth to a healthy baby boy named Joshua, and finally agrees to marry Sol. Since her public shaming of Hearst has left her with a big target on her back, the Star family moves in with the Bullock family for a spell. There’s safely in numbers, and did I mention there are four Bullock children now? Seth and Martha are not only prosperous, they are happy. The return of Alma ruffles that a little, but really, they have both moved on.
Alma got some big points with me after Charlie’s funeral. An auction is held about the land that Hearst committed murder to own, and the town isn’t about to let him have it. Hearst, however, is able to outbid everyone—except Alma. Her pockets are just as deep as his. Remembering what she had to suffer at the hands of that man when he was after her own land, it had to feel extra good to thwart him now. Like the bully he is, though, Hearst refuses to lie down quietly.
As before, there are scenes of Al in his bedroom. The Al of old would typically be ruminating aloud while being serviced by some woman who isn’t Trixie (and I think that’s how he sees the women he has sexual relations with: there’s Trixie, and then there’s everyone else). Now he is tired, sad, and politely refusing the attentions of a sweet young thing who says he reminds her of her father. She is welcomed into his bed platonically, resting her head on his shoulder as he talks about the feelings he still has for Trixie, after all this time.
Al and Trixie’s love for each other may not have been the healthiest, but it is part of their DNA and will never truly die. When Trixie slips over to the Gem (for his counsel, she says), Sol doesn’t like it any more than he used to. He doesn’t like minding his own son while she goes to another man for support and advice, but I think he accepted long ago that that is the way it is. Al tells Trixie he plans to leave the Gem to her when he dies, to use however she wants. He gifts Sol with the suggestion Sol might do well in public office. Sol shakes Al’s hand, and for the first time, he seems to mean it. When Sol and Trixie finally get married, Al painfully gets himself up and into a new suit, and gives the bride away.
I can’t have been the only one whose heart stopped with Red Wedding type worry when Hearst crashed the festivities, flanked by two lawmen from out of town. Since the citizens of Deadwood have clearly made their opinions of him known, he has brought in outsiders. He tells them to arrest Trixie for her attempted murder of himself ten years ago. Bullock, however, won’t stand for this. In his terribly Bullock way, he puts himself between the men and Trixie, and instead slaps a pair of cuffs on Hearst.
He (with Jane’s very loud help) calls Hearst out for not only the murder of Charlie Utter, but every other low down thing he has done to the people of this camp. The camp hears him, and as he leads Hearst to the local jail (again), what ensues makes the Walk of Shame look like a stroll in the park. It seems like most of the community has a grudge against this man. What starts with one or two pieces of garbage being thrown at Hearst becomes a free-for-all. What eventually stops Bullock from allowing Hearst to be beaten to death by the mob in the street is the look on Martha’s face. When Bullock sees his wife quickly rounding up their children to get them home, he catches himself. He doesn’t want to be that man any more than he wants his wife and children to see him being that man. The mob is dispersed, and Hearst dragged by the ear (again) and tossed in jail.
The wedding is over, the Hearst threat is gone again, and Al is going up to bed. He has to use the banister now, to help him up the stairs. It was very clever for the director (Daniel Minahan) to use smartly placed flashbacks throughout the movie. Among other things, it helped to illustrate the contrast between the man Al used to be (because let’s face it, Ian McShane is going to be hot until the day he dies) and the man he is now.
Jewel (Geri Jewel) has been promoted out of the kitchen, and she comes up to help Al to bed. He seems to believe this is the end for him. He tells Dan (W. Earl Brown) and Johnny (Sean Bridgers) how to share out the money in the mattress, his legacy, between them. Trixie has come to be at his bedside, and he asks her to stay. The last time we saw Al poorly was back in Season 2, and it seemed then like his entire crew was terrified and helpless without him. Now, it is very clear that he has taught them all well, and the town that he has birthed and raised is going to be all right.
He asks Jewel, in his left-handed way, to sing to him. Slowly, the melody of “Waltzing Matilda” join her, pick up as the underscoring, and follow Trixie out onto Al’s balcony as snow begins to fall. She catches the eye of her new husband and they share a slight smile of understanding. Joanie and Jane walk down the thoroughfare, holding hands, maybe talking about Paris. Alma watches from her window as her daughter dances in the snow with a new friend, and Bullock goes home to embrace his wife.
Trixie puts on the jacket of Al’s new pinstriped suit, pulls it close to her, and it is as if the entire town is singing him to sleep. Knowing what we know about David Milch and his Alzheimer’s, and knowing that Al was always sort of a representation of Milch himself, this was both a balm for the soul and a twist of the knife in the gut. At the last, Trixie takes his hand, and begins to say a prayer. “Our Father, which art in Heaven…” and Al cuts her off. “Let him fucking stay there.” His eyes close, the camera slowly pans down to their clasped hands. One of his fingers twitches, and we fade to black.
Sure, I would love there to be more Deadwood. Sure, I would have loved this last hurrah to have been more than one two-hour movie. I would love for Milch’s Alzheimer’s to go into remission and for him to churn out more brilliant work for the next thirty years. And I know that hardcore history buffs will probably object at this retelling. “But the Gem is supposed to be destroyed in a fire! That’s not how it happened! Didn’t Sol run for public office before?” I don’t care. This was beautiful, poetic, and painful, the way Deadwood has been from the beginning. It took us where we needed to go, to end this journey we started together so long ago. Like Al, it left us with a smile and a tear at the same time. And like the camp and the community itself, we’re going to be all right.