One of my favorite aspects of watching then rewatching “Deadwood”, David Milch’s TV masterpiece about a burgeoning mining camp in 1876 South Dakota and its colorful denizens stumbling toward civilization, is marinating in the dialogue that the budding burg’s people speak. Whether it’s the weasely innkeeper E.B. Farnum or the widow Mrs. Garrett/Ellsworth talking, Milch gave his actors lines and scenes that served as high points in their careers and rewarded viewers who jumped aboard HBO’s profane bucking bronco of a show. Like Timothy Olyphant mentioned in his interview with the one of the best TV critics in the game Alan Sepinwall, “Deadwood” was more about the deep dives with all of the characters within their scenes rather than whatever the plot was. And because the show was canceled abruptly after three seasons, fans would come to realize as well—-it was about the ride, not the destination.
So while I was as psyched for the movie as Jewel is to open canned peaches, I wondered how “Deadwood” would essentially change form on the fly and make a two-hour movie out of what may have taken a several eps or even a season during the initial run. There was also the added matter of HBO demanding that Milch provide a finished script so he couldn’t do his trademark “write a scene and have it filmed 10 minutes later” routine that drove the money men insane. Additionally, Milch also made public is Alzheimer’s diagnosis so he made this miracle that many wrote off happen while dealing with that awfulness so he’s deserving of any and all accolades that come his way.
Now that I watched “Deadwood: The Movie” a couple of times, I can say I really enjoyed the hell out of the epilogue to one of TV’s great dramas (a criminally underseen one as well) and it provides a needed closure to not only “Deadwood” fans but to the actors who poured their collective heart and soul into their roles as well.
Set about 10 years after we last saw the benevolent, homicidal gangster Al Swearengen scrubbing blood from the floor of his Gem Saloon (blood he spilled), the heavy-drinking pimp and low-key civic leader now looks like ragged shit. “Poorly” as they say in Deadwood. After a consultation with Doc Cochran, the conscience of the show…even if he’s a grave robber, it sure sounds like Al has cirrhosis and isn’t getting around well. Just by taking a look at him, you know that the end, as they say, is nigh for Al Swearengen.
Because it’s a movie, the plot needed some pushing along. And this being a Western, that means somebody gets shot to death. In this case, it was a beloved character whose death hit me a little harder than I expected. Maybe it was his now-grandfatherly appearance or likable grumpiness but regardless, he gets done in by an old, bold villain who returns to “Deadwood” after nearly ruining the place in Season 3, which aired 13 years ago.
Needless to say, this pisses off surly Marshall Seth Bullock, whose fiery temper may yet trigger a set of events that can’t be undone. Without getting into too much spoilery detail, quite a bit does happen when compared to any two random hours of the 36 previous episodes. While not quite Ye Departed, the body count piles up in a short period time for a place that supposedly got more civilized in the last decade. On the road to the end, every character we’ve come to love and/or loathe checks in to some degree. While not every character gets closure per se (permanent or otherwise), fans of the show at least get to have a real goodbye this time. (Cy Tolliver, the oily brothel/casino owner and Al’s rival, does not appear because the actor who played him, Powers Boothe, passed away before filming.)
It’s also tougher for Milch to expound on the grander themes of the show in a movie than it is over the course of a season. The constantly chomping maw of capitalism, eating whatever gets in its way. The pursuit of the American Dream. How a civilization comes to be. Violence’s role in that. Macho bullshit that gets you killed for no good reason. Substance abuse. Greed. Wrapping that stuff in less than two hours is a tougher feat than doing it in 12.
But I enjoyed it all the same because “Deadwood” was too goddamn good of a show to not get a coda and I think that all of the acting and writing was as good as where it left off. And it was no small miracle that they were able to get every actor together again on the same schedule (Molly Parker would fly down to Cali on weekends from work in Vancouver to play Alma Garret). The whole endeavor took on an added poignancy due to Milch’s diagnosis, particularly when he would greet the cast and crew each morning before shooting with some words of wisdom.
For me, the most tender moment of the coda wasn’t any last embrace or acknowledgment of one’s mortality. It was when Wu, Al’s equally cantankerous fellow wise guy in what I’ll call China Alley and longtime business associate, noticed that the tenderhearted, homicidal saloon-keeping pimp looked like shit and offered him a bunch of teas for him to drink to make himself better. While the two always appeared to be at each other’s throats (likely in part to each guy not being able to understand the other), it’s clear that there was a mutual respect between them over the course of the three seasons. But Wu’s gesture in the movie showed it was much more than that. Wu cared for Al. And he wouldn’t leave until Al appeased him by telling him he would use the teas. And after he left, Al realized the feeling was mutual. What appeared to be one last Al and Wu argument, deftly translated by Wu’ grandson Mengyao, was instead an attempt at a live-saving measure from a begrudgingly beloved peer. It’s the most moving gesture of the movie when you consider man’s general disinclination for sharing feelings and then remember that this was a century and a half ago.
If I have one quibble with “Deadwood: The Movie”, other than bringing aboard a know pederast, is that they didn’t give Dan Dority enough to do. I know the town is much more civilized now and his homicidal services aren’t as needed as they used to be. But W. Earl Brown was such a goddamn delight in the role of the main character’s #1 henchman in the series run, I’d have thought we’d see him do more than we got. Hell, even his underling Johnny Burns got more shine.
Other than that, “Deadwood: The Movie” was a fitting fucking finale for one of the best shows ever shown on the cocksucking medium.