Deadwood: The Movie Recap: Before Eyes Close for Good and All

Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

Thirteen years ago in the world of Deadwood (and 15 years ago in our world), Calamity Jane first rode over the pass and paused at the top of a ridge to look out over the Deadwood camp. Now, more than a decade later, she does it again, stopping at the top of an outcropping and looking down on what Deadwood has become. It has grown significantly in her — and our — absence. The train has come. There are telephone poles. Calling it a camp at this point is pure nostalgia because Deadwood is now certainly a town. The question of statehood is over. It’s 1889, and Deadwood is officially part of the state of South Dakota, a quick answer to the question that plagued much of Deadwood’s three-season run. In many ways it’s finally the beginning for this town, at last officially recognized as part of the United States and established within the fold of authority and the rule of law. The question now is how much of the old Deadwood, how much of our Deadwood, can possibly survive what comes next.

The task of this Deadwood movie is essentially impossible. It has to return to a show that was gone, resurrecting a dead thing and bringing it back to life without making the whole exercise feel gruesome or tragic. It must go back to more than a dozen characters, all with their own abruptly abandoned arcs, and touch on where they’ve been and where they might be going. It has to pull us back to the point where Deadwood left off, without feeling cutesy or nostalgic. Mostly, it has to do something Deadwood always fought against as a show: The movie has to be some kind of an ending.

As much as swearing and violence and the inimitable Al Swearengen, Deadwood as a series was defined by how stubbornly it refused to rely on neat conclusions. It was a series about a place making itself out of nothing, and the show’s storytelling mirrored that idea by constantly pushing toward breadth and expansion. New arrivals, new technologies. Deaths that somehow started more stories than they ended. Rims reconnoitered, producing more gold than expected. Booming commerce and growth. But this movie is a last, unforeseen, improbable chance for Deadwood, for reasons both inside and outside the story. So now there have to be some endings.

Something deep in Deadwood’s TV DNA has to fight against its own strongest impulses when it’s translated to movie form. It needs to pull things together rather than stretch them farther apart, and Deadwood: The Movie pulls that off by leaning into the problem. Rather than something to deny or skate over, time becomes the central theme. Age, change, the knowledge that endings will happen no matter how hard we fight them but will only ever be one part of a bigger story — those ideas become the movie’s foundation. Deadwood can’t keep creating itself, dancing around in the liminal space between nothingness and officially recognized statehood. Al cannot pretend he’s immortal. Hearst’s telephone poles are coming, and nothing Al or Seth can do will stop the future from arriving. All they can do is try to stall Hearst in order to make space for themselves and their own lives before they all inevitably get swept into the future.

Jane’s arrival back in Deadwood is the first of several arrivals and returns. Hearst, now the junior senator from California, is back to celebrate Deadwood’s status as part of South Dakota, but he’s mostly there to shore up his grip on the town. He wants to buy Charlie Utter’s land so he can put up several new telephone lines, a final blow that will bring Deadwood even further into the future and knit it irrevocably into the rest of the U.S. Alma Garret comes back with her ward, Sofia (who, in keeping with her role in the original series, has barely two lines in this movie). She’s there to check in on the growing Deadwood bank but mostly to stare longingly at Seth.

The other major arrival is Trixie and Sol’s baby, Joshua, who’s born just after Trixie spots Hearst riding down the thoroughfare in the statehood-celebration parade. Trixie, hugely pregnant and wearing only a nightgown, sees Hearst and is flooded with the memories of her fury at him — he murdered Ellsworth, he took a town he had no stake in building and grabbed it for himself, and he forced Al to kill Jen, a perfectly innocent woman whom Al murdered at the end of season three to save Trixie from Hearst’s wrath. She screams at him from the balcony of Sol and Seth’s hotel, calling him a “murdering shitheel” and dragging all the trauma from the past back up into the present. It did not need to be this way. Everyone could’ve been polite and courteous and let everything go and allowed Hearst to complete his takeover of the town and buy Charlie’s property without saying a word. But Trixie cannot let it go, and her baby, her own promise for a new beginning, is born just as his mother has ensured that the past will continue to haunt them all.

Just in case there’s any doubt as to whether Hearst really is a murdering shitheel, whether he truly does represent the end of all that is best about Deadwood, he once again kills the sweetest, most endearing guy in town. In season three, that was Ellsworth. In the movie, it is Charlie Utter, who turns down Hearst’s offer to buy his property mostly because Seth asked him to. Hearst has never been able to accept an answer he does not like, and he hires goons to shoot Utter, assuming he’ll be able to buy the property on auction after Utter’s death. Hearst doesn’t anticipate that there would be a witness to the murder, and he’s unable to plan for Seth’s vengeance.

Alma steps in and buys Charlie’s land in the auction, foiling Hearst’s telephone-line operation. Seth intercepts the two Hearst goons who come to kill Samuel Fields, the witness to Charlie’s murder, and they get killed in the ensuing showdown with Hearst. With his plans spoiled and his men killed in the thoroughfare, Hearst fights back one last time by striking out at Trixie. He arrives in the middle of her wedding to Sol with a sheriff from another town, ready to arrest her for her attempt to murder him nearly a decade earlier. Instead, Seth arrests Hearst and lets him be beaten nearly to death on his way to the jail, before finally calling off Jane and the other enraged Deadwood citizens. Hearst survives and the wedding moves forward.

All of this is just plot. It matters because the movie must tie up loose ends; it has to deliver some kind of answer to Hearst for the pain and death he has brought to the town. The Hearst machinations are important because they’re a demonstration of how much Trixie is still guilty for what happened to Jen and how much Hearst’s invasion of the camp is still a wound no one has recovered from. The flashbacks throughout the movie are remarkably good at underlining that idea; they’re not nostalgia for what Deadwood (and Deadwood) used to be, but they are still grappling with it.

But aside from Charlie’s death (oh, Charlie!), the most notable thing about the plot is how little it changes anything. Hearst ends the movie imprisoned and bleeding, but this will not stop the telephones from coming to Deadwood, and we know he’ll never actually get justice for his crimes. Seth begins and ends the movie in roughly the same place, as a U.S. Marshal who’s now devoted to his wife, Martha, and their family. Seth’s deputy, Harry, is revealed to have been a Hearst spy, but he’s ineffectual and he’s killed almost immediately.

The things that cut most deeply have nothing to do with Hearst. He is the distraction and sometimes the catalyst. He is the forward-moving pressure that means no one can wallow in the past. But the things that matter most are things that would’ve happened anyhow, Hearst be damned. Trixie and Sol have a baby (awash in “the miracle of a whore of [Trixie]’s vintage getting pregnant”), and they get married. The camp mourns for Charlie Utter, a good man who dies too soon, and Samuel Fields gives Seth the gift of knowing that Charlie was happy when he died. Jane Cannery convinces Joanie Stubbs to kiss her, and they swing through Sol and Trixie’s wedding with plans to go see Paris. And Al is dying.

After years of hard drinking, Al’s liver has finally given way, and he is no longer capable of being the man who runs events, who pulls together all the threads and twists things to his will. He watches much of the movie’s events from the sidelines, leaning over the railing of the Gem to watch the auction, looking out over the balcony while the parade passes by, watching from a distance as Seth confronts Hearst in the thoroughfare. The balcony was a position of power for him, a way to look down on the camp and preside from above. Now it’s a retreat. The biggest gift he can give to Trixie is coming downstairs, being the “showing up sort,” so he can give her away at her wedding. He is resigned to what’s coming, and he’s not frightened by death, only by the process of dying. “I’d not prolong the chewing up,” he tells Doc, “nor the being spat out … It’s the dispatch I find inglorious.”

Ends are inevitable, and Al knows it. But he also knows they are only ever one part of a story, and it feels beautiful and unsubtle and deeply sweet that Deadwood: The Movie gestures toward an ending by starting with the birth of a baby. Deadwood as a series had no space for children; the town was actively hostile to them. Season one started with Sofia, an orphan, being guarded against murderers and then surviving, mostly because she hardly said anything ever again. Seth Bullock’s son died in season two, and Alma’s pregnancy was not viable. For Deadwood the TV series, growth was about amalgamation and capital and self-invention. No one with inherited wealth survived because of their family names. No one arrived in Deadwood to raise a family. (Except for Martha Bullock, who had to overcome losing her son in the process.) It was a place for the kind of inhuman, merciless growth of money and power that made no space for familial, generational growth.

Deadwood’s legitimacy as part of a state is also the death of that kind of uncontrolled, self-invented, free-for-all expansion. It had been on its way for years — Seth is a U.S. Marshal, a representative of federal authority, and he and Martha have managed to start a new family with three adorable children — but now it is truly gone. The train has come, and more telephones will follow. Deadwood’s independence is over. There is no space for someone like Al anymore, no space for his power and dominance. All anyone can do is shove Hearst in jail for a while to claim a few moments for their own celebration.

Deaths and ends are inevitable, but beginnings are too. Just as Deadwood becomes legitimate and closes off the last corners of Al’s domain, Trixie becomes legitimate too, finally agreeing to marry Sol so they can make a safe, socially acceptable, stable space for their son. The future Deadwood will not have Al Swearengen, and it won’t have Wu, and eventually it won’t have Seth Bullock, either. But it will have children in it, a truth underlined by that tiny, wrenching moment when Al holds up baby Joshua to inspect him and the baby sneezes into his face.

The future of Deadwood is also Trixie. She’s been under Al’s foot for so many years, so thoroughly crushed under his oppressive weight. In the end, he gives her his saloon, tells her to do what she wants with it, and gives her away at her wedding. She’s simultaneously freed from him and tied to him even more closely once she’s able to love him as a choice rather than for her own survival. She promises she’ll be with him at the end.

Deadwood: The Movie ends just before Al’s death. Deadwood could not exist without him, and to finish with a moment as final and conclusive as Al Swearengen’s dying would be too much, too obvious, too direct. Instead we end with what are probably the final moments of his life, as Trixie recites the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, which art in heaven,” she begins. “Let him fucking stay there,” Al concludes. It is a last middle finger to authority, one last chance for Al to assert his dominion over this world before he has to move on to the next. But he knows he’s going, and we do too. Trixie, watching him, wears his striped suit jacket over her wedding dress, literally assuming his mantle. The end has come, but the future rolls on.

Deadwood Movie Recap: Before Eyes Close for Good and All