tv review

Deadwood: The Movie, At Long Last

Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie.
Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie. Photo: HBO

Deadwood: The Movie is parting as sweet sorrow. It’s also a film about the necessity of saying good-bye, even when the initial parting occurred long ago, and was so abrupt that no one involved could make sense of it. For a full decade after powerbroker, saloon owner, and gangster pimp Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) was last seen scrubbing the blood of a woman he had to kill in order to save another woman’s life, there were rumors of a pair of movies, or another season, something that would help complete the story and leave fans with something other than the lingering trauma of sudden, violent separation.

At long last, here it is. And true to the spirit of series creator David Milch—an idealist, but in no way a sentimentalist, and a theatrically-minded dialogue-writer whose greatest creation amounted to Sam Peckinpah’s Our Town—it’s not a delayed extension of the old show. Rather, it’s a gentle exploration of why we so desperately wanted one, why it was always impossible to will something like that into creation, and why, contrary to that voice whispering in our ear, we never truly needed it. That need was a metafictional equivalent of one of the intoxicants on display throughout the initial run of Deadwood: a depressant, numbing agent, or hallucinogen, like booze or opium or laudanum or a ball of dope, that kept us from facing the fact that it was time to move on.

Like so many sets of Deadwood episodes, the movie observes Aristotelian unities of time and place, unfolding within the span of three days, never leaving the town except during its opening shots of Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker) and her now-teenage daughter Sofia (Lily Keene) arriving by train at the same time that Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) travels by horse to pitch woo to her beloved Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). The working title of the movie was Deadwood: Statehood, in this writer’s opinion a better summation than what HBO ultimately assigned it—not just because it tips off viewers to the story’s organizing milestone (South Dakota being finally inducted into the union), but because it prepares us for a wider reckoning or stock-taking. Ten years on, all of Deadwood’s surviving major players are gathering together to assess the state of the town, the state of their relationships, and their goals for the future, if they have any. (Some don’t. It’s to Milch’s credit that, as in life, a lot of his characters still seem to be living without plans—which, as Al once said, are a way to make God laugh.)

Within these two hours, Milch nestles many moments of public, communal catharsis—what I like to call “Deadwood moments” even when I see them in a context other than Deadwood. Trixie (Paula Malcomson) gives birth to her child with Sol Star (John Hawkes), her labor provoked by the arrival of the gold mogul turned California senator and pontificating shitheel George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), and then marries her man in a ceremony where Al, once her pimp, gives her away.

Another release from the past: Al’s been a little bit in love with Trixie all these years, while Trixie has felt somehow bound to Al, and is as shocked and pleased as we are when he wills the Gem Saloon to her. The simultaneous arrival of Hearst and Alma—yin and yang, dark and light—is another Deadwood moment, gathering the whole town together for a somewhat stilted ceremony designed to once again award Hearst, a murderous man-child who neuters elections that fail to ratify his will, the validation he continually seeks. (Trixie, God bless, won’t give it to him.)

This daytime gathering in the thoroughfare is mirrored by a nighttime incident of mob violence. Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), accessing his inner savagery, allows it to go on until he sees his wife Martha (Anna Gunn), the better angel of his nature, looking on with a mix of disappointment and hope. Seth’s increasing ability to shape and direct, if not necessarily control, his temper is more evidence in this tale of how progress can happen even where you may not expect it.

But here, too, that persistent Milchian awareness of the limits of hope comes into play. We’re aware that a monster like Hearst, powered by money and made respectable by official title, is unlikely to ever be decisively defeated. He can only be temporarily humiliated in a symbolic victory: The rich bastard knocked down in the mud, kicked around a bit, and put in jail for one night, or maybe just a few hours. On a show that’s mainly about the noble but endless and often frustrating war between civilization and savagery, community and individual will, you take any win you can get, however small it may be.

More than anything else, we come away from the film feeling healed somehow. It’s not about any specific promises or assurances. It’s more of a mood. A vibe. And a lot of that comes from a recurrent sense that all of these characters are better off squaring off against the inevitable, accepting defeat where victory is impossible, and making peace with physical decay because none of us can stop it, only slow or hide it. (“Swellings and saggings to the tit I lay at the exactions of time,” Al told Hearst in season three.)

The film is an ironically inverted mirror of the great closing scene of Al in bed, being tended to by Trixie and Jewel (Geri Jewell)—possibly at death’s door from cirrhosis of the liver, though maybe not, but in any case softly raging against the dying of the light. “Our father who art in heaven,” Trixie says. “Let him fuckin’ stay there,” Al replies. The final shot of the movie—one of the best in Deadwood history—suspends us at at decision point: a physical Morse code tap that seems to signal a letting-go, yet Al’s hand remains connected to Trixie’s.

But where Al seems determined to live, if only one day more, the show’s creator—who is losing his memory to Alzheimer’s disease, and is keenly aware that this could be his last screenwriting credit—seems to be gently arguing the opposite: Let it go. Let me go. Just let go. Milch, Deadwood’s Prospero, surveys his creations for what is likely the last time, and releases them from their obligations to him, and himself from his obligation to them, and to us. “Release me from my bands,” Shakepeare’s old sorcerer implores the audience, in the play’s closing monologue, “With the help of your good hands.” That Milch would write one of his greatest works and have it subtly argue against the urgent necessity of its own existence is a magic trick worthy of the great Ricky Jay, who—along with so many regular Deadwood castmembers, including Powers Boothe (Cy Tolliver) and Ralph Richeson (Richardson), and so many beloved characters, including Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine), Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), and Jen (Jennifer Lutheran), the Gem prostitute killed in place of Trixie—didn’t live long enough to see this small miracle.

In the end, the film is more song or eulogy than admonishment—a work of empathy, persuasion, and comfort. We can see with our own eyes that the story went on in Deadwood, just as it did for us. Life went on, even though we weren’t able to keep watching it unfold. Everyone is older now. Some are thicker, greyer, or both. Wu (Keone Young) has consolidated his power and is now as much of a fixture in town as any of the so-called legitimate business people. Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye) has returned to the place that brought him so much grief, going from being self-protectively neutral to aligning himself with the needs of the camp, and his words both herald and encourage the emotional progress of the others. (Fields’ monologue to Bullock about the impossibility of a man with his skin color being treated fairly sums up the show’s unusual awareness of racial as well as class and gender dynamics.) The only significant new character is Caroline (Jade Pettyjohn), a young would-be sex worker whose first couple of days in town amount to a rundown of how different things are than they were ten years ago, as well as an argument presented by multiple characters—including Trixie, who lets Caroline hold her newborn baby, and Jen’s boyfriend Johnny (Seth Bridgers), who says she reminds him of his beloved—as to why she shouldn’t, and needn’t, choose the exact same path as other women who come here. (There are many more women in town than there were on the series, subtly communicating that this is now a slightly more civilized place.)

Fields describes his murdered friend Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) as seeming as if a weight had been lifted, but many of Milch’s other characters unburden themselves as well, of delusions and denials, unexpressed dreams and ambitions, and false senses of self. Alma lets go of Seth and Seth of Alma, while Martha lets go of her anxiety about Seth still being in love with Alma. (The final image of the Bullocks kissing in the doorway is a callback not just to the iconic final shot of The Searchers, but of the final shot in season two’s “A Lie Agreed Upon Part 1,” which showed Seth embracing Alma in the doorway of her apartment after abandoning his newly-arrived wife in the home that he built for her.

Deadwood: The Movie is so generous, practically profligate, in its fondness for this memory-flash device that the result is a rare example of a film or TV show making good on the old, usually ridiculous notion of a drama’s setting somehow being “another character.” It feels like the hive-mind here, dreaming and speaking, as well as the cinematic embodiment of another long-deceased character, Reverend H.W. Smith (future Rectify creator Ray McKinnon), standing over the grave of Wild Bill and paraphrasing Corinthians: “For the body is not one member but many. He tells us: ‘The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of thee.’ […] All are necessary.”

To that end, Milch, who wrote the script, and director Daniel Minahan, a series veteran, have inserted a number of brief, wordless flashbacks into the story. These at first seem entirely functional—a way of summarizing important bits of backstory for fans who didn’t have time to rewatch the entire series, and perhaps giving non-fans the gist, though honestly it’s hard to imagine why anyone who’d never watched a frame of the series would want to see this coda. But by the time we reach the halfway mark of the story, and they’re still happening, they begin to seem more like 1970s art house cinema-style emotional fragments, collective recollections by the town itself struggling to remember so as not to forget. It’s hard to imagine that Milch, who wrote and rewrote this script while battling the initial stages of Alzheimer’s, was unaware of the extra-dramatic metaphor he was serving up. Upon repeat viewings (as of this writing, I’ve watched the movie three times) the result seems more like a gift from the storyteller to himself, in addition to its value as a summation, benediction, and farewell, a final parting remark on the thoroughfare before tipping the hat and turning to walk away: Say good-bye to Deadwood, and remember.

The final four minutes are the film’s closing Deadwood moment, and one of the very finest, jumping from place to place, character to character, home to home: Alma and Sofia, Seth and Martha, Jane and Joanie, Al and Jewel and Trixie, and on and on, as the score plays an instrumental version of “Waltzing Matilda,” the song that Jewel couldn’t remember the words to. And, suddenly, quietly, as if in a dream, snow begins to fall. Western fans may be reminded that Milch always adored the films of Robert Altman, the directorial version of a Spinoza-styled, non-interventionst God who devised fictional communities—collective organisms, Milch has called them—in order to scrutinize them through art. Milch’s very favorite Altman film, and a huge inspiration on Deadwood, is McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a town-based Western set against snowy backdrops. The show’s language is often called Shakepearean, but it’s also Joycean, as in James, with its spiraling, swooping, constructions and unexpected continuations and stopping points. The final few minutes of Deadwood: The Movie bring Joyce and Altman together, specifically through the perfect closing lines of Joyce’s “The Dead”:

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Deadwood: The Movie, At Long Last