“We’re all of us haunted by our own fucking thoughts. So make friends with the ghost, it ain’t going fucking anywhere.”
—Al Swearengen, Deadwood: the Movie
South Dakota, 1876, in the wake of Custer’s folly: a mining camp whose most influential and conniving citizens hope to be annexed by the United States government as they machinate against each other in their unabating pursuits for more money, more power. It’s place is called Deadwood, a lawless, sordid camp inhabited by gold chasers and hoople heads, dope fiends and gunslingers, craven murderers and even a few honest, hard-working folk. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a pitiless saloon owner who sells sex and uses murder to eradicate threats of competition, one of the camp’s first settlers, is the unaccredited leader, but his surreptitious sovereignty is threatened by other scheming parties. A former sheriff from Montana named Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) arrives, hoping to open a hardware store with his Jewish partner Sol (John Hawkes) and begin a new life free from the tumult of the badge. Moral but mercurial, he ends up, at Al’s behest, becoming the sheriff and tries to bring order to the chaos. But knives and bullets are no match for the power of money and the United States government.
The three-season television show Deadwood (2004–6) was a contemporary of The Sopranos and The Wire, but felt, and still feels, like a show torn from time. Series creator David Milch was a veteran of television. He cut his teeth writing for the prototypical “gritty” cop show Hill Street Blues (with its cast of imperfect and talkative characters, a hodgepodge of overlapping dialogue that recalled the films of Robert Altman), and subsequently co-created a plethora of shows with varying degrees of success, including the massively successful NYPD Blue (which pushed the boundaries of sex and violence on network television, and whose intimacy and emotional earnestness defied the conventions of the cop show). Television, always a writer’s medium, was by the early aughts beginning to focus more on visuals. (For The Sopranos pilot, David Chased drew influence from the work of Gordon Willis and the Hollywood films of the 1970s, all chiaroscuro lighting and inky shadows and golden lambency.) Shows were now shooting in 1.85 aspect ratios, adapting more cinematic styles of visual storytelling. But Milch’s creation, loquacious and vulgar, was unabashedly a show of words, with its trenchant torrents of dialogue and secondhand stories spun in long, circuitous sentences by drunken griots and chicanerous con men. Deadwood is a lugubrious, squalid vicinage full of chit-chatty charlatans whose fates are sewn by conversation, by words. Language is violence. Words have meanings, double meanings. The Chinese boss speaks only one word of English: “Cocksucker.”
The language, the unique ways each character speaks and how their vocabulary and syntax reflect who they are, is a testament to the thoroughness and sincerity of the writing. Milch and co. created a world that, perhaps more than any other show, feels authentic, lived-in. The dirt and mud and blood mottling the camp are palpable. The miasma of filth and decay and diurnal squalor suffuses the screen. But it is the characters, as complicated and compelling and utterly, achingly human as in any great work of literature, who give Deadwood its life. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), the edified, empathetic doctor who mitigates ailments and keeps the town going; Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), lonely, loyal, who rides into camp as Wild Bill Hickok’s friend and becomes the Deputy and Bullock’s trustworthy consort; Trixie (Paula Malcomson), the trenchant prostitute who aspires to free herself of her venereal vocation, and a maternal figure to both children and grown men; A. W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), the camp’s garrulous newspaper man, who speaks so circuitously and believes truly deeply into Deadwood; Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), the most decent man in camp.
And of course there is Al Swearengen, who, like Tony Soprano, is a man of violence and deceit and an opportunistic sonuvabitch, and yet the viewer is always hoping that he becomes a better man. For all his transgressions and malversations, his willingness to slit a throat when it benefits his business propositions and his abusive demeanor, Al becomes, however inexplicably, someone viewers come to care about. He is many things, but, as he tells his equally mendacious rival Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), he is not a hypocrite. “When he ain’t lying,” says Adams (Titus Welliver) in the series finale, “Al is the most honorable man you’ll ever meet.” For the first few episodes of the series, Al acts unequivocally as the villain, but as the season progresses, his humanity slowly appears in unfettered moments, fugacious insinuations of morality. He becomes a tragic figure. In one of the series’ indelible scenes, Al, imbibed and upset, while receiving fellatio from one of his prostitutes, elucidates on his painful and penurious childhood. The monologue consists of only two shots, both close-ups of McShane’s face, etched with the marks of time, eyes sunken in and glazed, his story spoken breathlessly and with a vulnerability Al hasn’t revealed before. (The fellatio monologue would become a motif of later seasons, Al alternatingly berating the poor woman’s performance and pontificating on the ontological nature of life.) Consider also the scene in that same episode in which a teary-eyed Al watches the reverend, one of the camp’s few altruistic inhabitants, who is dying from an inoperable brain tumor, preach about circumcision to cattle. As the malady saps him of his facilities and muddles his mind, his writhes, he convulses, he struggles to know what is and isn’t real, but he never loses his faith. Al’s brother suffered tumors, and when Al finally kills the reverend, it is a mercy killing. “You can go now, brother.” Right before Al suffocates the reverend, we see Doc Cochran on his knees, asking God, catechizing him, why he continues to let the man of the cloth suffer, why he permits and perpetuates so much pain. By killing the reverend, Al is answering the doctor’s prayers. He acts as God.
The arrival of George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) brings disarray to the camp, as Hearst will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but also brings together former foes, uniting them in an effort to save Deadwood. Hearst proves more dastardly than anyone else in camp, deploying his disposable thugs to intimidate and kill in his effort to secure the Ellsworth gold claim. In the penultimate episode, in the wake of the slaying of Ellsworth, Al’s coterie of cronies and Charlie Utter share a drink, and a laugh, while Al and Bullock protect the widow Ellsworth (Molly Parker). An enraged Trixie removes her top and, bare-breasted, shoots Hearst in the shoulder with her Derringer. Hearst survives, and demands retribution; Al cannot kill Trixie, he still feels too deeply for her, so he reluctantly slits the throat of another blond prostitute and passes her off to Hearst as his attempted assassin, to placate the vengeful man. It works, for now.
Deadwood was canceled after three seasons. The end of the series provided no closure, all those storylines and character arcs ending on an ellipsis. In the final image of the series, Al is seen once again cleaning up blood off of his floor, suggesting a Sisyphean cycle of violence, as well as a sense of regret and accountability, the finality of death and impermanenceof life. He has learned to live with the ghosts. Now, 13 years later, Milch’s long-gestating Deadwood: The Movie has arrived, and it was well worth the wait. (Milch had a gambling problem for years and was reportedly $17 million in debt by 2016. In April 2019, he made public his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and left the production of the film to Minahan and Regina Corrado.) Written by Milch and directed gorgeously by Dan Minahan, it is emotional rather than sentimental, a continuation of the show rather than a nostalgic traipse through familiar territory. The sets, the performances, the irradianceof lamps glowing in wood-hued rooms—it all feels natural, familiar, like seeing old friends after a prolonged absence. Time, that most precious commodity, has changed Deadwood and its inhabitants in obvious and subtle ways. Hairs have grayed, paunches grown swollen, faces gaunt and wrinkled with the accumulation of years. There are buildings of brick, a train whose plumes rise to the balmy sky, trees chopped down, and telephone poles erected. Time has seemingly placated many of Al’s agitations, but it has ravaged his body. His skin is sallow, liver struggling to keep up with his prodigious consumption of spirits. Bullock, now a Marshal (and Olyphant now a much better, subtler actor than he was in 2006), has three young daughters with his wife (Anna Gunn), whose seems to have gotten acclimated to her situation in the camp following the death of her son, trampled under hoof at the end of the second season. Hearst, now a California senator, returns to Deadwood to celebrate South Dakota becoming a state and deliver a perfunctory speech, bringing with him fleeting glimpses of the past, exhuming skeletons, reigniting old fires in the hearts of those who refuse to forget. As Hearst triumphantly parades through the camp, a pregnant and always incorrigible Trixie takes to her balcony to berate the man. He recognizes her as the woman who shot him, and demands that Al hand her over. But Al still can't do it. “Christ, I do have feelings,” Al says.
Hearst, still mendacious and now possessing more power and influence, is, like most rich people, a man who feels entitled to whatever he wants. He wants to buy Charlie Utter’s land, but Charlie tells Hearst to fuck himself. Hearst, of course, has Charlie killed. The murder of Charlie Utter galvanizes the camp, the way the murder of Ellsworth did. Bullock becomes dead set on bringing Hearst to justice, even if it’s Deadwood’s version of justice. A Faulkner quote comes to mind: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
From the opening scene of Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) drunkenly riding into camp, a train boring out of the east, ribald as the coming sun howls and whorls of smoke rise, Deadwood looks beautiful without losing the show’s unflashy aesthetic. Candle flames twist and dance, wooden rooms glow luminously. The show’s deft use of rack focusing remains, shots layered with the faces of characters in thought, in conversation, in solidarity.
Despite its surfeit of burly manly men, Deadwood is as deep and intimate as any other show from the time. The relationships—platonic, romantic—and rivalries run as deep as a gorge. The truncated ending of the show left many emotional arcs unresolved, promises unfulfilled; with the movie, Milch manages to satisfy the desires of fans without succumbing to easy fan service. Familiar faces appear, but not out of contrivance or convenience. Their presence is earned and feels natural. The way characters changed, the way they stayed the same, feels authentic. The way Al has rubbed off on Bullock, and the way Bullock has influenced Al. Bullock, still a lawman,doesn’t hesitate to pull his gun. He’s still irascible, still honorable. He protects Deadwood and everyone in it, and in Hearst he finds a seemingly indomitable nemesis. Hearst is more than willing to send his closest and most trusted consorts to fight against Al’s in the mud in the thoroughfare. (Recall Dan fighting the captain in the third season, as Al and Hearst watch the sordid spectacle.) Al, less dyspeptic but no less scheming, is ill. Again, Faulkner comes to mind: war and drink are the only two things a man is never too poor to buy. Wu makes an appearance, bringing Al herbal remedies. It’s pseudo-fan service, but goddamn if it isn’t satisfying to see these two unlikely friends still up to their old tricks, two men who look out for each other even if their fragile masculinity doesn’t allow them to admit any emotionality. “Fucking Wu.”
Deadwood: The Movie has the funereal feeling of an epilogue, but also the urgency of a finale. Once Charlie Utter’s body turns up with a hole in the top of his head, nothing is certain except that Bullock and Al will not let this go quietly. Hearst represents civilization, of course, and civilization and all its rigor and rules is a threat to the feral, often brutish way of life in Deadwood; but Hearst, with all his prodigious influence and incalculable wealth and disposable nameless henchmen, is, simply, a politician, and politics are an ineluctable part of society. Hearst is an inevitability and he is invincible, but that doesn't stop Bullock and the camp from having a small victory. Hearst, having ascertained that Trixie is actually his attempted assassin, shows up to Trixie and Sol’s wedding at Al’s saloon with two lawmen and a warrant for her arrest. Bullock retorts by arresting Hearst and dragging him out to the thoroughfare, where the camp’s people beat him before Bullock drags him to a cell.
Hearst, battered, sits in a cage. The dancing continues. And then the snow falls, gently, upon all the living and the dead.