Last October, I took the time to write a blog entry about Deadwood the series, followed up by an entry in which I expressed eager anticipation for its return in Deadwood, The Movie. Well, it aired last night and, thanks to my friend Dana, I was able to watch it in real time through her HBO app, sans a television in my house. Here are my initial impressions:
First, it behooves us to ponder the usefulness of sequels. In my mind, a sequel, prequel, spin-off, reboot, or in Deadwood’s case, a revival, only has two creatively valid purposes. One is to break new ground by telling a new story, or by effectively building upon the mythology that the initial story created. Think of successful sequels such as The Empire Strikes Back, or The Godfather Part II.
The other reason to make a sequel is purely for fan service. If the fans love it and want it to continue, go for it. We all love a good story. In my view, reason number two pales in the shadow of number one. People are always going to want more of something they like, even if it isn’t good for them.
Of course, Hollywood’s main reason for making sequels, prequels, spin-offs and the like has nothing to do with either of the above. It wants to make money. That’s why our culture is engorged with 10,000 Marvel movies, 2,000 Star Trek movies and TV episodes, and we’ll soon have 50,000 Star Wars movies. Story potential for these franchises was exhausted years ago, but like the villain of Deadwood, George Hearst, Hollywood can’t help itself, so it keeps going on and on in perpetuity. This means that they have to keep recycling the same story over and over again with new polish on an old car. Think Rocky, Home Alone, Die Hard, etc.
Deadwood was not a money-maker, though at the time, it was the most expensive TV series being produced. It did not generate ratings that would translate into revenue for HBO. Nor did it generate the kind of commercial or mainstream buzz that enveloped office coffee machines around The Sopranos, Sex and the City and especially, Game of Thrones. It was sadly telling that I found many reviews on the Deadwood movie from the usual suspects such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Slate in the days leading up to the movie, but there was nary a word about it from the common folk on Twitter and Facebook, who had been in an angry buzz over the Game of Thrones series finale nearly two weeks hence. We can certainly blame the passage of time for this, but I think you’ll see much more excitement from the hoopalhead crowd when the Breaking Bad movie comes out. The reasons are stark and obvious. Deadwood was a niche show, adored by stuck-up cosmopolitan critics and a small-but-vocal band of devoted fans like me. It’s meandering narrative style and dense, complex language made it inaccessible to mainstream fans who found The Sopranos and Game of Thrones far more digestible.
Why then make a movie after 13 years of silence? The answer seems to be, unfinished business.
Clearly, there was more story to be told within the universe of David Milch’s historically revisionist drama. Like Wild Bill Hickok, The series was killed before its time and history provided a road map that Milch could adopt or discard at his whims. In its original series form, it was good for at least three more seasons, though it likely would have only run for one more before Milch, “Got off the bus,” as he put it.
But history rendered its judgment, fingers got leveled, tempers flared, every cocksucker abandoned the table with nothing but their pride, and the expensive sets came down. So the only reason to resurrect it was, because that small band of adoring fans and critics wanted it.
HBO certainly wants to make money, but they also have a habit of sometimes lending their might to projects that transcend mere monetary value. It wasn’t out of character for them to give Deadwood one more breath of life so that it could offer a proper farewell to its fans.
So, did Deadwood, The Movie, accomplish the goal of telling a new story with the same old characters? Did we get Daddy Vader, or Mr. T? My answer is…a little of both. Did it adequately service the fans who wanted more? My answer is an enthusiastic, hell yeah!!!
I started leaking at the first sound of Calamity Jane’s voice. It was not the last time I lost it. On Facebook afterward, I wondered if my reaction to the conclusion was because the movie was just that great, or because I suffer from a touch more emotional incontinence as I age. As I reflect upon the final sojourn of Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane, Charlie Utter, Trixie and the rest of the cast of this fine series, I do tend to think the answer is due to the latter.
Don’t get me wrong… It was a wonderful feeling spending time once again with characters whom I’d come to know and love 13 years ago, and whom I occasionally revisit. I was glad they got a send-off. We fans spent years patiently waiting and eventually, not believing that we’d ever get that movie we’d been promised. Anything surpassing Seth reading bedtime stories to his kids, or Al and Calamity Jane playing poker, would have been welcome.
That said, the movie did have its flaws; some of them quite glaring.
If you will consult my earlier entry, I wondered how the movie would treat Doc Cochran, who had been stricken as a “lunger” in the third and final season of the show. Tuberculosis was a death sentence to most anyone who contracted it in 19th century America. In the movie, not only did Doc survive, but he seemed completely healthy and normal. Not only was this not addressed in the movie, but no reviewer (of whom I read plenty), seemed to catch this obvious discrepancy. “Nobody gets out alive, Doc,” Al tells him during a coughing fit in the show’s third season. Apparently, Doc did get out alive. Others were not so lucky. What else would we expect when George Hearst comes to town?
The main thrust of the plot did seem to be a rehash of the third season. Hearst, now a senator from California, comes back to Deadwood and wants to appropriate Charlie Utter’s land so that he can string telephone wires across it. As was the case in season three, Hearst proves to be a predatory capitalist, who only knows how to grab everything he wants like a child. If he can’t get it by coercive bargaining, he tries to obtain it through violent means. In the third season, his primary conflict was with Alma Garret-Ellsworth, who refused to sell him her gold mine until the final episode. Alma’s second husband Ellsworth proved to be a casualty of their war of wills.
In the movie, Charlie Utter, former friend of the deceased legend, Wild Bill Hickok, wound up dead from bullets from two assassins dispatched by Hearst. Ultimately, Seth Bullock challenges Hearst and prevails, even though more bodies fall in their ensuing conflict, including Samuel ‘The Nigger General’ Fields. Hearst goes to jail, but we are left with the sense that he will likely walk yet again.
Aside from the obvious recycled conflict, I find its genesis problematic.
In the series finale, Trixie, Al’s former favorite prostitute, shoots Hearst in the shoulder in retribution for his murder of Ellsworth. Hearst survives and agrees to leave town, but demands that Trixie be murdered as a consequence. Since Al favors Trixie, he kills a different prostitute in Trixie’s stead. Hearst did not get a good look at Trixie when she shot him, so Al’s gamble works and Hearst leaves Deadwood amidst vocal rebukes from the town citizenry.
10 years later, Trixie is pregnant with Sol Star’s child. When Hearst comes to town to celebrate South Dakota’s official entrance into the Union, Trixie gives into an angry fit and berates him in her customary acid-tongued fashion from her balcony as he passes by. This, of course, raises Hearst’s suspicions, thereby causing him to demand that Charlie Utter surrender his land in exchange for Hearst’s forgiveness of Trixie. When Charlie refuses to sell, he gets dead, and things escalate from there.
I don’t buy for a second that Trixie would dishonor the dead whore’s sacrifice (her name was Jenn, by the way), and put her future baby and marriage in jeopardy by calling out Hearst as she did. Trixie was my second favorite character because of her sharp tongue and irascible manner, but she wasn’t a fool. I believe that impending motherhood and the welfare of the community of Deadwood, which Al killed Jenn to protect, would have suppressed her fiery temper. A moving scene between Trixie and Al late in the movie illustrates extreme survivor’s guilt on Trixie’s part over Jenn’s death, which lead to her serious lapse in judgment. I just don’t buy it. I believe she felt guilty, but I think she would recognize that the burden she carried was not hers alone.
There is a subplot involving the romance between Jane and Joanie Stubbs, but it feels hollow. Apparently, Cy Tolliver left Joanie his saloon when he died, but the circumstances are barely mentioned. I’m not sure I buy that Joanie would take anything Cy gave her, as she was trying to break free of him at the end of the series. Even so, what was to prevent Al from waltzing across the street and bargaining with Joanie once Cy had been declared dead? He may have grown soft in his old age, but he was still a pragmatic businessman.
Some fans criticize the fact that Al had relatively little to do in the movie. With respect, that was the fuckin’ point. Al tries to keep his finger on the pulse as he did in his prime, but his diminished capacity causes him to be shunted to the side, allowing Seth to take center stage.
Years of drinking and whoring had worn away Al, finally taking a toll on his liver. Remember also that he was afflicted by a stroke after suffering from a kidney stone that almost cost him his life in the second season. It is perfectly credible that, 10 years later, he would be on death’s doorstep. Some fans wanted him to go out in a blaze of glory, killing Hearst (and himself in the process) in order to save Trixie and the town. Again, with respect, that is not what Deadwood was all about. I found Al’s final scene, passing away quietly in his bed, being tended to by his close friends, far more true and fitting for the end of Al’s story arc than I did the shoot-out between Bullock and Hearst’s mercenaries.
Like it or not, Al Swearengen served as the heart and soul of the budding community of Deadwood. More than any other character, he symbolized its journey from a lawless, violent camp to a thriving town. He began as a cut-throat crime boss who abused his women, killed his disobedient underlings and hurled racial insults at any non-white person within his vicinity. By the end of the movie, he was gently urging Sol Star to run for political office and offering to leave Trixie his saloon.
Like Breaking Bad, Deadwood is the story of change. Unlike Breaking Bad, which showed the decay of one man’s soul, Deadwood shows that healthy change can be wrought through redemption and forgiveness. Seth Bullock begins the series as a man filled with rage at injustices he sees all around him. By the end, he is a husband, a father and an upstanding member of his community. The brief scene he shares with Alma demonstrates that their feelings for each other still smolder, but Seth remains a good man who stays loyal to his wife and honors his commitment to his family. Trixie becomes a mother and a wife. Charlie Utter dies defending the land that he worked so hard to cultivate. Others in the community, such as Tom Nuttall, continue to lead quiet, normal lives.
Not everyone changes. Jane is still an alcoholic vagabond, adrift on a sea of her own insecurities. Joanie appears to struggle with substance abuse and E. B. Farnum…well, he’ll always be E. B. Farnum. Hearst is also the same purple villain that drives the plot, showing less nuance than many of Milch’s other creations.
Yet, it is heartening to watch Al pass quietly, knowing that, whatever storms may pass over Deadwood, those whom he cared for in his own curmudgeonly way, are safe. That alone made the movie worth the watch.
I did have to chuckle at certain points. Many characters got very little to do. I knew that would be the case going in. Alma Garret-Ellsworth had little more than a cameo in the movie, though this was due to conflicts in Molly Parker’s own work schedule. Anna Gunn only had one or two scenes as Martha Bullock. Each time I heard her speak, I was struck at how much more like Skyler White she sounded. Tim Olyphant too had much more Raylan Givens in his delivery than he did pre-Justified. On the other hand, Calamity Jane seemed as if she’d never left the role.
At the end of the day, I liked the movie a lot. I didn’t love it. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to ever wrap up a series in a satisfactory manner. Fans of Game of Thrones don’t seem to think so. Maybe finales such as that of The Shield and Breaking Bad are more of an anomaly than a real possibility. Yet, I will re-watch Deadwood, The Movie. Every two years or so, when I break out the series for a re-run, I will now happily include this final chapter in my viewing, not choosing to skip it as I do other wrap-ups such as Homicide.
Will Deadwood be back for yet another chapter. I say emphatically, hell no! David Milch’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, embodied in the story by the passing of it’s central character, assures that this series has been appropriately laid to rest. In short, there ain’t no more fuckin’ Deadwood without Al Swearengen. I believe that this is only as it should be. Let Seth, Sol, Trixie, Jane and all the others pass into the sunset knowing that a small few of us will speak of them fondly in TV heaven.
Huzzah, Deadwood! Huzzah!