‘Deadwood’: A Movie Twelve Years in the Making (And a Dream Come True)
There has been no movie I’ve been looking forward to more than HBO’s Deadwood. There’s no bluster in this statement, it’s a dream come true for me. I’ve been waiting for this film ever since the series’ whimpering finale twelve years ago. After three seasons, I’ve grown deeply attached to these characters and their beautifully diatribes.
However, I’ve had to come to terms with the ending, and have even found significance in its final shot in how it subverted the western cliché: our anti-hero Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) scrubbing the bloodstain of an innocent girl he had to murder to appease the series antagonist, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). If Deadwood was a classic western, we would have had the satisfaction of seeing the villain gunned down by its temperamental but good-hearted Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant).
Instead he gets away with it, as happens many times in real life. He even offers a smug gesture to the widow of the man he had murdered. The only thing our sheriff is able to do is make an empty threat. If our sheriff draws, he might be able to take him down, but it would incept endless bloodshed, so he sees no choice but to let him ride off into the murky sunset. Our hero then mournfully capitulates his inability to enact justice as he disappears into the crowd.
The finale scene has Johnny, one of Swearengen’s loyal stooges, asking Al if the innocent prostitute suffered during her murder. Swearengen decries Johnny for wanting him to “say something pretty.” He continues to try to scrub away innocent blood until the screen goes black. As it goes in life, sometimes there’s nothing pretty about anything, it’s just downright ugly.
But no matter how I twisted it in my mind, the ending still didn’t feel right. It was never meant to end this way. Originally two movies were planned to tie up all loose ends. The deal was almost through with original show creator David Milch and then former HBO chairman Chris Albrecht even shaking on it. But all chances of this happening were crushed after Albrecht was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, which led to him getting fired from HBO.
But now after ten years, and after many uproarious calls from fans, we are finally getting a movie, which I presume will give us a proper send-off to the Deadwood saga. Original show creator David Milch had been mulling over the screenplay for years, even receiving help from True Detective creator Nic Pizzolato. They’ve even managed to assemble the majority of the original cast, with the exception of three main players: Titus Welliver (who played Silas Adams), Ralph Richeson (who played Richardson) and Powers Booth (who played Cy Tolliver). Welliver won’t return due to studio commitments with the TV show Bosch. Richeson unfortunately passed away in 2015 while Booth died in 2017. I’ve heard no reports yet whether Brian Cox will return to portray the flamboyant stage performer Jack Langrish — I certainly hope so, however.
Whether the eventual ending will satisfy all fans is up for debate — and it seems very unlikely that it will — but at least we know that this is probably the last time we will ever visit Deadwood again. We know then that we can finally say goodbye to its colorful denizens of sinners.
In this article, I want to explore what little we know about the movie and what we can expect to see.
Spoilers for the Deadwood show as well as The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and The Wire.
The Waning of Time
Former HBO executive and current executive producer on the Deadwood movie, Carolyn Strauss, has been interviewed by EW about the vague details surrounding the movie. Only two pictures have been released so far, it has been confirmed the film will take place ten years after Season 3 and will take place in 1889, where the town will celebrate South Dakota having become part of the Union. When asked about what the film was about, Strauss replied: “If you ask David, it’s about the passage of time. The toll of time on people. It’s mellowed some people and hardened others. And it’s about the town’s maturing and becoming part of the Union and what that event sets in motion, in a very personal way for the people who it brings in town and what ensues. The toll of time has not just struck Deadwood and the characters but all the people making it as well, you get to see the faces of people 12 years later…” A big part of the story will apparently be about the consequence of Al Swearengen’s diminishing power on the town of Deadwood.
Even though I naturally would have preferred an earlier reunion of the cast, especially so I could see Powers Booth playing Cy Tolliver again, I do like the time jump aspect of the story. They did this as well in last year’s belated Twin Peaks season 3, which continued its run after its cancellation twenty years before. Seeing old versions of these familiar characters, who have matured and hardened after all these many years, was fascinating to me.
Something similar occurred in the fifth season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which had a time jump of eight years. This show also wove historical facts and characters around its narrative. The only downfall of that season was that we didn’t get to see the downfall of Arnold Rothstein, who had perished within those eight years. I still am baffled by this choice, however, especially given how important his character was. I would have just altered the time period in which Rothstein suffered his infamous demise. It would have been far more satisfying.
In both the third season of Twin Peaks and fifth season of Boardwalk Empire, we have a more nostalgic and mournful tone to the preceding narrative. This is a natural consequence, not just with these characters but in real life as well. We become more reflective as time begins to slip away from us. We begin to regret our mistakes, we begin to ponder how we could have done things differently. We make peace with the past or let it destroy us.
In the case of Twin Peaks and the upcoming Deadwood movie, the time jump is necessary and it will mean that certain poignant plot points will have to be ignored — such as the rigged sheriff election orchestrated by Hearst. It will still be fascinating to see how those characters have changed in twelve years.
The Death of Doc Cochran
Doc Cochran (Brad Douriff) had been an essential part of Deadwood, mostly because he was the only physician in town. Apart from tending to the prostitutes for both The Gem Saloon and The Bella Union, he’s also been a dear companion to Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), giving her a purpose in life as a fellow caretaker rather than an aimless drunk.
Unfortunately, despite Doc Cochran’s healing abilities, he is not immune to the sickness. The last time we saw him, Cochran had been suffering from tuberculosis, coughing up blood on a regular basis which especially troubled Calamity Jane. Cochran seems to welcome impending death, not just because he doesn’t want to suffer its numerous painful symptoms, but because of the psychotic trauma he endured during his experiences in the Civil War. In one of the series most emotional moments — and there have been many — we see Doc Cochran on his knees, begging God to take ailing preacher Smith (Ray McKinnon) from a debilitating brain tumor. During this prayer he reminisces about all the death and misery he saw during the Civil War, all the unnecessary bloodshed and how God was silent through all of it. Even though Douriff has had many acting highlights throughout his career, the cries for wounded soldiers is my personal favorite.
When Al Swearengen becomes aware of Doc Cochran’s illness and his suicidal attitude towards it, he implores him to keep fighting for his life. It seems likely that Doc Cochran would have died in one of the two films that was supposed to follow up Season 3.
Since this film takes place ten years after, I picture Doc Cochran on his last breath, possibly being taken care of by Calamity Jane — and I’m sure they’ll exchange much hearty and moving banter.
The Return of George Hearst
One of the most surprising aspects of the upcoming movie is the return of George Hearst. Especially since his departure in Season 3 seemed definitive. Carolyn Strauss was asked about his return to the Deadwood fold and she kept her explanation relatively vague: “What’s true with Hearst is he left a lot of havoc in his wake, and a lot of upset. There was a desire to resolve a lot of that. Plus, as portrayed by Gerald McRaney, he’s a fascinating character, and we all relished the opportunity to see him again.” On that last part, I’m sure nobody will disagree.
I would like to entertain the notion that Hearst will finally get his just deserts in the upcoming movie, but I don’t think that’s the case for several reasons. One of the most obvious reasons being that it would be historically inaccurate. Now Deadwood has never been a documentary and has spiced up and altered many aspects of its real-life characters, but I don’t think they would go so far as to have the infamous George Hearst get murdered.
Another reason would be how it wouldn’t fit in thematically, as his eventual victory was necessary for the shows revisionist slant. In American history, evil has won innumerable times — and unfortunately still does.
Hearst represented the capitalistic empire that was beginning to swallow up the American landscape, leaving untold victims of different races and classes. His presence was inevitable, especially considering the valuables hiding in Deadwood. Even if they had gunned him down, others just as worse would follow after.
Following Strauss’ words, it seems likely that some political maneuvering caused Deadwood to becoming part of the Union. Perhaps he would make his appearance in some ceremony and would spark emotional disarray among its principal cast. I’d imagine widow Garret (Molly Parker) will have a hard time greeting the monstrous businessman. I’m sure Sheriff Bullock will have to calm himself down so as to not beat the hell out of him.
It will certainly cause some intense bitterness on Al’s part, as Hearst had challenged his power and humiliated in return. It could even spark Swearengen’s downfall as his eventual bitterness will give his rise further humiliation, and perhaps even death.
Though I still have hope that Hearst will die a slow and painful death in the hands of his faithful cook Aunt Lou (Cleo King), whose son Odell (Omar Gooding) was probably murdered by one of Hearst’s men. If I wanted anyone to have their revenge on Hearst, it would be Aunt Lou.
E.B. Farnum Mourning Richardson
You can’t have Deadwood returning without bumbling hotel owner E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson). He brought countless comic highlights throughout the show, especially in his hilarious inability for beguilement. It’s hard not to love the character, even when he often revealed himself to be a slithering coward — which is certainly credited to Sanderson’s performance.
One of the worst character traits he had was how he treated his kindly imbecilic servant Richardson. He treated him horribly simply out of spite for the lack of respect he received from his peers. Richardson was one of the few people in the camp he could show dominance towards, as others in the camp showed him little respect. This is also evident in how he treated black or Chinese people in the camp.
Even when Richardson saved Farnum from nearly choking on clove soap, which he put in his mouth in order to diminish his agonizing toothache, he still berated him for having put his “filthy hands” in his mouth. He was so petty towards him that he even stopped Richardson from stealing the spotlight in a nightly talent show. He just continuously needed to feel superior to him.
Unfortunately, since actor Ralph Richeson passed away from heart failure in 2015, we will never see Richardson in Deadwood again. Since it’s confirmed that neither Richardson’s or Cy Tolliver’s passing will be ignored in the film, I think we will see Farnum mourning Richardson’s absence because he will finally realize that Richardson was the only real friend he ever had.
The Return of Mister Wu
While the surviving principal cast will return — even Jeffrey Jones apparently, despite becoming a registered sex offender — I was even more delighted to know that Mister Wu (Keone Young) will return as well. Being the leader of the Chinese part of town, his immigrant perspective was always essential to the Deadwood lore. Not to mention that his hungry pigs were extremely handy for body disposal. His power struggle with rival Chinese gangster Mr. Lee (Philip Moon) was one of the most exciting storylines of Deadwood Season 2.
Wu also provided many of the show’s most hilarious moments, especially his limited vocabulary — including one particular use of a swear word. His friendship with Swearengen was also quite touching and I would love to see them together again, but now older and wiser, communicating will be even easier now after knowing each other for so long.
His return has been confirmed by a moving Twitter message by Keone Young, in which he revealed his despair surrounding the hateful state of America and how he was made to feel better when he joined his fellow cast to singing and playing songs. You can read it here. It’s a short and worthwhile read and might brighten up your day.
The Death of Al Swearengen
Even though we’re not sure if the Deadwood movie will be the last time we’ll see this ensemble of characters, it seems quite likely. Therefore, it seems likely that we will see the demise of its arguably most beloved character: Al Swearengen. Historically, the real Swearengen was probably murdered, found dead with a fatal head wound (possibly with a knife).
He’s made quite a few enemies throughout the years so the list of potential murderers in his life are endless. Personally, I don’t think it will come from someone like Hearst, even though his return might spell trouble for Swearengen. I can imagine Swearengen losing control and humiliating Hearst in public, which will prompt Hearst to order his death.
But one theory I have — and I’m probably wrong — is that it might be one of his fellow prostitutes, such as Dolly (Ashleigh Kizer) with whom Swearengen often shares his internal struggles. Though Swearengen has become more compassionate as the seasons went on, it’s likely that his sometimes mean-spirited treatment towards Dolly could cause her to suddenly strike at him fatally. Or perhaps he will replace her with another woman, which might cause intense jealousy from Dolly who has grown quite attached to him. The possibilities are numerous.
Another theory is that Swearengen’s simple-minded henchman Johnny (Sean Bridgers) will have him murdered out of belated vengeance for Swearengen having sacrificed the kindly prostitute Jen to appease Hearst — because she resembled Trixie (Paula Malcomson) who shot at Hearst, who Swearengen is quite fond of. Out of all the people who Swearengen has murdered, it seems like poetic justice that his own shedding of the most innocent blood will cause his undoing.
Swearengen is one of those beloved anti-hero characters in the HBO circle, whose demise I feel must be tragic. Just as it was with Omar Little, Nucky Thompson and Tony Soprano (well, his demise is still up for debate). His death would signify that this is the definitive end of Deadwood.
But then again, I trust David Milch. He has created one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Even though he has a tendency to not finish great shows — like the wildly underrated horse-gambling saga Luck — I still trust his vision.
And I can’t wait to see it.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Deadwood? Comment down below!
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