This post will contain plenty of spoilers from the Deadwood movie, so I don’t want to hear any complaints from you hoopleheads.
Like many of you, I waited with great anticipation for the Deadwood movie. Deadwood is my favorite show of all time. I recognize The Wire is probably a better and more important show, but in terms of where he heart is, it’s with Deadwood. The brilliance was on multiple levels. The language was of course amazing. Building a gargantuan cast of fairly major characters and giving them all something to contribute was a true achievement in writing. By the end of the show, there were close to 50 recognizable characters, with 25 being regular characters with major plot arcs. I’m not sure if any show had built that many unique characters over a mere 3 short seasons. The show was also a brilliant examination into Gilded Age frontier society. It could have just gone for standard western tropes and in a sense, it sometimes did, especially in the first season with Wild Bill Hickok and Seth Bullock, but even here they were always more interesting than expected. Doc Cochran’s PTSD, reliving the Civil War in his head; the reverend dying of brain cancer; the struggles of Calamity Jane to have the will to live, the entire arc of Trixie, and of course Al Swearingen, the most complicated villain in television history, one who is initially seen as a vile awful person and then turns out to be that and also be facing off against even more vile and awful people–all amazing. The casting of Geri Jewell shows us something real about what life was like for disabled people in the Gilded Age.
Where the show really excelled was on race–except for oddly having no Native characters at all. The Wu character was absolutely brilliant, building something that could have been just caricature into the struggle of a man seeking dignity and authority without speaking English and facing enormous racism and poverty. It was the same with the black characters. When Hostetler just can’t take the racism and humiliation anymore and blows his brains out, it’s a moment unlike any in television history. Still, the lack of a Native character–who would have been around a frontier settlement such as Deadwood, was a huge black mark on the show.
Anyway, the show never got the ending it deserved, even as Season 3 had gotten a little bit wobbly, though some of those unsatisfactory story lines would have been resolved in the planned fourth season. For years, there was talk about a movie to wrap some of this, but the years passed, these actors had lots going on, and it never seemed likely. But then, it did.
However, the reality is that the movie isn’t really very good. There were some joys in it. Al drinking himself to death by the end of the 2 hours was a perfect way to end it all. This was an inevitability at some point and it seems that 10 years after the end of the show was good timing. The interactions between Al and Bullock and George Hearst was all great. Trixie remained a rock at the center of the show–Paula Malcomson did such an amazing job with this character. It’s great to hear that florid language again, especially when Cochran is telling Al he is going to die and yelling at him and none of it matters. I was surprised that the writers worked so hard to get most of the minor characters a little bit of action, especially Wu. Sometimes, it seems they were overstuffing it a little bit–not sure we needed the marriage officiant to be Con Stapleton, just to see him. But whatever.
In the twelve years since the show ended, only two major characters died in real life–the guy who played Richardson, which was not required for the remake, and then Powers Boothe, which was huge. I read something from Kim Dickens shortly after the actors received the script and she gushed about the storyline she was given with Cy Tolliver. I’m sure that was great. But then Boothe died and they had to rewrite the whole thing. Given how much was going on in the story anyway, maybe cutting that out was for the best. The Joanie-Jane story worked pretty well here anyway, though it seems unlikely that anyone could drink at the level of Calamity Jane and still be living 10 years later.
As a whole though, it’s kind of meh. There are a few problems. First, Milch’s advancing Alzheimer’s meant that this didn’t quite have the same zip as it probably would have had. Not much can be done about that, even with a great team around him. Give all of them credit, because that reality should have killed the whole thing. The second unavoidable problem is that they stuffed a 10 or 13 episode storyline into effectively two episodes. That means there’s just so much that can’t really be explained or explored. Several major characters have nothing to do–Molly Parker’s Alma Ellsworth the most notable, but the same with William Sanderson’s E.B. Farnham, Jeffrey Jones’ A.W. Merrick, and W. Earl Brown’s Dan Dority.
But even outside of all this, there are some problems with the script. First, the endless use of flashbacks to scenes from the original series is basically disastrous. Just watch the series if you want to know what is going on. I’d rather have pointless expository dialogue than that. It really bugged me. Also, for many of the storylines, it felt like 10 years had not passed. Instead, they felt stagnant, like 6 months had passed without the character development that a decade requires. That was true of the relationship between Trixie and Starr, which seemed utterly unchanged except for her pregnancy. Farnham’s sole major scene is him being humiliated by Hearst again, which just felt like warmed over dialogue from him doing that in the original series. And why the hell is Aunt Lou just living in Deadwood with no relationship to Hearst? Given that she is clearly a sort of indentured servant to this incredibly violent man and that he killed her son just outside of Deadwood–the idea that she would just leave him and stay there and then they would have no interaction when he returned seems like really poor writing. There were some exceptions–Bullock and his wife have developed actual love over the years.
It’s also remarkable that more major characters die in two hours than in the entire show. Of course, the murder of Charlie Utter made sense to set off the plotline. Fine. But then Samuel (the NG in the show) finally gets lynched and doesn’t make it even though Bullock rescues him. Al dies. And OK, Hearst hiring that idiot Harry Manning to kill Bullock, who then gets shot by Calamity Jane–giving her a deserved positive in her life–works well enough I suppose.
Also, the whole Hearst story was pretty weird. First, a senator of the Gilded Age might have had people killed, but he was going to be pretty far distant from it by that point. He can’t be caught directly ordering murders. Moreover, it was a pretty thin reason to kill Utter–wouldn’t he have just rerouted the telephone lines? Just not compelling enough. And while I liked how the series juxtaposed the first scene in the whole thing–Bullock killing a guy by execution so he won’t be lynched–with him only very regrettably stopping Hearst from being lynched at the movie’s near conclusion–the movie ended with Hearst bloodied in prison but no real resolution to the issue. Since Alma bought Utter’s land, does Hearst just accept defeat and go home? Does he order a massive killing? I guess we are supposed to believe it is the former, but this really failed in the end because it doesn’t seem like his way.
Look, I’m glad the Deadwood movie exists. It was fun. There were some highlights. But it’s pretty inessential viewing. The next time I rewatch the series, I wonder if I will bother with the film.