The ‘Deadwood’ Series Finale Refused To Be Pretty

We look back on the gory finish that left some unsatisfied but stayed true to the spirit of the series.
Deadwood Series Finale
By  · Published on May 22nd, 2019

Seeking resolution in the final episode of Deadwood was a fool’s errand, and believing that its return, in the form of a two-hour movie, will provide what the last shots of Season 3 did not is equally absurd. Creator, producer, and writer David Milch was never one for tidy endings. He sought emotional truth in the great lie of history and delighted in denying manufactured narrative satisfaction as much as he did a purple turn of phrase punctuated with a “cocksucker.” During its entire run on HBO, Deadwood delivered a vicious assault on contemporary politics by reveling in the hell of our past. The series was a meaty, mean, and malicious monster that demanded its audience invest their full being into every episode. If you were not willing to sink completely into its depths, Deadwood balked at your casual appreciation. Not for everybody? Pfft. Screw everybody.

As we enter the show’s final episode, “Tell Him Something Pretty,” the tyrannical George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) is preparing to leave camp, but not before he sees the cold corpse of the prostitute who impetuously shot him in the previous episode. He sends a letter to Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) demanding he deal with his employee and present Trixie’s (Paula Malcomson) slit neck to his witness. Despite finding romance in the arms of Sol Star (John Hawkes), Al still holds a deep affection for Trixie and orders his henchman Johnny (Sean Bridgers) to dispose of lookalike Jen (Jennifer Lutheran) in her place.

Since his arrival, Hearst was positioned into a catastrophic confrontation with Swearengen. We’ve watched enough Westerns. We know the drill. This town ain’t big enough for the both of them. Blah, blah, blah, but this is Deadwood. Our hunger to experience Swearengen’s boot on Hearst’s throat means nothing in the face of callous reality. George Hearst, representing America’s gluttonous greed and dominance through political power, was never going to be allowed a just ending. The best we could hope for was that our favorite characters exposed his shark-toothed hypocrisy.

On the DVD commentary for the episode, Milch confronts complaints from viewers wanting fireworks. He says, “The idea that because this was the last episode of the third season that everything had to be tied up with a bow is also bullshit.” He says with each word landing like daggers, “Nothing ever gets wrapped up.” He may mock and twist history, but Milch ain’t Tarantino, and Deadwood sure as hell ain’t Inglourious Basterds. As brilliant as it would feel to watch Al plunge his thick knife into the soft stomach of Hearst, such a climax would feel hamstrung and disingenuous.

Instead, we must sit and stew as Johnny braves defiance to Swearengen’s kill order only to find himself conked on the head by the more reliable Dan (W. Earl Brown) and detained to a chair while the damsel he defended is removed of her life. Swearengen compromises one person for another because that’s what we all do, whether we admit it or not. We have our favorites, and we fight the daily routine to make sure they come out on top. Swearengen has held steadfast to his values since episode one. He handled every obstacle with cold calculation, weighing each option as if it were a grain of gold dust.

The ultimate arc of series walks in the boots of Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). The lawman who fled Montana to make his riches in the lawless territories could not deny his righteousness in the wake of Wild Bill Hickcock’s (Keith Carradine) assassination. He strives to be the good man and hates the selfish logic of Al Swearengen. With the appearance of George Hearst, Bullock encounters a greater dragon to slay, and by the third season, the upstanding citizen is swimming in the muck with the rest of his constituents. Swearengen did not conquer Hearst, but he sure as hell conquered Seth Bullock.

The only victory to be had for Bullock is to place himself before the jaws of Hearst and spit. He stood by while poor Jen was placed before the mogul’s wet grin, and he held his leather while his one-time lover Alma (Molly Parker) was bullied from her claim. When the demon tips his hat to his victim, however, Bullock sees red and finds the deadly courage to confront Hearst. “You looked at your last body,” he hisses. “You’re done tipping your hat. Get out of here, or I’ll drag you out by the ear.”

The two men stare hatefully at each other, but Hearst ultimately believes the Sheriff. He dare not step down from his wagon. His reason keeps him planted. Hearst is already triumphant. He’s rounded up enough votes to push the Sheriff out of office. He need not meet his challenge. Hearst leaves Bullock standing impotent. Deputy Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) might be impressed by the display, but not the man wearing the tin badge.

“I did fucking nothing” dribbles from Bullock’s mouth. When he contemplates life’s larger purpose as presented to him by Utter, he continues, “Which is laying head to pillow, not confusing yourself with a sucker.” Bullock leaves the series doubting if he’ll ever know his worth. Did he do right by the camp? Did he do right by the few loved ones he has left on this Earth? His actions, or maybe even his restraint, kept a few souls in their bodies.

Milch and co-writer Ted Mann leave us with Swearengen scrubbing Jen’s blood off his saloon floor. Johnny sidles up to his boss, “Did she suffer?” Swearengen gifts him with, “I was gentle as I was able, and that’s the last we’ll fucking speak of it.” Nearly expressionless, Johnny wanders down the hallway. To himself, Swearengen mutters the show’s final thought: “Wants me to tell him something pretty.” We all do, but if Deadwood has been true to one concept since the beginning, it’s that the show — and America — were never pretty.

Bruce Springsteen‘s cover of “O Mary Don’t You Weep” growls over the end credits and we’re left to soak in the apathy of it all. Shows like Lost and Game of Thrones allowed for climactic going away parties. You’d gather your friends around the flatscreen and commiserate the climax with thematic treats. Friends didn’t gather to cheer when Deadwood ended. A lonely bottle of bourbon was your best bet. Swearengen doesn’t need your clapping. There is always another stain to mop.

The single difference between “Tell Him Something Pretty” and the upcoming movie is that the film was made as an end. Milch maybe knew there was a possibility that Season 3 was their climax, but he wrote it with the hope of a Season 4 in mind. There is no hope in the movie. Here is “The End” and Milch can finally write to that. Still, don’t expect an ounce of closure. Deadwood loathes your desire.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)