Goodbye, Deadwood

Plenty of villains rode into Deadwood, South Dakota throughout the masterpiece Western’s three-season run, but none were as inimitable nor as inevitable as the human body. In the camp most-known for its lawlessness, plagues, brain tumors, depression, pregnancy, addiction, kidney stones, tuberculosis, and all manner of traumatic injuries came on suddenly and felled men and women alike, slower than a gunshot but just as painful. It only makes sense, then, that despite ruthless George Hearst’s (Gerald McRaney) return in the long-awaited series end-cap Deadwood: The Movie, it’s dementia that truly threatens Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Series creator David Milch, a man with an incomparable dramatist’s wit, recently shared that he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He knows what it’s like to fight an uphill battle for one’s body, and while there’s no way of guessing if it’s this knowledge that infuses the film with more quiet truth than ever, it’s clear that there’s wisdom in the very bones of this thing.

The film picks up ten years after the series’ conclusion, as Deadwood celebrates South Dakota’s statehood. Al Swearengen, one of the orneriest spitfires to ever come to life on screen, stays on the sidelines for much of the 110-minute run time, subverting our expectations for the man who once looked up from a bloody brawl to shout “Welcome to fucking Deadwood!” at unassuming women and children. He asks Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) what the latter thinks of the afterlife, and the doctor says he believes we live on in another form, our cells merely rearranged for new use. Flashes of wordless memory which strike Al and others at first seem like viewer-friendly flashbacks, but eventually fall into place as moments, both painful and passionate, that are lingered upon in the minds of these characters: the dog-eared pages of lives lived hard. “We’re all of us haunted by our own fucking thoughts,” Al says, “So make friends with the ghost, it ain’t going anywhere.”

Several of the notable real-life inhabitants of 1800s Deadwood had family members–siblings and spouses and children–who were absent from the show. The series reimagined these people as rootless yet mostly noble, and therein came its most profound beauty. Small yet significant acts of goodness and connection between near-strangers built on one another throughout the series, and they culminate in Deadwood: The Movie when the unshakeable foundation of Deadwood’s loyal community is finally, overwhelmingly, revealed in full. A series-high comes during a scene in which George Hearst attempts to buy local land at public auction, a few minutes which contain a dozen or more breathtaking tonal shifts.

These are acts of stoic bravery in the face of giant opposition, coming from characters we love, performed by actors who have matured into their roles and dipped back into them better than ever after over a decade away. Timothy Olyphant, especially, is looser and more nuanced as aging Sheriff Seth Bullock, while former sex worker Trixie (Paula Malcomson) and lovestruck alcoholic Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) take the prize for greatest character development. They’re still lost souls, the lot of them, but when Milch lets his Shakespearean cast–one who boasts at least a dozen all-time-great characters–come together and recognize the stubborn craving for purpose in one another’s eyes, the result is no less than a fully realized work of art.

In some ways, the plot of Deadwood: The Movie seems to pick up where a presumable fourth season would have, but in others, it’s served well by the gap in production. While a few characters have flourished, others stay the same, while others still have fallen back into old patterns–as if under a spell that can only be broken when confronted by the person or event on which their perception of self hinges. There are cameos and revelations and delights and heartbreaks, all best-experienced firsthand, and in the end, it’s all over sooner than we want it to be. Several town residents have made a notable turn toward religion in the interim, and while the series never fully gives over to the metaphysical, it’s clear that this world and its creator are grappling with the concept of what comes after goodbye. As usual, Deadwood doesn’t give up all the answers, but oh, how lucky we are to see it explore the questions. Director Daniel Minahan and cinematographer David Klein create a visually arresting portrait of the town that complements its philosophical maturity, capturing every shared glance and gunshot with crisp and elevating beauty.

The last scene ends in snow, a first for Deadwood and a favored symbol of the Bard himself. We see the snowfall, but don’t see it gather and coat the earth from which the town’s residents have withdrawn gold and deposited corpses. Instead, the flakes land on our unlikely heroes’ world-weary bodies, clinging to them in the midst of their living and dying, melting from the heat of their too-human hearts. The flakes are there and then gone; like Deadwood: The Movie, a gift, and a goodbye.

Valerie Ettenhofer: @aandeandval Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.