We’ve come to the end of our three summer-long rewatch of David Milch’s revisionist Western “Deadwood.” No need for any disclaimers about veterans versus newbies at this point; no more episodes after this, folks. A review of the series finale, “Tell Him Something Pretty,” coming up just as soon as I ask for unguent by secret thinking…
“In the aftermath, play the lie as mine, knowing I speak of you in Heaven.” -Al Swearengen
It’s nearly seven years to the day that “Deadwood” came to an end. I reviewed that episode, like I reviewed most of that final season, on my old blog, and at the time felt frustrated with “Tell Him Something Pretty” as an end to the third season, but surprisingly effective as an abrupt end to the series as a whole.
Of course, in the years since, Milch has told me that he more or less knew the show wouldn’t be back, and that as a result he wrote this episode – and the final scene that provides its title – as the closest he could get to a conclusion. And Al scrubbing Jen’s blood from the floor of his office, lying to Johnny about the manner of her death, does feel like the most appropriate end – premature or otherwise – “Deadwood” could have had: one more lie agreed on, one more piece of violence being wiped away on the path to civilization, one more victory of money and power over decency and fairness.
It doesn’t take us to the rest of the story of Deadwood and George Hearst, doesn’t get into the role Jack Langrishe would play in the community going forward, doesn’t get us to the fire that claimed the Gem, Sol Star’s political career, Seth’s friendship with Teddy Roosevelt or anything else that could have come later. It ends before we want it to, before Milch intended to, but it ends.
Regardless of what might have come in the mythical fourth season, or in the movies that HBO was never going to have the ability to make (because every actor was released from his or her contract the day the show was canceled, and the odds on getting all of them – or even of getting McShane, Olyphant and Molly Parker after the career boost the show gave them – was going to be next to impossible), there is a conclusion to the series and its themes, and something of a conclusion to the stories of the third season.
Now, endings have not been a strong suit of Milch’s throughout his career. He’s a genius with dialogue, with character, with introductions, but clear, powerful, appropriate resolutions often elude him. That the first two seasons of “Deadwood” ended as well as they did (the second more than the first) is something of an anomaly in his career, and even in this show, where the improvisational nature of the writing meant that some story arcs got interesting conclusions and many others just petered out, as we discussed with the Earp brothers a few weeks back. So the idea that all the talk of war with Hearst – of Hawkeye and Wu raising separate armies, of skirmishes with the Pinkertons – amounted to little doesn’t seem out of keeping with his style, and it ultimately fits with the story of this season. (Which, per W. Earl Brown’s theory, may have been influenced by what was going on between Milch and HBO at the time.) Hearst wins. His victory is as close to absolute as it gets. He murders Ellsworth with no consequence (and, most likely, had Odell killed as well). He buys up Alma’s gold claim. He rigs the elections so Bullock will lose (though because mayor is not a county position like sheriff, he has no power to stop Sol’s victory). He boasts of starting his own newspaper to crush the Pioneer (though this is more of a nod to Hearst’s media mogul – and “Citizen Kane” inspiration – son William Randolph Hearst, George did buy a few newspapers along the way). He demands the murder of the blonde whore who shot at him as a final sacrifice to spare the town, and though Swearengen ultimately kills a different one, it doesn’t much matter. Hearst is more powerful than these people he loathes dealing with – Hearst telling Seth that “I’m having a conversation you cannot hear” is about the most arrogant line spoken in the run of the show – and he crushes everyone under his boot heel before riding away on the stagecoach, riding shotgun so he can again have an elevated view of the little people.
That absolute victory is depressing, especially for what was so often the most hopeful of the three great HBO dramas of the period, but it also feels like a proper conclusion. Seth and Al, for different reasons and by different means, have been trying to civilize the camp for three seasons. With the elections, they have essentially succeeded. The camp will be absorbed into the Dakotas, and in turn into the greater United States of America. And while civilization offers wonderful things, it also offers men like George Hearst, or Hugo Jarry – money men and politicians who take advantage of the rules of polite society (or who are powerful enough to decide those rules do not apply to them) to take advantage of others.
And though Wu and Hawkeye’s armies don’t get to do anything but stand and look tough (especially the short guy with the knife who makes for the “almost 18”), the episode does not lack for tension, as Al plots to murder poor Jen in Trixie’s place. It’s a dark, interesting choice – and one that gives Al some of his menace back after he’s become an almost-grandfatherly figure over the last couple of seasons (even the murder of the Pinkerton doesn’t make us question our feelings about Al) – and we can understand both Al and Sol’s desires to protect Trixie at all costs. And the way the story is structured, Al sells it to Mr. Star as a done deal that Sol cannot prevent, even though Jen is still milling about elsewhere in the Gem. It doesn’t entirely sit right, both because Jen is such a nothing character (and therefore the sacrifice only matters in the abstract, and to the extent that Sean Bridgers makes us care about Johnny’s feelings for her in the sad, beautiful scene where he discusses all the creatures inside the wall), and because Seth – who has been defined as much by his rigid sense of right and wrong as by his uncontrollable temper – also just goes along with it. But the sequence where Hearst and his minions take over the Gem to verify the death is a marvel of suspense.
Because Hearst wins in a walk, and because the murder of Jen takes place off-camera, the most memorable bit of violence in the hour is Cy stabbing Leon, venting his frustration once again at being so marginalized by the rest of the camp, and even by Hearst. (Cy gets to oversee Hearst’s business in town, but as a middle manager rather than a partner.) It’s a chilling scene, but like much of the episode, it feels like an anti-climax: Cy kills Leon for the crime of being there, rather than as the culmination of a major Cy/Leon arc.
But even with all that said, it was such a pleasure to watch this final episode again – and an experience that took me much longer than an hour, because I kept pausing between scenes to stretch out the experience as much as I could. I knew when we got to the perfect closing shot of Al Swearengen scrubbing out one last stain, having just told one last lie, this was all going to be over. No more Swidgin. No more Bullock and Star. No more Mrs. Ellsworth. No more Trixie or Jewel or Dan or Johnny or Charlie or Joanie or Jane. No more gorgeous language being recited by one of the finest collections of actors ever assembled for television, nearly all of them at the top of their game. No more triangulating. No more conversations with severed Indian heads, dogs or overworked prostitutes.
And I don’t want it to be done. I want there to have been a fourth season, and perhaps a fifth (I only remember the talk of four seasons beginning around the time the show’s future looked in jeopardy), or else the movies. I want the laws of time and space, and the complexities of show business, to all bend in such a way that we can grab Olyphant, McShane, Parker and everyone else circa 2006, let Milch and company write new words for them to say, and have at it.
I want to be able to tell you something pretty. But I can’t. This is where “Deadwood” ends. It’s abrupt. It’s unhappy. But it does not ultimately feel untrue to the spirit of the thing.
Some other thoughts:
* For the final time, I want to thank Jim Beaver, Keone Young, W. Earl Brown and Garrett Dillahunt, who all stopped by at various points (Jim as a constant presence) over the course of this nostalgia fest, and made the exercise vastly more illuminating as a result. Jim’s recollection last week of the filming of Ellsworth’s death is extraordinary, and Keone’s reflection of the turmoil he felt while making this show was just as moving. (Both later returned with more humorous anecdotes about the period.) It’s been a privilege to provide the excuse for these writings, gentlemen.
* I’ve been asking Mark Tinker, who took over as the producing director for this season, for memories all summer. He finally weighed in on this one, writing:
I sure don’t have the detailed memories Earl, Jim and Keone have. Man, those guys must have really been in the moment. Either I’m mental or I was too busy trying to stay in production step with Milch’s unorthodox style (or both), but I do remember two things about the last episode. One was the whole production felt like dead man walking. There was a real sense of a ticking clock — sets were starting to be dismantled, set decoration was coming down, props packed away and offices were starting to be boxed up. Kind of the feeling you get when you’re sensing a finality to your time in high school or college ending. It was very bittersweet. The other thing was the very last day was when I shot that sequence in the roof where Cy stabs Leon. It was windy and chilly on that practical rooftop and I think we had a somewhat abbreviated crew that day. Maybe we were over a day and trying to save some on the extra shooting time we were incurring. Also, I think some people may have already left for other jobs. It was a real Twilight Zone kind of day and I was reminded of the ending of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” because our world at Deadwood ended like the poem — “not with a bang but a whimper.”. OK, I haven’t quoted some obscure Scottish poet like Milch used to but WTF? Yale vs. Syracuse, dude! Genius vs. grunt.
* A few weeks back, I noted that in a cast of actors who for the most part did career-best work, or close to it, on this show, John Hawkes was a notable exception. Every now and then, though, Milch gave him a moment suggesting the kind of talent he’s been displaying in the years since, like the scene here where an angry, tearful Sol shoves Trixie out of his house, upset at the thought that she’d rather die than live with him. It’s a great scene for Paula Malcomson, as well (and a reminder of how “Ray Donovan” is wasting her), and also helps us understand Sol’s mindset about Jen; beyond thinking it was already a done deed, he’s too wrapped up in knots over Trixie to think rationally about a situation where her life is in danger.
* The crowded nature of the season 3 ensemble left certain supporting characters frequently absent (Doc Cochran doesn’t appear here) or with little to do (Sol, Adams). Other characters were well-serviced even without major stories of their own, like the way Charlie Utter spends election day standing up to Hearst and his Pinkerton bullies. A pleasure to watch Dayton Callie threaten other, far more powerful men, and the later scene where Joanie and Jane discuss how good Charlie is in a crisis put a nice button on the long-standing Charlie/Jane friendship. (On the old blog, I often wondered if Charlie – who often seemed sweet on Joanie – was aware of Joanie’s sexual orientation and her relationship with Jane, but his gift of Wild Bill’s coat to them makes clear that he knows.)
* Though Milch wouldn’t take the theater company to bigger and/or more comprehensible places, I quite like the scene where Jack vents to Claudia about an artist’s role in a life-and-death situation like this. He has accomplished good things for the camp, and would continue to in real life, but at this moment, he is powerless.
* Poor Harry Manning: he runs for sheriff just to generate the notoriety that might lead him to start a fire brigade, then gets stuck with the job because of Hearst’s scheming, and thus will have precious little time to polish the fire wagon that Tom Nuttall bought for the two of them to work. Still, he’s doing a damn sight better than Steve. (Which makes me wonder whether Milch would have kept Steve and the General around for that hypothetical fourth season. On the one hand, Michael Harney would have kept collecting paychecks; on the other, as Jim Beaver noted a few reviews back, it would have been a non-acting job at that point, more or less.
Up next: Again, that’s all, folks. We have many months to go before next summer, and I’m not sure what my summer project will be – or if there will be one, given the explosion of interesting viewing options this summer. As much as I loved doing this one more time, there were definitely weeks where the process of doing “Deadwood” right prevented me from covering other shows. It’s also been interesting doing an assortment of pilots with Dan for our podcast, rather than doing a whole season of a show, so maybe I’ll try an experiment next summer. Or maybe I’ll go deep diving for something really old, or something foreign that I haven’t seen before… anything is possible. I will not be writing about “John From Cincinnati,” but that’s another one that I covered on the old blog, and where I doubt I would have more to add now. Though the Jim Beaver stories might just make the endeavor worth it…
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com