Right now, there’s a rising college senior somewhere bingeing through Riverdale season 3 (just out on Netflix!). However, when I was in such a position, I was not screaming my way through the twists and turns of some beloved and viral teen show. Instead, bafflingly, I was watching back-to-back episodes of Deadwood, HBO’s long-ended-at-the-time mid-aughts drama, which was equally inspired by the rage of gritty Westerns and the verbose soliloquies of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. There is proof. To this day, I don’t know how I came to this decision, but I’m thankful I did. Deadwood, which ran for three seasons from 2004 to 2006, is great.
And now, it has officially come to an end with Deadwood: The Movie, premiering May 31. After 13 years off the air due to a surprise HBO cancellation (forced hiatus? Imposed plug-pulling?) the network allowed creator David Milch to give his characters the send-off they deserved, whether that means a death, a wedding, or a jail sentence. It’s an abbreviated ending for a wildly verbose show, but a worthy one.
For viewers who have never seen Deadwood, it’ll make you want to binge through all three seasons as I once did. For longtime fans, it’ll break your heart in all the right places.
Deadwood The Movie opens in 1889 South Dakota, 10 years after the events of season 3. The territory is about to officially enter the Union as a state. A drunk Calamity Jane (Big Little Lies therapist Robin Weigert) stumbles on home through the plains for the celebration. The Shakespearean loquaciousness is immediately on display as Jane pines for her MIA love, brothel madame Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens).
What Jane finds back home is a convergence of the Deadwood characters fans love — like sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) — and the series’ most methodically evil villain, tycoon George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). Hearst is now a U.S. senator for California who is inexplicably still obsessed with keeping a small Midwestern town like Deadwood under his thumb. This unmitigated greed leads Hearts to commit a series of unnecessary acts of aggression, including putting a hit out on beloved citizen Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), ordering the murder of Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye), the sole witness to Charlie's death, and threatening a pregnant woman. It seems Hearst’s unending violence will break Deadwood on its most exciting day.
Instead, the people you want to come out on top mostly do. Even though Hearst killed Charlie for his land — the only parcel standing in the way of the telephone scheme — the mogul still doesn’t get the space in a public auction. Instead, banker Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) outbids him, securing her former love interest Seth’s plan to defeat Hearst. Following the big Deadwood win, the ex-lovers still don’t fall back into bed together due to the fact that Seth is married to his wife, Martha (Anna Gunn), whom he wed after his late brother’s wartime death. Seth may have married Martha out of obligation, but they are clearly in a loving relationship at this point in their lives.
Depending on your moral perspective and fandom, this is either good or bad news.
In terms of unquestionable positivity, sex worker Trixie (Anna Gunn) and longtime romantic partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) get the closest thing to a happy ending. Trixie, who attempted to kill Hearst in the final episodes of the original series, opens the movie very pregnant and eventually gives birth to a son, Joshua. The baby’s healthy birth inspires Trixie to finally marry Sol is a very public and joyous wedding. The result is a very beautiful, self-consciously inclusive ceremony where Al walks Trixie down the aisle even though he is suffering from liver failure.
As we saw during Deadwood proper, Al sees Trixie as a daughter. He even killed a different sex worker named Jen (Jennifer Lutheran) in the season 3 finale, “Tell Him Something Pretty,” when Hearst demanded Trixie’s execution for trying to kill him (it was a very elaborate, bloody cover-up). It’s only right, after all of that, for Al to have a place of honor at Trixie’s wedding. So Al does, before Hearst barges in to demand Trixie’s arrest for trying to kill him years earlier. Law man Seth refuses his request and instead arrests Hearst for his very recent crimes, like ordering Charlie’s murder and the lynching of Samuel.
Once Hearst is in handcuffs, the town riots and nearly beats him to death. For a show that loves metaphors, this is writer Milch’s way of letting the people of Deadwood finally attack a disease that has besieged them for about a decade. Yet, Seth stops his people from committing such a mortal sin because he’s The Good Guy — and Martha would never look at him the same way again otherwise. Instead, Seth puts Hearst in jail, leaving him with the far worse fate of possibly suffering a long, slow death from his injuries. Deadwood’s greatest evil is now locked up in a cage and will never to be heard from again in the context of the series.
That is why Seth can go home to his wife and Al, the lord of Deadwood, can finally let go from his perch above the Gem saloon. But, not before he hands the place over to his pseudo daughter Trixie and her new husband Sol as a wedding gift. Now Al will never have to see the place he loves so much — a tiny whirlpool of violent excess and shocking community bonds — evolve into a modern and unrecognizable town. A town legitimately under the purview of the U.S. government and its laws. Although we don't watch Al die, Deadwood is a show about telling not showing. His twitching hand certainly shows us the end is seconds away. It’s a beautiful ending for one of TV’s most complicated characters.
Oh, and Joanie and Jane are back together. Isn’t that all that really matters?