January 25, 2020

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Deadwood lives again

After 13 years, fans of HBO's booze-fuelled Wild West series will finally get some closure

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/5/2019 (239 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While the sour taste of the unsatisfying Game of Thrones finale may linger on, if early reviews are to be believed, tomorrow night viewers will enjoy a much more palatable end to another of TV’s greatest shows — albeit one 13 years in the making.

TV Preview

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Deadwood: The Movie
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker and Robin Weigert
● Friday
● HBO Canada, Crave

In 2006, creator David Milch’s operatic oater Deadwood was cancelled unexpectedly after three seasons, leaving fans without resolutions to the many problems hounding denizens of the eponymous mining camp in the Dakotas.

Now those fans may finally get satisfaction. Set in 1889, 10 years after the action of the HBO series, the two-hour Deadwood: The Movie sees most of the stellar original cast reunited. (The notable exceptions are Powers Boothe, who played Cy Tolliver, owner of the upscale Bella Union saloon, and who died in 2017; Ralph Richeson, who played Richardson the cook and who died in 2015; and Titus Welliver — whose actual name is more Deadwoody than his character’s moniker, Silas Adams — who is filming the Amazon Prime series Bosch.)

Directed by Daniel Minahan, who helmed four episodes of the series and went on to work on True Blood and Game of Thrones, the movie returns to the rough-and-tumble town of Deadwood on the eve of South Dakota’s admittance to the union as the 40th state.

Sparks still fly between Bullock and and Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker). (Photos by Warrick Page / HBO)

Sparks still fly between Bullock and and Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker). (Photos by Warrick Page / HBO)

Also returning are Timothy Olyphant (Justified) as upright sheriff (now marshal) and hardware-store owner Seth Bullock, and his wife Martha (Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad), Molly Parker (House of Cards) as Alma Ellsworth, founder of Deadwood’s first bank, Robin Weigert as professional scout Calamity Jane and of course Ian McShane (John Wick) as Al Swearengen, pimp and proprietor of the Gem saloon.

Notable characters 

Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant): The real-life sheriff of Deadwood, Bullock originally comes to the camp to start to a hardware store with his friend Sol Star. He has a guilt-ridden dalliance with Alma Ellsworth (née Garret) before his wife and child join him at the camp.

Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant): The real-life sheriff of Deadwood, Bullock originally comes to the camp to start to a hardware store with his friend Sol Star. He has a guilt-ridden dalliance with Alma Ellsworth (née Garret) before his wife and child join him at the camp.

Sol Star (John Hawkes): Bullock’s partner (also a real Deadwood personality) is the only Jewish man in the camp. He and Bullock start out selling wares from a tent before opening their store. Romantically entangled with Trixie, a prostitute at the Gem saloon.

Trixie (Paula Malcomson): Al Swearengen’s favourite girl at the Gem, she is loyal to him despite his often hurtful treatment. She shoots prospector George Hearst, but fails to kill him.

Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker): She arrives in Deadwood from New York as the wife of Brom Garret, who gets on Al Swearengen’s bad side (a sure way to find oneself in a pine box). The gold claim her husband thought was a dud turns up a rich seam of gold; she starts the first bank in the camp. She weds prospector Whitney Ellsworth in a marriage of convenience.

Al Swearengen (Ian McShane): A character based on the real proprietor of the Gem saloon, he sells booze, runs a brothel, controls games of chance and technically runs Deadwood, despite E.B. Farnum’s claim to be mayor.

E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson): An obsequious idiot with a penchant for overly elevated speech (he would totally use the word “obsequious”), Farnum runs the Grand Central Hotel and fancies himself mayor. A frequent source of comic relief.

Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens): A former madam at the Bella Union saloon run by Cy Tolliver, Joanie opens her own high-class brothel, Chez Amis, which she later turns into a schoolhouse. A lesbian, she is in a relationship with “Calamity” Jane Canary.

Jane Canary (Robin Weigert): Based on the familiar historical figure and pal of Wild Bill Hickok, the show actually never refers to Jane as “Calamity.” She wears men’s clothing and sports a swagger but is a softie underneath, a great protector of children. She’s friends with the devoted Charlie Utter, even though she often treats him poorly.

George Hearst (Gerald McRaney): A mining magnate (and real-ilfe father of William Randolph Hearst), he is a Machiavellian villain who brings woe to everyone in town.

Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif): A Civil War veteran and the camp’s only doctor, his treatment of Swearengen’s kidney stones (which involves a long pointed instrument and the phrase “I can feel the clicking of the gleets”) is no doubt imprinted in many men’s nightmares.

The ensemble cast brought together a welter of great character actors and future stars, but it’s McShane’s performance as the aptly named Swearengen that cemented his place in the TV hall of fame.

As the foul-mouthed, violence-prone unofficial boss of Deadwood, the British actor wove the script’s ornate combination of 19th-century formality — things like "I have no wish to impugn his veracity" — and astonishing profanity into a lyrical tapestry that often begged to be rewound and so it could be properly unravelled.

A scheming, power-hungry monster, he nonetheless followed a perverse but steady moral code and had a hidden sentimentality.

Though HBO did not provide a screener for review, the movie trailer shows tensions have not diminished between Swearengen and his nemesis, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now the senator of California. Bullock’s still a straight shooter, sparks still fly between him and Alma, and writer Milch still knows how to drop a wicked F-bomb.

In the series, Milch, creator of NYPD Blue, wanted to show how civilization emerges out of chaos (he’d originally pitched a story set in ancient Rome). In the lawless setting of an illegal mining camp during the Black Hills gold rush, good doesn’t always prevail and evil isn’t always punished. Gold is god — everyone worships it and those who possess it have the power.

Swearengen is the heart of the show, not just because most of the action swirls around him. Though Bullock represents law and order, his approach is often ineffective in the unruly Wild West; Al has figured out how to thrive by knowing what hill to die on (and what hill others have to die on).

The Gem brothelkeeper is reprehensible, but he’s hardly the worst offender. Rarely has a show with so many disreputable and downright distasteful characters been so watchable. Often by the end of an episode, you’d feel like you needed a shower, and not just because of the depravity and dirty deeds on display. No sanitized view of the frontier, Deadwood revelled in blood, guts, sweat and other fluids; even the classier characters had trouble staying clear of the dust and grime.

Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is the heart of the show.

Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is the heart of the show.

And although the camp’s thriving prostitution trade allowed for ample expression of HBO’s one-time raison d’être, "boobs for boobs’ sake," Deadwood was also filled with rich female characters, who made their own way even at a time when women were second-class citizens.

All three seasons of the original Deadwood series are available on Crave. Although you could probably just jump right into the movie without bingeing the episodes, why deprive yourself of one of the richest experiences of peak TV?


Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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