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Milch’s Last Stand: The Deadwood Movie
This essay appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
After years of anticipation, the Deadwood movie has finally appeared on HBO, thus bringing some form of closure to David Milch’s signature series. How has this development affected the place of Deadwood in television history? In my book Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream, I am on record as saying that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is the greatest television series ever. It tells the gripping story of Walter White, a high school teacher turned crystal meth maker. Gilligan rejects the Hollywood tendency to glamorize the life of the drug lord, as in Brian De Palma’s version of Scarface. Instead, Gilligan presents Walter White as a tragic hero, who allows his best impulses to be distorted into criminality. In White’s effort to make something of himself, he destroys his life and family. Exploring White’s tragedy, Gilligan elevated television drama to a new level of complexity.
Among my many reasons for singling out Breaking Bad for preeminence in television history, one of the most important is that the series ended well. From the beginning, Gilligan evidently had a total of five seasons in mind, and he always planned on bringing the series to a proper conclusion. When the time arrived, Gilligan and his writing team came up with a truly satisfying resolution to Walter White’s story that simultaneously tied up a remarkable number of loose ends in the narrative (indeed, Walt dies in the process of settling a lot of old scores). Walt had to face the consequences of his criminal deeds, but he was allowed to die with dignity and a kind of integrity. Like a tragic hero, Walt is at his most noble and even self-sacrificing at the time of his death. When it comes to evaluating television shows, I have always been an unabashed Aristotelian. To be considered worthy as an artistic whole, a TV series for me needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The history of television documents the difficulty of shaping a satisfactory ending to a series. Some of the most celebrated shows have wound up disappointing or even alienating their audiences by the way they chose to conclude their runs on television. I personally enjoy the final two episodes of Seinfeld, but many fans were appalled to see courtroom evidence that their beloved characters were actually wretches as human beings, deserving of being convicted under a Good Samaritan law. The infamous black-out ending of The Sopranos left its audience shocked, bewildered, and mainly wondering if their cable boxes had suddenly malfunctioned. Some have praised the ambiguity of the Sopranos ending; others have criticized it as a narrative cop-out. One of my all-time favorite shows, The X-Files, had no less than three separate opportunities to bring the series to a satisfying conclusion and failed each time. Whereas creator Chris Carter kept promising some form of closure to his fans, all three of his “final” episodes succeeded only in introducing new complications into the already Byzantine plot arc of the series.
Recently, the final episode of HBO’s popular series Game of Thrones broke all records for enraging a hitherto fanatically loyal audience. A “re-do” petition, demanding that the entire final season be rewritten and reshot, garnered roughly 1.7 million signatures from irate fans. They complained that the writers, in their haste to conclude the story, had run roughshod over the characters, forcing them to do things that went against their natures (“Dany would never do that”). The abrupt, implausible, and unpalatable plot turns in the final episodes left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths, leading some to reevaluate their opinion of the show. Sometimes a bad last episode can cast a pall over an entire series.
Crafting a proper ending is thus one of the greatest challenges a television series can face. Unfortunately for the HBO series Deadwood, its creator, David Milch, was initially denied a chance to bring closure to his creation. Debuting in 2004, Deadwood enjoyed three seasons of critical acclaim and audience popularity. Then in 2007, the show was abruptly canceled by HBO. The news of the cancelation came too late for Milch to do anything to use the third season to round out the series as a whole. Season 3 left too many loose narrative threads hanging, and the many fans of the series felt cheated. For years there were rumors that Milch was negotiating with HBO to make one or two Deadwood movies to complete the story. As time passed, like many I grew increasingly skeptical that Milch would ever have a chance to finish his Deadwood saga.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, to learn in 2018 that Milch had struck a deal with HBO for a Deadwood movie. The advance publicity for the film was promising, but one ominous development emerged. In 2016, Milch had been diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. This obviously complicated his task of coming up with a finished script for the movie, but his iron discipline as a writer, together with his long-established practice of dictating dialogue to interns, got him through the ordeal. Milch’s personal troubles added a new poignancy to the Deadwood project. He projected his own feelings onto his central character, Al Swearengen. In interviews, Milch has understandably lamented his progressive loss of memory. Near the beginning of the movie, Al is revealed as not knowing which day of the week it is, as a result of years of alcohol abuse. Developments in Milch’s own life cast a shadow over the Deadwood movie, but one can surmise that it was going to be a dark story anyway.
The movie takes place ten years after the events chronicled in Season 3. The town looks more settled and more prosperous, but in many respects little seems to have happened in the characters’ lives in the interim. They seem to be stuck in ruts established in the days of the original TV series. They are fixated on the past, still trying to come to terms with traumatic experiences we saw them undergo in the three seasons of the show. Some seem haunted by ghosts out of their pasts and unable to move on to healthier lives. As one character (Charlie Utter) says of another: “Joanie Stubbs is collecting her portion of gloom and dismay, just like any of us.” When Season 3 ended, the great villain of Deadwood, the mining magnate George Hearst, had successfully consolidated his domination over the town. As the Deadwood movie opens, Hearst has returned, ready to resume his battle against the townspeople.
How the West Was Lost
The Deadwood movie opens with what appears to be a cause for celebration: as part of the newly formed state of South Dakota, the town is entering the Union. An excited child speaks of “South Dakota marrying the United Sates.” The movie would seem to be following the standard pattern of the western. All the struggles of the characters are directed toward the goal of their community becoming part of the American nation-state. Westerns are often teleological in plot, following a Hegelian pattern of progress, in which the state is viewed as the culmination of human development. The disorder, the virtual anarchy, of frontier existence must be overcome so that people can assume their destined places in a larger community governed from Washington, D.C. This is the standard narrative of “How the West Was Won.” Like John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the Deadwood movie opens with a shot of a train pulling into town. It was above all the railroads that integrated far-flung frontier communities into the United States (in a neat parallel to Ford’s movie, both trains are carrying a United States senator, come to revisit a troubled scene from his past).
But as in the TV series, in the Deadwood movie Milch has a different take on the common myth of the western. He might as well have called his film “How the West Was Lost.” What is commonly billed as the triumph of civilization over barbarism is reinterpreted by Milch as the imposition of a remote and uncaring government on people hitherto living in freedom on the frontier. The chief representative of the American government in the Deadwood movie is, after all, George Hearst, who has become a U.S. senator and as such represents the D.C. elite that intends to govern Deadwood for its own benefit. From the first, Milch was attracted to Deadwood as an example of what he calls “order without law.” Through a peculiar set of historical circumstances, in Deadwood people were briefly in a position to develop a community based on their common commercial interests. In the absence of governmental authority, the denizens of Deadwood are able to evolve their own customs and institutions (chiefly property rights) to facilitate commerce and maintain peace among themselves, despite the many sources of conflict that threaten to set them at each other’s throats. Milch shows Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work in Deadwood. Men and women pursuing their individual selfish purposes nevertheless work together to produce some kind of common good.
Thus the celebration of South Dakota statehood in the Deadwood movie quickly breaks down, and we hear little more of it in the story. Hearst’s reappearance in Deadwood has inflamed old wounds and revived old hostilities. His victory parade is interrupted by a public tirade vilifying Hearst in the crudest possible terms, coming from Trixie, the prostitute Hearst wanted killed when she unsuccessfully tried to assassinate him at the end of the third season. Swearengen had fooled Hearst by convincing him that the corpse of another prostitute (killed by Al) was actually Trixie’s. Her imprudent public outburst against Hearst rekindles his obsession with seeing her dead, or at least jailed for attempted murder, and much of the movie deals with Swearengen’s renewed effort to protect his former employee. If Al has a heart, he has a soft spot in it for Trixie.
Hearst quickly resumes his role as the chief villain in Deadwood. It turns out that his visit is not purely ceremonial; as always, he has ulterior motives. In his effort to run telephone lines into Deadwood, he needs to buy one piece of property that lies in his way, a claim now in the possession of Charlie Utter, a pillar of the community and perhaps the most likable character in the series. The telephone is the kind of modern invention that usually symbolizes progress. When instructing the town’s mayor, all-around toady E. B. Farnham, to make a phone call for him, Hearst presents himself as the champion of progress: “Take the leap, Mr. Farnham—the future awaits.” But Hearst is using Farnham to order more lumber to proceed with his plans for Utter’s land. For Milch, “progress” is a double-edged sword; for all the advantages modern inventions bring, they have a sinister side.
At the beginning of the second season of the TV series, the denizens of Deadwood welcome the introduction of telegraph lines into the town. The telegraph will instantly relay gold prices from the East Coast. But Swearengen is skeptical; he refers to the telegraph as “invisible messages from invisible sources, or what some people think of as progress.” He realizes that the telegraph will breach Deadwood’s isolation and thus make it possible for external forces, particularly the federal government, to exercise control over the town. In the movie, Swearengen is similarly unhappy with the appearance of a telephone in his “joint”: “Saloon is a sanctuary. Every man with the name knows the value of being unreachable.” As Milch has shown from the beginning, Deadwood’s great advantage was its inaccessibility, the fact that the town originally lay outside all legal jurisdictions and could accordingly chart its own course. With telegraph, telephone, and railroad lines all coming into town, Deadwood is being integrated into the American nation-state and will thus become subject to the control of people who, like Hearst, do not have the town’s best interests in mind.
The fully sinister side of “progress” soon emerges when we see how ruthless its agents can be. Utter refuses to sell his claim to Hearst, and, in response, the senator has the miner bushwhacked. This crime sets in motion the deepest opposition in Deadwood—that between Hearst and Seth Bullock, once the town’s sheriff and now a federal marshal. Bullock’s efforts to bring Hearst to justice form one of the central plots of the film. As always in Milch’s universe, Bullock’s quest for justice does not fully succeed. But at least Bullock is able to achieve a limited kind of economic justice; he does manage to thwart Hearst’s plan to take over Utter’s land. Milch is always suspicious of political institutions and their capacity to deliver justice because they are so easily corrupted by wealth and influence. Milch seems to have more faith in the functioning of civil society, in particular in the way that markets can peacefully resolve differences among people.
The Search for the Historical George Milch
At the center of the Deadwood movie is not a typical western gunfight or shoot-out but an auction, a prime example of markets in action. Hearst may have succeeded in killing Utter, but he still has to purchase his land in an open market. Bullock plans to outbid Hearst at the auction and thereby block his land grab. When Hearst’s financial resources prove too much for Bullock, his former love, Alma Garret Ellsworth, comes to his rescue and bids more money for Utter’s land than even Hearst is willing to pay. As a woman, Alma could not hope to compete with either Bullock or Hearst on a conventional field of combat. But money is a great equalizer, and, as Milch shows throughout the Deadwood series, it is thus a force for civic harmony. Alma’s money is as good as any man’s and allows her, without firing a shot, to prevent Hearst from obtaining Utter’s land. In Milch’s vision of Deadwood, a community centered on commerce can resolve its differences in ways that a community centered on politics cannot. Money makes the divisive issues of human life negotiable.
Despite Hearst’s setback at the auction, he remains a force to reckon with in Deadwood. Milch’s major problem in bringing closure to his Deadwood saga was how to deal with Hearst. Milch had built him up into one of the most fearsome villains in television history, a sort of nastier version of J. R. Ewing in Dallas—and without the boyish charm. Milch’s Hearst is an implacable figure, seemingly immune to attack and crushing anyone who gets in his way. He is the poster boy for the crony capitalism that began to take over America in the late nineteenth century, as government and large-scale industry conspired to suppress the freedom of local entrepreneurs. The most emotionally disturbing aspect of the way Season 3 of Deadwood ends is the fact that it leaves Hearst seemingly in complete triumph over the town. The audience wants to see George Hearst get his comeuppance. The smugness and self-confidence with which he savors his victories is just too much to take.
Here Milch had a problem with history. George Hearst really lived; he was heavily involved in mining; and he did become a U.S. senator. The historical Hearst was not quite the monster Milch makes of him; clearly, the writer was willing to take some liberties with history. Still, poetic license can go only so far. With his respect for American history, Milch was not willing to kill off Hearst in 1889 in Deadwood, when he actually died in Washington, D.C., in 1891. No doubt the Deadwood audience would have relished seeing Hearst killed in a gunfight by either Bullock or Swearengen. But Milch realized that such a resolution to Hearst’s story would have been too easy, and besides it would have been untrue to a rather stubborn historical fact.
Milch came up with a brilliant solution to his dilemma. He could not show Hearst ultimately defeated in his scheme to take over Deadwood; that would have been untrue to Milch’s vision of how an independent community such as Deadwood cannot in the end resist absorption into the near-omnipotent modern nation-state. Besides, in Milch’s universe, justice does not prevail; the good do not simply triumph, while the evil are punished. And yet Milch’s universe is not one in which injustice simply prevails either. Milch is not that cynical. His portrait of Deadwood is realistic in the way that the town offers a complex mixture of justice and injustice. Accordingly, Milch contrives the plot in such a way that Hearst is not defeated and is certainly not killed, but he is humiliated. Thus he does get his comeuppance—just enough to satisfy the audience and thereby give them the sense of closure they crave.
Milch worked up a plot in which Hearst finally goes too far and brings down the collective wrath of Deadwood on him. In his vendetta against Trixie, he barges into her wedding along with two outside lawmen and seeks to have them arrest her for trying to murder him ten years earlier. By interrupting a wedding ceremony, Hearst establishes himself as an enemy of the community in the eyes of the townspeople. Seth Bullock is at the wedding—Trixie is marrying his business partner, Sol Star—and invokes his higher authority as a federal marshal to countermand the attempted arrest of Trixie by local authorities. Bullock arrests Hearst for Utter’s murder, having secured an eyewitness to the event and tracked down the bushwhackers’ connection to Hearst. As always, Hearst remains unflappable, confident that his status as a U.S. senator will protect him from the actions of some provincial court. He taunts Bullock with his assurance that he will soon be out of jail.
But something new happens as Bullock roughly hauls Hearst off to a cell. A crowd gathers in the street and grows angrier and angrier at Hearst, soon turning into a lynch mob. Bullock does not know what to do; he appears to be torn between protecting Hearst and leaving him to the mob’s wrath. This scene takes us all the way back to the place where Deadwood begins, to the opening scene of the first episode of Season 1. There we see Bullock just as he is about to leave for Deadwood, performing his last duty as a lawman in a town in Montana. He is holding a criminal in jail who has been duly sentenced to hang the next morning. Unfortunately for Bullock, a crowd has gathered outside the jail, and, in the grand tradition of western mobs, they are itching to put into practice the age-old principle of “Why wait for the law? Let’s string him up now.” In a moment that defines his character for the whole series, Bullock decides that, in order to prevent the mob from lynching the outlaw, he as the representative of the law must immediately hang the condemned man himself. Holding off the angry townspeople at gunpoint, Bullock manages to hang the criminal. Such is the punctiliousness with which Bullock stands up for the law.
It cannot be an accident that the Deadwood movie builds up to a scene that harks back to the very opening of the TV series. This is Milch’s way of rounding out his creation. After three seasons and a movie, we are back to where we started, and that tells us something. For all the developments we have witnessed in Deadwood, for all the seeming progress we think we have seen from chaos to order, we come away with the sense that, deep down, maybe nothing has changed—social order is fragile. The seemingly civilized community can still break down at a moment’s notice into a violent mob. No wonder Bullock does not know what to do. Turning murderous, the mob brings down Hearst and begins to beat him savagely. At first Hearst exudes defiance, but his facade of imperturbability cracks at last; suddenly we see fear and humiliation on his face. It is hard for us as an audience not to savor this moment. It may be Schadenfreude, but here finally is the closure we have been waiting for—a chance to see the smug self-satisfaction wiped off Hearst’s face and to see him get the beating he deserves.
With his unerring sense of dramatic pacing, Milch lets the beating of Hearst go on just long enough to give the audience what it wants, but he knows that he cannot let Hearst be killed—for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is historical accuracy. Just as Bullock may be preparing to leave Hearst to the mob’s fury, he gets a glimpse of his wife shielding their children from the violence and taking them home to safety. This sight sobers up Bullock. Once again, he does his duty and stands up to a lynch mob. He fires his gun as a warning shot to the crowd to back off, and he transports a visibly shaken Hearst to jail. Throughout the Deadwood story, Bullock’s great temptation has been to descend to the level of his villainous enemies and fight raw violence with raw violence. Milch brings closure to Bullock’s story by allowing him to take a final stand for civil and legal justice. As much as he hates Hearst and wants to see him dead, Bullock abides by the rule of law and thereby proves himself better than Hearst and his ilk. In our last glimpse of him, he returns to his wife and children and can truly declare: “I’m home.” Throughout the series and into the movie, Bullock has allowed his obsession with private and vindictive justice to interfere with and potentially destroy his domestic tranquility. In the end, he makes his choice: to embrace his home life and settle down as a family man. Perhaps he has triumphed over his inner demons.
But that is not all Milch accomplishes with the final confrontation between Bullock and Hearst. In a remarkable economy of dramatic structure, Milch uses the sequence to tie up another loose thread in the story. As Bullock brings Hearst to the jail, he is followed by his deputy Harry Manning, who, it turns out, is in Hearst’s pay. Manning intends to shoot Bullock in the back and claim that he did so to prevent the marshal from murdering Hearst. But before Manning can betray his boss, Bullock’s friend Calamity Jane, who has seen something suspicious in the deputy’s movements, shoots Manning instead. Calamity Jane is perhaps the most haunted character in the entire Deadwood story. She is in love with Wild Bill Hickok and is shattered when he is assassinated in the first season of the TV show. Jane blames herself for not being able to protect Hickok in his moment of need, as she explains when she asks to be buried in the saloon where her hero was shot: “At the place of his sorrowful demise, may Jane’s spirit stand vigilante watch, as in her life she found herself unable.”
Jane is thus able to redeem herself by saving Bullock from the same fate as Hickok’s—being shot in the back. She is certainly thinking of Hickok in this scene. To her friend Joanie Stubbs, she says of preventing Bullock’s death: “That was Bill, come into me, come to protect us.” But Stubbs insists: “No, Jane, that was you.” Ever since Hickok’s death, Jane has been wallowing in grief and guilt, growing increasingly passive and succumbing to alcoholism. By shooting Manning and saving Bullock, Jane resumes an active role in the story and perhaps finally exorcizes the ghost of Wild Bill. This moment also brings Jane closer to Stubbs, who has become the love of her life. At the opening of the Deadwood movie, Jane reveals that she is returning to the town for two reasons: to visit Wild Bill’s grave and to be reunited with Stubbs: “Before eyes close for good and all, I once again see my Joanie Stubbs, show her a sign of love and regret, from Calamity Jane to her darling.” Jane’s brave deed in Bullock’s defense does bring her closer to Joanie, helping her to regain her emotional health. This is a perfect example of how Milch seamlessly weaves together the threads of his narrative to form one complex whole.
Continuity and Discontinuity
But what of Al Swearengen, Milch’s greatest creation? For Swearengen, Milch reserves the ultimate form of closure—death. But it is not a heroic death, not even a dramatic one. When we first see Al in the Deadwood movie, he is wasting away after many years of fast living and dissipation. One can easily imagine and might well have hoped for a more glorious end for him. He might have gone down fighting, perhaps in a showdown with Hearst, as almost happens at the end of Season 3. Swearengen came to dominate the television series as the most active force in Deadwood, as much in charge of the town’s affairs as anybody. He used to look out over Deadwood from his saloon’s balcony as if he owned the town. But in the Deadwood movie, Swearengen may still be observing the town from his balcony, but, no longer plunged into local activities, he seems to be contemplating events from afar, with a sense of detachment. We get the feeling that Al’s rule over Deadwood is a thing of the past.
This sense of pastness, of the passage of time, is one of the central ideas in the Deadwood movie. Indeed, Milch’s own challenge in writing the script becomes thematic in it. Coming back to the story after a twelve-year interruption, Milch wrote a similar gap of time into his narrative. He might have picked up the Deadwood story in 1879, just where he had left it in 2007. Instead Milch took the unusual step of creating a ten-year time jump in his narrative. As is appropriate to a writer nearing the end of his career, Milch adopts a retrospective stance in what will likely be his last work. Like his creation Swearengen, Milch looks at the world of Deadwood from a contemplative perspective.
As a result, the Deadwood film moves between the poles of continuity and discontinuity. Milch’s script of course includes moments of high drama. Years of writing for television have made him a master at creating tension for his audience. The movie includes unexpected events, abrupt reversals, tense confrontations, and gripping climaxes. But it also reflects a kind of wisdom that comes only with old age—a sense of the deeper rhythms of life, of what remains when the high drama is played out and people must learn to cope with their reversals and rebuild their lives. Milch chronicles many tragedies in his story of Deadwood, but his stance in the movie is at times post-tragic. There is something almost comforting when tragic figures die. At least they are spared the pain and difficulty of confronting and living with the horrifying legacy they leave behind. Milch’s Deadwood is populated with people who have outlived the tragedies in their lives and are thus haunted by their pasts. We have seen Calamity Jane as an example of this, but something similar could be said of several other characters, including Bullock, Trixie, Stubbs, and Swearengen. They all have a lot on their consciences and struggle to live with their sense of guilt.
In short, not every tragic hero goes out in a blaze of glory. Some survive their catastrophes and must find a way of putting their lives back together just when they seem to have fallen apart completely. The sense that life goes on despite tragedies runs throughout the Deadwood movie. Milch roots the story in the fundamental and perennial experiences of human existence. The movie contains a birth and a marriage, a death and a funeral—the epochal moments of human life, together with the ceremonies that mark them. It is as if in this one movie, Milch is trying to give a picture of the whole of human life. Here is Deadwood—from the cradle to the grave.
Knowing Milch’s love of Shakespeare, I believe that he may have been guided by Shakespeare’s last plays in creating the Deadwood movie. In plays such as The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare explores the post-tragic experience, as he shows characters who have undergone tragic catastrophes but survived them. They are afforded a second chance in life, an opportunity to put their lives back together through various acts of reconciliation and redemption. It may sound odd, but the Deadwood movie reminds me of The Winter’s Tale, with its strange sixteen-year gap in its narrative. This play provides a perfect epigraph for the Deadwood movie: “Thou mettest with things dying, I with things newborn” (Act 3, scene 3). In the Deadwood movie, Milch still portrays the tragic discontinuity in life, but he also points to the continuity that sustains life even in the face of tragedy.
That is how Swearengen’s story fits into the overall pattern of the Deadwood movie; he cannot accomplish what several of the other characters can. We have seen Trixie and Sol get married, and they already have their baby; Trixie calls the boy “my newborn child, my hope and beginning again.” Thanks to the way Bullock thwarts Hearst’s evil intentions toward them, they can look forward to moving on with their lives, and perhaps Trixie can overcome her sense of guilt over the way another woman had to pay with her life to save Trixie’s (“Haunts me, Jen’s face does; I belonged in that coffin, not her,” says Trixie to Al). Bullock is reunited with his wife and children at the end and can hope to leave the darker moments of his life behind him. Swearengen is not so fortunate. From his first appearance, Al seems aware that his best days are now behind him and that he has no future in Deadwood. He is a relic of the town’s past, of the free-wheeling lawless heyday of Deadwood as a gold rush boomtown. Deadwood cannot become part of the settled United States and still incorporate characters like Swearengen. Accordingly, Al spends a good bit of his time in the movie thinking about his legacy; he refers to himself as having “not many hours left to order his affairs.” For example, in the end, he wills his Gem Saloon to Trixie. He tells her that she may turn his beloved den of iniquity into a dance hall. That is to be the fate of Deadwood, South Dakota, as a whole. The United States will domesticate this sin city into an upright and respectable community. Ultimately, Swearengen’s tragic fate is to have helped to build a flourishing community that will have no place for him once it has succeeded. Like several characters in John Ford’s films, from Ethan Edwards in The Searchers to Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Al Swearengen is the sacrificial victim of the process of the West’s being civilized.
Thus Swearengen, unlike many western heroes, does not get to die in a gunfight or in an ambush or on an Indian patrol or in some other dramatic situation. He simply expires, the life slowly draining out of him. “It is the dispatch I find inglorious,” he tells Doc Cochran. This is, after all, the fate of many human beings. Milch is probably projecting his own situation into Swearengen’s. He cannot give Al a heroic death, but at least he lets him go out in style. Milch gives Al what are surely among the most powerful last words a dying character has ever spoken. Alas, I cannot repeat them in polite company, and in any case I would not want to spoil this shocking moment for anyone who has not yet seen the movie.
Suffice it to say that Swearengen dies with a cosmic defiance on his lips that is worthy of Melville’s Captain Ahab. With his physical weakness, this is certainly not the Swearengen of old, but at least he dies the way he lived—blasphemously. Although Al accepts his death calmly, he does not surrender to the moment. He does not tamely repent his sins or repudiate his past deeds or in any way try to ingratiate himself with the community whose standards he has so often violated. He remains Al Swearengen to the end. Like a true tragic hero, he gets to reassert his identity at the last moment and reclaim what has made him such a striking figure. I was relieved to see that, as Gilligan did with Walter White, Milch allowed Al Swearengen to remain true to himself at the moment of his death. Milch does a remarkable job of bringing closure to the stories of his characters in his Deadwood movie, and nowhere more so than in the case of Al Swearengen.
That is enough for me. It is now official. With the movie supplying an emotionally satisfying ending to the story, Deadwood is tied with Breaking Bad for the title of greatest television show of all time. ♦
Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies.
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