Tell Us Something Pretty: How Should Deadwood End?


Photo courtesy of HBO.

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Deadwood ain’t dead. Despite being off air for thirteen years, the busy schedules of several of its main stars, and numerous reports to the contrary, the much-beloved and much-mourned Western drama is to finally get its conclusion as a standalone movie in 2019.

Talk of a series finale is not new. Ever since the show was cancelled in 2006 due to low audience figures and a prohibitively expensive budget of near $5 million per episode, there has been considerable back-and-forth about whether it would be coming back. Creator David Milch was originally offered a six-episode season to finish, but turned it down on the basis that ‘I didn’t want to limp home.’

Now Deadwood is to return, which is cause for both celebration and caution. The past few years have seen the revival of several acclaimed shows, but not always to assured success. The fourth season of Arrested Development, a show cancelled in 2006 and renewed on Netflix in 2013, divided fans and critics and its fifth season was undermined entirely by the on-going controversy surrounding Jeffrey Tambor.

Of course, one might ask whether a show can ever truly live up to its past success years after the fact. The actors may have long since moved on, and the fondness that fans feel may have become impossible to satisfy in the interim. Deadwood has been off the air for nearly twice as long as Arrested Development, a substantial amount of time for the production staff, cast members, and audience.

So how should Deadwood end? And what needs to be considered if such an ending is to be both a critical and commercial success?

What is to become of the Bella Union?

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver. Photo courtesy of HBO.

One of the most compelling conflicts in Deadwood was between two saloon keepers, the charismatic yet brutal Al Swearengen and the sly and psychotic Cy Tolliver. Cy was a fascinating if terrifying opportunist, brilliantly brought to life by the inimitable Powers Boothe, who sadly passed away last year from pancreatic cancer.

Finding another actor for the role would not be impossible but would not produce the same results. Ian McShane rightly scored plaudits for his role as Swearengen, but Mr Boothe was severely underrated in his performance as Cy, embodying a complex, vicious, and utterly broken maniac with sublime skill. Besides, where would you find someone to do the voice?

Cy Tolliver was wounded in Season Two and spent much of the final season confined to his bed. A logical solution would be for Cy Tolliver to die in the show, but again, this leaves the question – what will happen to the Bella Union without its silver-haired pimp at the helm?

What is to become of Mister Wu?

If Deadwood was made today, one might wonder if the show’s portrayal of Asians would be the same. A lot can happen in thirteen years, and mainstream audiences have become increasingly more sensitive to racial representation, as the current discussion around Apu demonstrates. Looking back on the character of Mister Wu, Deadwood almost seems like it could have been made in the 1950s.

Keone Young as Mister Wu. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Keone Young as Mister Wu. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Mister Wu, as played by Keone Young, encapsulates virtually every stereotype about the Chinese one could imagine. He is short, asexual, and traffics opium. He also serves as the comic relief of the series, partly for his often slapstick appearances, but also for his inability to speak English, particularly when he employs one of the preferred insults of the Deadwood Universe. Oh, and he also feeds human remains to pigs.

Much still needs to be done to improve Asian representation on screen, but in a year that saw the release of All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians, there is simply no excuse for this kind of characterisation. If Mister Wu does return, I hope he will be more than just a punchline.

What is to become of George Hearst?

Deadwood was not given a proper conclusion. The (unfortunate) final season is predicated on a large-scale showdown between the townspeople and the murderous capitalist George Hearst, a showdown which, incidentally, never comes.

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

If Deadwood shows the making of America, this ending is strangely appropriate. White men with money and power win, no matter the cost. Some may have seen George Hearst’s ruthless pursuit of profit to have been extreme, but it is worth remembering the means by which America became a world power, and how its economy continues to operate to this day.

Interesting? Yes. Entertaining? No. While a ‘happy’ ending would not make any sense in the context of a show as morally ambiguous as Deadwood, the fact that George Hearst can walk away entirely unscathed (and indeed, stronger than at the start) is deeply dissatisfying. Hopefully the finale will provide some closure on this element of the story, regardless of what that may entail for the ‘heroes’ of the series.

What is to become of the supporting cast?

Third season arrivals Jack Langrishe and his theatre troupe as well as the Earp brothers had all that much to do. Brian Cox’s performance as the flamboyant thespian Jack Langrishe was wonderful but did not serve the plot in any relevant way.

Similarly, the famed gunman Wyatt Earp and his troublesome brother caused a stir when they arrived in camp but did not serve any further purpose to the story beyond causing some problems for one of Hearst’s men.

Lastly, there is uncertainty around the reappearance of Jeffery Jones as the pompous newspaperman A.W. Merrick, who plead no contest to soliciting naked photos of a minor. The charges were brought against Jones during the filming of Deadwood, but one wonders if, given recent attempts to crack down on sexual abuse in the industry, the actor will be welcomed back.

What is to become of the town?

Deadwood circa 1976. Photo courtesy of US National Archives and Records Administration.

Deadwood circa 1976. Photo courtesy of US National Archives and Records Administration.

The real town of Deadwood burned down in 1879. The television series, which begins in 1876, subtly (and not-so subtly) implies this fate throughout its three seasons. Al Swearengen threatens to set fire to the camp when reprimanding both E.B. and Jimmy Irons, while Trixie and Dan Dorrity make a pact to do so if Swearengen dies passing gleets.

Perhaps the biggest hint comes in Season Two, after Charlie Utter is made fire marshal. Inspecting the stove-pipes of a local saloon, Utter orders the keeper, Tom Nuttall, to separate the piping and wood because the camp ‘being situated like it is’ makes it liable to go up in flames. As the town structures were made of pine, it is not hard to see why this might be the case.


So how should Deadwood end? A shoot-out? A ball of flames? Or something else entirely?