Deadwood left television too soon, kiboshed by HBO back in 2006. Despite the abrupt demise, the series ended with an all-timer in the annals of great concluding lines.
Al Swearengen’s (Ian McShane) parting words to Johnny Burns (Sean Bridgers) provide poetic, muscular closure for the show in “Tell Him Something Pretty,” though they were never meant to. So it fits that Deadwood: The Movie, David Milch’s 2019 revival of his Western historical drama, ends with Al reciting similarly brawny poetry, his way of bringing the curtain down on the story for good and all.
“Wants me to tell him something pretty,” Al mutters behind Johnny’s back in the series finale. It’s Al’s private address of the merciful lie he tells Johnny — that Jen (Jennifer Lutheran), the woman Johnny loves, suffered little when Al slit her throat. It’s also a sly advisement to the audience: Don’t worry over Deadwood’s loose ends, the threads the series couldn’t tie off before its abrupt demise.
[Ed. note: this post contains spoilers for Deadwood: The Movie and the original series]
“Let him fucking stay there,” Al gasps, breathing his last breath at the end of Deadwood: The Movie, interrupting Trixie (Paula Malcomson) as she reads the Lord’s Prayer. After spending the movie pondering mortality, aware he’s at death’s door, Al makes, in his final moments, one of the most genuine statements he’s ever made. He’s at peace, ready to die now that his nemesis, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), is behind bars, muddied and bloodied, justice for conspiring to murder everyone opposing his schemes.
Deadwood: The Movie arrives 13 years after Deadwood’s cancellation left its characters’ fates uncertain. Talk of a movie sprung up on and off ever since, but it’s fair to suppose that no one actually expected a movie would ever happen. But it has. Deadwood: The Movie closes the books on Deadwood’s growth in the 1870s, its transition from camp to town, its annexation into Yankton, and now, in the film, its admission into the Union as part of South Dakota, the 40th state. But closing the books on Deadwood means ceding the last page turn to Al, the character who functions as its unruly moral center. Here, he remains more or less the same as ever, still running the Gem Saloon, still keeping a watchful eye on the town from the Gem’s balcony, but he’s wearier, several touches more haggard than in the past. (He’s retained his gift for turning a phrase chiefly composed of curses, at least.)
Al provides Deadwood its primary antagonist in season 1, but he evolves into an antihero, not a man gone soft but a man grown fond of his frontier home and the people he shares it with. Al’s ruthless streak never fully fades; his tyranny does. That gradual face turn is partly spurred by a selfish realization: That, as Deadwood meanders toward modernity like a sloth shuffles along a tree’s branches, following civilized society’s rules is in his best interests. Bad as Al is in season 1, Hearst is worse by far, a smug cutthroat disguised as a tycoon who pantomimes fealty to those rules while covertly violating them. Compared to Hearst, Al’s an altar boy, or at least he is by the time seasons 2 and 3 roll around.
Consider that sober exchange with Johnny. Season 1 Al would have killed Jen without thinking twice or sparing Johnny’s feelings after the fact. Jen, after all, is his offering to Hearst, who having been shot by a prostitute — Trixie, in fact — demands retribution for his wounds. It happens that Jen looks an awful lot like Trixie, close enough at least that Hearst won’t know the difference. Al knows what he has to do to save Trixie and get Hearst out of Deadwood and off their backs. The question is whether he’s still able to at this point in the show’s lifespan.
Milch, writer Ted Mann, and director Mark Tinker give a pretty authoritative answer in the last scene of “Tell Him Something Pretty.” Al murders Jen; his ruse succeeds, and Hearst gets out of Dodge Deadwood; poor Johnny grieves. But Al, bowing to the episode’s title, tells Johnny something pretty: “I was gentle as I was able, and that’s the last we fucking speak of her, Johnny.”
Al’s exasperated, even angry. But as Johnny leaves, he makes confession to himself and the audience, acknowledging the lie and the reasoning for the lie. He wants to spare Johnny further hurt. So he growls a fib, throwing his considerable intimidating weight into it, before admitting the lie itself and the truth the lie veils. You can only be so gentle when you murder someone.
As Deadwood: The Movie ends in succor, snow gently blanketing the town, the remaining cast contented at Hearst’s disgrace, Al, having struggled with his health throughout the plot’s progression, gets what he couldn’t give Jen: Gentle passage. Al spends much of the film hobbled while others worry over him: Trixie, Johnny, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), Wu (Keone Young), and especially Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif). One minute, the doc’s giving Al medical counsel, the next a berating for ignoring his medical counsel one too many times. Eventually, the two wind around to discussion of existential matters.
“I ask to be enlightened as to the passage of spirit in prospect for me, doc,” Al implores Cochran, confiding that he’d prefer to die quickly — to “not go out like a cunt,” in his trademark indelicate phrasing — and that it’s the “dispatch” he finds distasteful about death, the “delusory fucking self-importance.” Al’s wish is to die on his terms: Self-aware and without his swaggering macho vanity.
Deadwood has, throughout the years, caught Al in moments of sincerity, forcing viewers to question their impressions of him. Is he an evil man, or a man who does evil things, the ultimate product of his time? “Tell Him Something Pretty” shows the complications of his goodness, his willingness to achieve his goals with violence and protect people he cares for with falsehood.
Deadwood: The Movie shows Al at his least complicated, which means his most vulnerable. Al wants nothing to do with God. He just wants to die with his head held high. So he holds to the words he tells Cochran, going out not as a cunt but as Al Swearengen, one of television’s most indelible characters. There’s nothing pretty to tell, only undiluted honesty from an unexpected source.
Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.