'Deadwood' Primer: Everything You Need to Know About the Series Ahead of the HBO Film
By Stacy Lambe
Deadwood, creator David Milch’s celebrated Western drama exploring the many lives of the lawless South Dakota camp in the 1870s, is back for one more chapter to close out the many narratives that were left unfinished after its abrupt cancellation in 2006. Thirteen years later, Deadwood: The Movie will finally premiere on Friday, May 31, picking up a decade after the events of the season three finale, that became an unexpected cliffhanger and series closer for the HBO drama.
Ahead of the film’s HBO debut, ET looks back on the first three seasons, its ensemble cast and overlapping narratives to prepare for the franchise’s final chapter. (Warning: series spoilers below.)
The Show’s Real-Life Background
Inspired by the real-life camp and historical figures, Deadwood kicks off in 1876 at the height of the Black Hills Gold Rush in the lawless town of South Dakota. While the show is largely a fictionalized account of the events that took place, most of the plot of the first three seasons overlaps with major developments at the time, including the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, the smallpox epidemic, George Hearst’s mining operation, and the looming arrival of electricity and the railroad.
Many of the real-life people to appear on the series includes Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen, sheriff Seth Bullock, developer Charlie Utter, Bullock’s wife, Martha, Jewish businessman Sol Star, journalist A.W. Merrick, hotel owner E.B. Farnum, frontierswoman Calamity Jane, famed gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, and prospector and businessman George Hearst. Meanwhile, characters like Joanie Stubbs, Trixie and Doc Cochran are amalgamations of various known personalities.
Extensively researched by Milch and his team, the series was intended to show how civilization comes out of chaos while touching on issues of misogyny, violence, immigration and politics that shaped the events and perspectives at the time. Even the dialogue is rooted in reality, while the extensive use of certain profanities was replaced by modern words to sound more relatable.
The Key Players
While the show boasted a large ensemble cast, there are few key characters to focus on, when it comes to preparing for the film:
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane): As owner of the Gem Saloon, the area’s largest bar and brothel, Swearengen has the most influence and clout, often making deals that serve his needs over others. As the town modernizes over time, he’s begrudgingly forced to fall in line.
Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant): Often positioned as the town’s conflicted moral center, Bullock first came to Deadwood to set up a hardware store while leaving a life of law behind him. Eventually forced to become the town’s sheriff, he often came to blows with Swearengen and the lesser law-abiding townsfolk. Amid his romantic affair with Garret, Bullock’s wife, Anna, moves to town.
Alma Garret (Molly Parker): The show’s female lead, Parker portrays one of the series’ fictional characters. Garret, whose husband is killed while prospecting, takes ownership of a plot that proves to be flush with gold. Despite initial desires to leave town, Garret stays, forming a business partnership and romance with Bullock. However, she eventually remarries Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), who is later killed by Hearst. Additionally, she takes in a young female steward after her family is slaughtered outside of town.
Sol Star (John Hawkes): Business partners with Bullock, Star helps run a successful hardware store before being commissioned by Garret to help run the town’s first bank. He also develops affection for Trixie, despite her work at the Gem Saloon.
Trixie (Paula Malcomson): Swearengen’s preferred prostitute, Trixie is part den mother to the brothel’s denizens while also her boss’ main ear to the ground. After Garret takes in Sofia, Trixie comes to her aid and later, she strikes up a romance with Star and starts working at the bank as a teller. After Ellsworth is murdered, Trixie attempts to assassinate Hearst.
Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert): Friend of Wild Bill Hickok, Jane is distraught after he’s murdered and becomes a lonely, aggressive drunk. She eventually finds a place in town, helping out Doc with the smallpox outbreak before becoming a recluse again. Jane eventually finds some balance in protecting Stubbs, after she opens her own brothel. While there’s a romantic spark between the two, any hope of a relationship is squandered by Jane’s drinking.
Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens): Stubbs first arrives in town as the hostess of The Bella Union, Cy Tolliver’s (Powers Boothe) premiere brothel and main competition to the Gem. Soon after, she strikes out on her own with the Chez Amiz, which becomes the target of a violent client, sending the entire business into disarray. Joanie finds solace in Jane’s company despite constant drinking and outbursts.
Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie): Another friend of Wild Bill, Utter also has trouble overcoming the loss of the famed gunslinger. He soon opens up a packaging business and later becomes deputy sheriff, helping maintain some semblance of law in town.
George Hearst (Gerald McRaney): Arriving in town in season three, Hearst becomes the show’s big bad as a cantankerous mining operator and shrewd businessman, who tries to run many prospectors out of town while trying to monopolize the remaining gold plots. He soon clashes with Swearengen, Bullock and Garret, leading to his attempted assassination for the murder of Ellsworth.
Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn): As the wife of Bullock, Anna comes to Deadwood in the second season. Her arrival causes tension between Bullock and Garret, who had an affair ahead of her arrival. It’s later revealed that Bullock married Anna after her first husband -- Seth's brother -- was killed, leaving her widowed with one child. Their son is accidentally killed when a horse escapes town. Anna also serves as the growing town’s only school teacher.
The Most Important Storylines and Where Things Left Off
While many of the overlapping narratives were highlighted above, there are a few key developments and storylines that are worth remembering ahead of the movie, particularly the fragile foundation of the town as the arrival of Hearst and impending elections have shaken up the delicate relationships between Swearengen, Bullock, Utter, Tolliver and Star.
At the same time as politics and violence has left the town on edge, several personal relationships have frayed as Jane’s drinking continues to get in her own way with Stubbs, who feels even more alone after the demise of her own brothel. Seth and Anna Bullock continue to navigate a marriage out of obligation, especially after Seth’s affair with Garret and their son’s death drove wedges between them.
As of the season three finale, Hearst is led to believe that his attempted killer, Trixie, has been dispensed of, maintaining an uneasy balance as he leaves town. In actuality, Swearengen killed another prostitute, Jen, who looks similar to Trixie, thereby protecting the life of his former confidant. Meanwhile, the murder of Ellsworth and Hearst’s attempt to assassinate Garret leaves her fearing for her life. Soon after, she sells her claim to Hearst and makes an eventual return to New York City.
What to Expect From the Movie
Premiering Friday, May 31, Deadwood: The Movie picks up one decade after the events of the season three finale as South Dakota celebrates statehood. According to HBO, “former rivalries are reignited, alliances are tested and old wounds are reopened, as all are left to navigate the inevitable changes that modernity and time have wrought.” With that being said, Hearst, Garret and more characters return to Deadwood after spending significant time away while a chain of events very early in the movie quickly reignites all the tension from the season three finale. But not everything is on edge as certain romances finally come to fruition in ways that will leave fans satisfied with the end results of Deadwood's final chapter.