Well, anyways: the “Tell Him Something Pretty,” the Deadwood series finale. For thirteen years, this the sum total of what fans of the show have had to conclude a fantastic three-season run. Here to assist us in working through our feelings about the show coming to an end is Harry Edmunson-Cornell, a fellow podcaster and Deadwood fan. As you might expect for a premature finale, reactions to the Season 3 finale are mixed based on our anecdotal assessment of the fandom — yet Esther, Harry and I found this episode to capture much of what made this such a special show.
“Tell Him Something Pretty” is a hard episode to watch, perhaps more so than last week (despite what happened to poor Ellsworth). This is the culmination of the struggle for power between the town and George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). But instead of a climactic battle filled with squibs and extras, Hearst merely rides off into the sunset — the Western ending usually befitting the hero of the story.
Perhaps Hearst won the battle for dominance before he even arrived at the camp. Did the residents of Deadwood ever stand a chance against the sheer might of his wealth and influence? Deadwood seems to argue Hearst — and the system he represents — are as insurmountable as the tide. And they might be right.
But David Milch isn’t content to leave us with this message alone. This isn’t a story of the scrappy, enterprising good guy underdogs against the murderous tyrant capitalist. No, Hearst may be evil, but his opponents are no moral beacons. This is a reality we’re sharply reminded of as Al (Ian McShane) makes the incredible decision to personally sacrifice one of his sex workers in order to save Trixie’s (Paula Malcomson) life.
Even Al understands his moral rot in the show’s final scene. As he scrubs the floor of Jen’s (Jennifer Lutheran) blood, he offers Johnny (Sean Bridgers) little comfort over her passing. He says that Johnny seems to want what isn’t possible: to dress up what Al did, to reframe Jen’s murder, as anything other than an atrocity. The truth is it is an atrocity.
Al, our hero for two seasons or more, is still a murderer, still selfish in his way. A victory for his party would nevertheless have meant a deeply morally compromised person holding the reins of power. This was never the explicit point of Deadwood, but it is an important means of depicting the world as it is, colored by shades of gray, rather than the good and evil binary so commonly indulged in film and television.
Deadwood never asks us to judge its characters, but rather to empathize with them, live with their decisions and feel the futility of their rugged individualism in the face of systems beyond their control. For that, the show is truly unique and beautiful, a fascinating commentary on American identity and a fantastic story to boot. Here’s hoping the film can build on these ideas as it offers a final ode to these iconic characters.
We’d like to thank Harry once again for joining us on Hoopleheads. Don’t forget to subscribe to Winkie’s Diner Podcast here. And if you’re looking for Harry’s film production work, that can be found over at the3rdwall.com.
That does it for Deadwood the series! But stay tuned, because we’ll be back before long with a podcast discussion of Deadwood: The Movie — complemented by yet another special guest. We’re so excited to share that conversation with you all.