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The Anger Inside: In Praise of Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock

‘Deadwood’ returns as a movie this Friday, bringing most of the series’ original cast—including Olyphant’s brooding sheriff—along with it

HBO/Ringer illustration

We proud members of the Deadwood hive—we patrons of the Gem Saloon, we Hoopleheads, we [multiple expletives deleted]—each have our own most cherished character, cherished scene, cherished soliloquy, cherished expletive. Me, I fire up HBO Go once a month or so to watch Seth Bullock unwittingly interrupt his business partner having sex in their hardware store. It is far too minor an incident to ever make a janky YouTube highlight reel. By design, most of the show’s best moments are.

Bullock, as played by Timothy Olyphant, is a conventional Western hero, handsome and rangy and stern and exasperatedly valiant. He is therefore one of the two nominal leads in Deadwood, which ran for three seasons on HBO from 2004 to 2006, takes place in the titular 1870s South Dakota mining town (in that lawless interval before South Dakota joined the Union), and has little use for conventional Western heroes. Bullock doesn’t want to be Deadwood’s sheriff. He just wants to run a hardware store. It is nonetheless obvious, to everyone, that he is destined to be Deadwood’s sheriff. This grudging transformation is nearly complete by the 11th and penultimate episode of Season 1, in which, as aforementioned, he walks into his hardware store and finds his partner, the noble Sol Star (John Hawkes), in a lovelorn and compromised state with an even more exasperated prostitute named Trixie (Paula Malcomson).

Bullock realizes his error as he’s taking off his hat.

“Seth, you remember Trixie,” Star mumbles, having wiggled about to make himself decent and minimize the embarrassment. (Trixie is not at all embarrassed.)

“Oh,” Bullock stammers. “Yes. Well. I just stopped in a moment.” There is a goofy-looking, 1870s-type clamp thingy on the counter. He picks it up, makes a world-class Ah, here’s the specific reason I came in here face—

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—and walks out, relocking the door behind him. Sol and Trixie then resume having sex. Scene over.

This is a sitcom gag in essence: You can imagine The Big Bang Theory version, which would involve Sheldon, Leonard, Penny, and a protractor. What kills me about it, here on my 500th rewatch, is the incandescent flash of anger on Bullock’s face as he puts his hat back on. He is so angry, all the time, for what is often no good reason. Everyone on this show is. It’s hilarious. He is even angrier in his very next scene, wherein he and Gem Saloon owner and Machiavellian schemer Al Swearengen (the show’s other nominal lead, played by Ian McShane) argue about whether or not Bullock should be sheriff. “I don’t want it,” Bullock seethes, sounding like another exasperatedly valiant HBO character we could mention. He is still holding the clamp thingy.

The episode ends with Swearengen delivering one of Deadwood’s most cherished soliloquies, in which he reflects on his terrible childhood (the orphanage, the whorehouse, etc.) as another prostitute’s head bobs in his lap. That janky clip is definitely on YouTube. So, too, is the scene in the next episode in which Bullock punches his illicit lover’s no-good father in the face so many times the poor guy spits out half his teeth. Bullock soon agrees to be sheriff, and thus assumes his rightful place in the show’s universe. Not the center; not quite even the moral center. Just one of several dozen indispensable edges. He is the conventional hero so heroic he not so much cedes the spotlight as broadens the spotlight to shine on everyone, everywhere, all the time.

If you didn’t watch Deadwood, you likely still know it as that supermacho show that employed the word “cocksucker,” like, 50,000 times. (Actually, let’s be precise: The series’ cumulative FPM (fucks per minute) is 1.56.) The show’s true star is not Olyphant, or McShane, or all the other transcendent character actors, or even the town of Deadwood itself, but creator-writer-prestige-TV savant David Milch, whose bonkers, cerebral, and seance-like creative process is the stuff of legend. Milch, previous of NYPD Blue and subsequent of far less successful HBO excursions from the inexplicable John From Cincinnati to the luckless Luck, is prone to soliloquy himself, you see. And also prone, in this instance, to greatness. If you did watch Deadwood, you know it as a loopy-genius fusion of Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy, ultraviolent and absurdly verbose, so dense with vivid characters (shout-out Doc Cochran) that it was mostly plotless most of the time and all the better for it.

Deadwood was canceled in 2006, after Season 3, in an abrupt and thematically suitable fog of rage and confusion. Everyone moved on, most notably Olyphant, who, starting in 2010, starred in the FX series Justified as a far more conventional Western hero (the beloved Elmore Leonard character Raylan Givens) lording over a far more conventional Western (set in modern-day Kentucky and seasoned by various Deadwood alumni). That show required him to shoot people a whole lot more and swear a whole lot less; it lasted six seasons and fuckin’ ruled. It also made for a nice interlude. On Friday, at long last, Olyphant returns as Sheriff Bullock in the long-awaited Deadwood movie, alongside every central cast member still drawing breath save for the multi-talented Titus Welliver, who is presumably too busy being Bosch.

A mere sub-two-hour movie 13 years after the fact is not quite the ending Deadwood deserves, and the relentless march of time emerges as yet another vital and unsettling character: What with all the silver hair and groaning and general manly witheredness, it’s basically like the reunion scene in A League of Their Own with more gunplay and 80-pound swears. But it’s enough, maybe, that this enterprise finally gets a proper ending at all.

Milch is, once again, the focal point: His recently announced diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease gives this film a terrible poignance, a sense of urgency the chaotic show prided itself on never having. But Olyphant is Deadwood: The Movie’s audience surrogate, unbent by the slow-motion ravages of time and unbroken by further abrupt tragedy, ranting and raving amid flashes of tenderness, shouting vile oaths and orchestrating yet more ultraviolence. He also breaks down in tears, and so, perhaps, will you. It’s still not your typical lead performance—the heavy lifting is once again shared by absolutely everyone, from the drunk and brash Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) to the power-mad and villainous George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). But Sheriff Bullock is still here to bring this thing home, even if it’s a job he never wanted. That, after all, is what heroes do.


Even if you, personally, are not a Hooplehead per se, I cannot recommend Timothy Olyphant’s current Deadwood: The Movie publicity tour highly enough. (Here he is dressing up as modern-day Conan O’Brien, on Conan.) At the time of Deadwood’s anarchic 2006 cancellation, he’d just bought a new house, you see, based on the assumption that a fourth season would pay for it. “Did you wind up selling the house?” inquires Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall. Olyphant’s response:

No. I’m a glass-half-full type of motherfucker, and I said to myself, “Well, thank God I didn’t know they were going to cancel the show. I would never have bought this house.” And let me put this under the list of why these people owe me. What we have to thank for this is the villain in [Live Free or] Die Hard and a fucking bald head in Bulgaria shooting Hitman. That’s what that phone call led to. “How about the villain of Die Hard?” I said, “Sure.” And they’re like, “Do you want to read the script?” I said, ” I get it. I’m in. I just bought a house. Did you not hear? They just canceled my fucking show. Yes, I’ll do it.” “What about this video game adaptation?” “Yes to that too. I’m in. I’ve got to make up some TV money.”

Furthermore:

You know what, though? Those experiences were equally valuable. Oddly enough, those kinds of experiences, perhaps arguably more valuable than these. You know? Find yourself bald in Bulgaria doing some pile of shit, that will get you up a little earlier in the morning and make you work a little harder.

Let’s politely agree with the premise that Olyphant has never found a conventional Hollywood movie worthy of his talents, unless we’re flashing all the way back to 1999 and counting Go. But Deadwood was perfect for him, and he for it, a square-jawed and perpetually enraged champion for a lawless wilderness that didn’t want one. McShane, as Swearengen, got the crassest monologues and flashiest greatest-hits material; he had the brains, the balls, the innumerable schemes, the juiciest chances for redemption. But Bullock has greatest-hits collections of his own, squeezing that omnipresent sheriff’s badge to dust as he dresses down Swearengen’s underlings, fuming about impolite hardware customers (“$200 in merchandise in the middle of our store like an interrupted shit”), and brawling with a Native American in a grim feast of HBO-caliber ugliness.

It was Milch’s idea, per that Rolling Stone interview, that Bullock just cling to the other man’s leg like that. From the grandiose successes to the abysmal failures, from the sordid gambling woes to the scholarly evocations of St. Paul and H. L. Mencken and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Milch is perhaps the only prestige-TV creator whose own life story could sustain a multiple-season prestige-TV show. Deadwood’s constant, operatic profanity is a gleeful anachronism the show’s voluble creator was always willing to defend at great length. But those endless volumes of beautiful and terrible words were only as good as the mouths Milch put them in. It fell to Olyphant to deliver a line like, “Did you just tell me, fuck myself?” with the incredulity and menace it deserved.

Olyphant, even amid his that-movie-was-a-pile-of-shit brashness, has always been shockingly self-deprecating about his work on Deadwood. “I haven’t seen the show in a long time,” he told Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz this week. “I thought what I was doing was somewhere between mediocrity and just OK.” Also:

The one thing I always felt I was really good at was paying attention and really listening to David. I really soaked in the experience and got a ton out of it. And it was the gift that just kept giving. I felt like I took it to every job. I kept relying on it, I kept leaning on it, I kept being inspired by it.

Justified was, in retrospect, a splendid way to spend the interim—OK, half the interim—between Deadwood’s cancellation and this new movie. You can’t exactly rattle off 1.56 fucks per minute on FX, but Elmore Leonard’s jovially hard-boiled source material had a Milchian mix of sacred and profane, and Boyd Crowder, the loquacious Justified antihero played by Walton Goggins, had a distinctly Swearengen-esque thirst for dirtier deeds and flowerier language. Olyphant got to play a conventional Western hero for real this time, and as the show’s undeniable star attraction, he had the backstage power to inject some of his old show’s anarchy into his new one. He proposed killing one bad guy by simply letting him fall in a hole because he thought that’s what Milch would do.

Part of the force, then, behind Olyphant’s performance in Deadwood: The Movie is that Justified fanatics have now watched him play this sort of role straight, or at least straighter. The movie … listen. If you have even the slightest emotional investment, you’re not going to actively dislike Deadwood: The Movie. Directed by series veteran Daniel Minahan, it gets the whole gang back together and crams as much fan service as humanly possible into an hour and 50 minutes, though Calamity Jane fans will walk away more satisfied than, say, Alma Garret fans. But Olyphant, in the midst of his scorched-earth press tour, is especially perceptive about what makes this particular vehicle for a Deadwood finale bittersweet and woefully insufficient. As he told Rolling Stone, raving once again about Milch:

He’s one of the greatest episodic writers the genre has ever seen. And to some degree, my concern has always been, for our movie, what’s the fucking point? My recollection of what made the show great was never the plot. What made the show great was spending time with these characters, and that whatever characters were on screen, the show might as well be about them. And when you do a movie, you just don’t have the real estate. … So, the idea of doing a movie of this show, by its very nature, my concern was, “Are we not destroying the show? Are you killing the very thing by handcuffing it?” But all that being said, I’m glad I did it.

I’m glad Olyphant did it too, and I still agree with everything he says about why he maybe shouldn’t have done it. Deadwood: The Movie strives for an emotional payoff as pure and stratospheric as, say, Bullock pretending to be his dead brother on his dead brother’s son’s deathbed. (That scene oughta be on YouTube but is not, perhaps for your own protection.) But I’d have settled for one single moment as fantastic as the look of fury he gives Swearengen in the Season 2 premiere, which soon results in one of the show’s gnarlier brawls.

HBO

But Deadwood always needed hours and hours of meandering downtime to generate that sort of sudden crescendo; the capstone movie is an eventful two hours that pales in comparison to the 12 uneventful hours it should’ve been. Deadwood: The Movie won’t disappoint you, but nor will it satisfy you. So I propose you jump immediately to Justified, especially if you’ve not yet had the pleasure.

At six seasons, there’s too much of it, but that’s preferable to the opposite, and Olyphant is all the through line you need. The Justified pilot ends with Raylan breaking into the house of his remarried ex-wife, Winona, for a late-night chat, and Deadwood fanatics know this guy intimately even if they’re just now meeting him. “I guess I just never thought of myself as an angry man,” Raylan says, and Winona just shakes her head sadly. “Raylan, well, you do a good job of hiding it, and I suppose most folks don’t see it,” she tells him. “But honestly, you are the angriest man I have ever known.”

Disclosure: HBO is in an initial investor in The Ringer.