HBO’s ‘Deadwood: The Movie’ Is the Perfect End to Television’s Best Show
The feature-length coda to David Milch’s rowdy and riveting Western, premiering May 31 on HBO, is everything fans of the beloved series would want.
Deadwood: The Movie is the perfect ending to television’s all-time best show. After such a long wait, however, two brief hours—no matter how joyous, heartbreaking and ideal they’ve turned out to be—just isn‘t enough.
Following 36 episodes spread across three unrivaled seasons, Deadwood was unceremoniously cancelled in 2006, denied a conclusion to its sprawling and intricate saga of frontier life in the Dakota Territory circa the 1870s. Speculation about a revival has flourished ever since, but it’s only now that HBO has finally granted series creator David Milch an opportunity to resurrect his landmark work in order to give it a proper send-off. That he most ably does with Deadwood: The Movie (May 31), a feature-length coda that reunites virtually every one of the show’s still-living cast members, and provides a measure of closure for a masterful story left unresolved. And yet in revisiting its cast of nuanced, colorful, and altogether captivating characters (and milieu) for such a brief spell, it also serves as a painful reminder that we’ve been denied a chance to spend our Sunday nights with these men and women for far too long.
Sharply directed by Daniel Minahan, Deadwood: The Movie is, appropriately, a tale of birth, death, blood and unions. Set 10 years after the season three finale, it finds industrialist monster George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) returning to the Deadwood camp at the moment of its 1889 South Dakota statehood celebration. Now a junior senator from California, Hearst has arrived to convince Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), the area’s last holdout, to sell him his claim so he can continue to string telephone poles across the country. The future—of mass communication, of a modern law-and-order society, of a United States—continues to approach with the speed of a locomotive. At the same time, other familiar faces have chosen to reappear for the occasion, including Alma Garret (Molly Parker) and her now-grown charge Sofia (Lily Keene), and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), still boozing and talking to herself, and—having ended a long sojourn in parts unknown—in search of her beloved Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), who has taken over the Bella Union for Cy Tolliver (formerly played by Powers Boothe, who passed away in May 2017).
The times are a-changin’, although some things are the same in Deadwood. Slimy E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) persists in the “titular position” of mayor while running the Grand Central Hotel. A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) continues as the town’s de facto photographer of record. And Doc (Brad Dourif) sees to the infirm, having apparently conquered whatever ominous malady he’d come down with toward the end of the series’ original run. Sol Star (John Hawkes) and Trixie (Paula Malcomson) are on the eve of becoming parents, and discussing marriage. And when not operating the hotel he co-owns with Star, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, never better) is now a marshal living a quiet life with wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and their three children—an indication that he’s settled, happily, into the lot given to him by life.
Deadwood: The Movie wouldn’t be complete, of course, without lyrically profane Gem Saloon proprietor and regional powerhouse Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Sadly, it finds him in dire condition—no surprise given that Swearengen has always embodied the lawless independent spirit of the West (and Deadwood), which now appears to be perishing at the hands of Hearst’s “progress.” Like two sides of the same gold coin, Swearengen and the temper-wracked Bullock are men caught between the civilized and the wild. And while, per formula, the film weaves in and out of numerous intertwined strands—many of which are left to dangle loosely at story’s end—Milch’s latest once more situates the duo front-and-center in a plot about the tensions between the old and the new, and the difficulty of creating a community in such an environment.
A murder proves the catalyst for Deadwood: The Movie’s action, and one that longtime fans will no doubt find shattering. Milch has never shied away from offing main characters (see, most notably, Keith Carradine’s Wild Bill Hickok). As before, this death is not a cheap stunt; rather, it’s a means of recognizing the feral viciousness that defines this land and its inhabitants, including Hearst, a top-hatted tyrant who talks about the inevitable future and yet is nothing if not ruthless (a symptom, it would seem, of him being the “boy the Earth talks to”). The struggle to tame the Black Hills, and one’s own roiling impulses and emotions, is inherent to Deadwood, and it once again flourishes here, in an early angry Trixie outburst that leads to Hearst trouble, and in the unbearably poignant glances shared by Bullock and Garret, whose passion must remain stifled behind polite smiles.
Milch’s writing magnificently blends the high and the low, with old-world phraseology punctuated with great stinging bursts of vulgarity. No show has ever matched the elocutionary delights provided by Deadwood, and none of its stars have ever been up to the task of handling its dialogue quite like McShane, here a weathered shell of his former self, compelled to plan for a tomorrow he likely won’t see. It’s no shock that McShane brings tremendous pathos to Swearengen’s final scenes, including an amazing duet with Geri Jewell’s Jewel in the presence of his other female love, Trixie. Just as it’s to be expected, Milch balances such touchingly somber moments with instances of camaraderie, treachery, violence and absurdity, the best being a have-to-pee dance by the ridiculous Farnum—not to mention a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo from the chameleon-esque Garret Dillahunt.
Deadwood looks better (even the Gem has a new banner) but its citizenry is now grayer and creakier, amplifying the wistfulness of these proceedings, which are—in terms of its narrative, and the show itself—an elegy for an era fading into history. That Deadwood: The Movie gives us one more evening in the company of Swearengen, Bullock and their many cohorts (including W. Earl Brown’s Dan Dority, Sean Bridgers’ Johnny Burns, Franklyn Ajaye’s Samuel Fields, and Keone Young’s Wu, now accompanied by his English-translating grandson) feels like something of a blessing. Still, with HBO having reconstructed the prospecting town and then corralled its enormous cast for another go-round, the idea that this two-hour film is a finale instead of the start of a return engagement can’t help but sting.
Not that Deadwood: The Movie doesn’t have sage advice when it comes to the sweet sorrow of such parting, via the mouth of the forever rugged-and-regal Swearengen himself: “We’re all of us haunted by our own fucking thoughts. So make friends with the ghost—it ain’t going fucking anywhere.”