Deadwood, like so many popular serialized television series, stopped airing before the story it was telling had an opportunity to end properly.
In the original series, which ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, viewers were welcomed into the world of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory during the 1870s. Writer David Milch (whose previous credits include NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues) created a case of characters loosely inspired by real historic figures.
Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a brash sheriff who presaged Olyphant’s career-making turn on the later series Justified but whose hot-headed approach to the law continues to resemble no other lawman on television; Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), an iconic bastard who runs a saloon and brothel; Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), a piss-drunk wanderer who finds her place in unexpected moments of crisis. Although not a history show, Deadwood was a Western that managed to express something true to the idea that has driven the genre in popular imagination for so long. Colorful characters of all kinds trying to make their way on the frontier as “civilization” marches ceaselessly into their lives. Can they stop it? Will it consume their way of life? Alas, HBO canceled the show before that story could come to completion. Thirteen years later, Deadwood: The Movie, available on HBONow and HBOGo, presents a conclusive epilogue.
The question that comes to mind when something like Deadwood: The Movie comes along is whether or not a resumed story will hold up in quality to what exists in our memories. I only caught up with the original show earlier this week, having put it off for a long, long time. To my novice mind, this works as an appropriate sendoff for a number of characters who leapt fully from the screen and into my heart over only 36 episodes of television. It is emotionally and dramatically satisfying. Most importantly, Milch gets to once again write lines for one of the finest ensembles ever gathered on any show or film. Every utterance Milch writes is an absolute pleasure. One, in particular, is the story’s essence and destined to be quoted endlessly:
“We’re all of us haunted by our own fuckin’ thoughts, so make friends with the ghost – it ain’t going anywhere.”
A number of now-classic TV series have returned as either miniseries, movies or streaming shows. Deadwood is one of the few to come back in the form of a two-hour movie that could be aired theatrically. Unlike Twin Peaks: The Return (indisputably the best returning program), Deadwood: The Movie can be reasonably viewed without prior knowledge of the show. In the scheme of the Western mythology, it slides right into the final act of the classic arc: Technology is here, and the old guard who resisted it have to live or die with it.
There are a number of ongoing plots at play that weave in and out; it’s only thanks to Milch’s pen that the two-hour runtime does not feel too short, or overstuffed. George Hearst, embodiment of the cruel industrial will of the late 19th century, returns to Deadwood to celebrate South Dakota’s induction into the United States proper. As always, blood follows in his wake. At one point in the movie, a character remarks to him that he’s not “the boss of the fucking future,” to which he replies “Why, I believe I’m its sole inheritor.” Meanwhile, Calamity Jane also returns to town to reunite with her one true love, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). And, lastly, Trixie (Paula Malcomson) and Sheriff Bullock’s partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes), welcome a child into the world.
Death, love and life. The essential ingredients of a story broken into their raw elements and played together to craft a conclusion that speaks to the human spirit of our characters and the questions they ask themselves about their role in the schemes of things. There is a simplicity to Milch’s script, never hewing too far into the realm of over-the-top retribution or violence. It’s a perfect, patient Western that doesn’t rely too heavily on stylistic flourish or bloodshed to say something about the way we change as the world changes around us. In similar fashion to Twin Peaks: The Return, Deadwood: The Movie succeeds at reviving an old story by leaning into reflexive, thoughtful rumination rather than retreading old plots or making everything nice and tidy. As a Western, it works on its merits, and as an epilogue to a long-form story it works even better. And that final line — magnificent.