Deadwood was a show that ended without an ending.
HBO’s drama was prestige television before the term existed: a critically acclaimed, wildly expensive Western, filled to bursting with copious profanity, cringy slurs, gratuitous nudity, and unforgettable characters. After three seasons, the network condemned the town. Early promises of send-off movies evaporated like water on the desert hardpan. For 13 years, we knew all we would ever know about creator David Milch’s South Dakota settlement.
And then last week, I sat down to watch the improbable Deadwood: The Movie, a one-off resurrection with a staggeringly reassembled cast, promising the ending that the series never got.
And here’s the good news: It delivers on that promise. Deadwood: The Movie is prestige television reborn as a movie.
Deadwood: The Movie takes place a decade after the final episode of the series, during South Dakota’s 1889 celebration of statehood. The event creates a plausible reunion for both the characters who still live in town and those who’ve moved on.
Like the series before it, Deadwood: The Movie luxuriates in the characters moments, and a large chunk of the beginning is about reintroductions. Some things have changed — electricity illuminates the former boomtown, characters have aged and grayed and stooped, children have sprouted — but it’s still recognizably Deadwood in sight and in sound. (Time to the first cocksucker is less than four minutes, and once the dam breaks, it’s a reliable vulgar spice.)
The true magic of the movie is how Milch weaves his large cast together into a unifying story that gives each character something meaningful to do. He has about two hours to reintroduce characters, have them act believably, set a new story in motion, and resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction. Nearly character has an arc, in which they act in ways both familiar and credible.
Deadwood’s hotel proprietor, the greasy E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) is perhaps the best example of the aplomb with which Milch pulls the strings. Farnum is, like so many in Deadwood, an important supporting character, but he was never in danger of stealing the spotlight. He doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but what he gets is funny, perfectly in character, and integral to the plot. It goes on like this. The crotchety Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) has patients to attend to and chastise. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) has whiskey to drink and slurred speech to overcome.
Speaking of speech, Deadwood: The Movie also luxuriates in its dialogue, which is as challenging to decipher — often lyrical and Shakespearean — as it is to hear. It always has been, but the reward for careful viewing is dialogue that challenges and surprises. (There’s no shame in subtitled viewing, though.)
That’s how you get lines like this: “I’d not prolong the chewing up, doc, nor the being spat out — not go out a cunt.”
Highbrow, meet lowbrow. That’s Deadwood.
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) speaks those words. He always has the best words, but McShane acts as much with his face as with the teleplay. He’s as animated as U.S. Marshall Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) tries to be reserved — up to and including his deliberate anti-swagger walk — and watching personalities that are 180 degrees out of phase provides not just contrast but tension.
Deadwood: The Movie is, like many modern stories looking back at the era, about progress — about people living a lifestyle that’s dissolving around them. The last decade hasn’t been a steady march of progress for everyone, despite what the avaricious George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) believes.
The now junior senator from California sees his telephone poles, slicing their way through the wooded South Dakota hills, as unambiguous signals of the progressive and unstoppable future. Others in Deadwood see the prospect of telephone poles in their establishments as intrusive — as a way for the outside world to elbow in on a frontier where distance and seclusion mean freedom. Where past and present collide with the future, tragedy strikes, and the plot takes hold.
The only bad news, if there is any: It’s really not a movie for anyone who hasn’t seen Deadwood.
That’s not insurmountable. If you’ve got an HBO subscription, you could do a lot worse now that Game of Thrones is over than to watch Deadwood’s original three seasons. It’s well worth your time and attention. And when you’re done, you won’t have to spend more than a decade wondering what happened next.
Because Deadwood is no longer a show without an ending. It is a new and fantastic way for a bunch of cocksuckers to go out.