When HBO ushered in the dawn of “prestige television” in the early aughts, it’s original dramas redefined the medium as a serious artform – combining cinematic production value and thoughtful adult themes with long-form literary weight. Alongside The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire – David Milch’s profane and profound revisionist Western, Deadwood, pillared the premium cable channel’s emergence, and served as a cornerstone for the “golden age of TV”. But unlike its creatively fulfilled contemporaries, Deadwood was unexpectedly cancelled after it’s third season in 2006 – well before it’s creator’s intended endpoint.
Accounts differ as to why HBO pulled the plug, but conflict between Milch and HBO was widely reported, revolving around the show’s large budget and Milch’s frustrating process of extensive last-second rewrites. Deadwood’s apparent irresolution remained a sore point for fans and critics, who never let go of the fact that one of television’s greatest masterpieces remained unfinished. But miraculously, and after several false starts, a conclusion has finally arrived 13 years later in the form of Deadwood: The Movie! Despite a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Milch endeavoured to complete his opus, everyone rallied around him.
The show’s expansive (and very busy) cast went out of their way to reunite (save for the dearly departed Powers Boothe), as did long-time series director David Minahan, galvanized by the prospect of bringing form to David Milch’s belated final chapter. Set 10 years after the season three finale, the movie finds the denizens of Deadwood gathering to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. The festivities serve to bring the show’s principal players to the same place, where old relationships are rekindled and old conflicts are reignited. Specifically, the movie picks up the tensions from it’s most recent episode, “Tell Him Something Pretty.”
Last season focused on the arrival of wealthy industrialist George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who embodied the monster of capitalism and modernity that would soon envelope this lawless frontier. A megalomaniac of the highest order, his relentless pursuit of consolidating the territory’s gold claims involved a spate of brutal beatings and killings. In the face of something as big as Hearst, even mortal enemies such as saloon-owning crime boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) allied alongside the town’s many disparate characters, gearing up for a showdown that never materialized.
Now a U.S. Senator for California, Hearst’s return to Deadwood provides the inciting incident for this movie. And as much as this film is committed to wrapping-up arcs for beloved characters, it’s equally interested in tying up it’s thematic interests. More than any one person, Deadwood was the story of how an illegal settlement, run by dangerous outlaws, came to be subsumed by American commerce. As it’s first two seasons showed, life in the Old West was savage, caked in death, disease, degradation and dirt. Looking for a better way, the town struggled to legitimize by officially annexing to the United States. But what is the price of “progress”?
Underneath a thin veneer of governance and civility lies something just as bloody, and perhaps even more insidious. American democracy is built upon the accumulation of raw capital, and George Hearst personifies it’s coldness, corruption and cruelty. This transitional period in Deadwood’s history frames the show, and the clashes here. But beyond that, the true joy of this movie is seeing so many wonderful actors reprise old characters, inhabiting their infinite complexities and richly drawn personalities without missing a beat. The acting here is phenomenal, easily evoking subtle changes amidst warm familiarity.
Deadwood has often been less concerned with plot than it was with character, and this movie wisely stews in juicy emotional beats rather than story necessities. Dozens of characters return, but obviously, the principal players get more attention than others. Olyphant effortlessly switches between Bullock’s current contentment in marriage with the return of his righteous stubborness and hot-headed bluntness at the sight of Hearst, while his inner turmoil at the reappearance of former lover Alma Garret (Molly Parker) is beautifully nuanced. His crackling interplay with McShane’s Swearengen was the heart and soul of the show, as it is here.
No longer the sharp and imposing man he was at the height of his powers, the aged and sickly Swearengen here is a gaunt shadow of his former self. McShane’s superlative turn is Deadwood at its most elegiac, informed by Milch’s own illness. There’s a quiet dignity in his vulgar defiance of weakness, and McShane’s execution of Swearengen’s vulnerability is effectively tempered by flashes where he reminds us that Swearengen is still a force to be reckoned with. Ian McShane rivals James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano as HBO’s greatest ever performance, and his magnificence here reinforces that lofty notion.
One of the greatest triumphs of Deadwood is it’s believable empowerment of women in a camp and period rife with oppression and misogyny. Former whore Trixie (Paula Malcomson) is a strong-willed spitfire. After finding autonomy and love with Bullock’s business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), she remains one of the few souls brave enough to confront Hearst. Likewise, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) was introduced as a perpetual drunk whose filthy loud mouth is often betrayed by her compassion and cowardice. Weigert shines here as Jane completes her journey from self-loathing to self-belief with an act of immense courage.
As strong as the acting is, the real star of Deadwood is Milch’s brilliant writing. His penchant for poetic conversation and baroque dialogue (a cross between William Faulkner and William Shakespeare) is on full display here, narrating the cost of a town’s journey from entropy to organization, as seen through the lens of fully realized lives – defined by success, tragedy, friendship, conflict, good, evil, and everything in between. While it may not land for viewers who have never seen the show, Deadwood: The Movie is a perfect, tear-drenched, expletive-laden swan song that provides the proper farewells and emotional closure it’s fans deserved.
Rating: 10/10 for Deadwood fans, 7/10 for casual viewers