The final image of David Milch’s landmark HBO series, “Deadwood,” left us with Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) fiercely attempting to scrub blood stains – from a throat he, himself, had cut – out of his office floorboards. It was a fitting closing image for an excellent chapter in the book of TV history, setting the stage for what was surely to be a fantastic final season of an unprecedented series. But then, the land of cable began to change, and the show was abruptly pulled from HBO’s slate. After over a decade, HBO has finally afforded Milch’s revisionist Western a proper finale.
Following the show’s cancellation, it was reported that “Deadwood” would wrap up its story with pair of features, instead of a season, allegedly truncating what was to be the 4th volume of the South Dakota mining camp’s history into 2 TV movies. Despite fan outcry and actor insistence, the films never manifested. With “Deadwood: The Movie,” (directed by seasoned “Game of Thrones” regular Daniel Minahan) Milch has pulled off a seemingly impossible feat of storytelling, providing an immensely satisfying conclusion to a show that was never expected to receive an ending. From Calamity Jane’s (Robin Weigert) opening soliloquy, to the film’s inevitable standoff of ideological intensity; Deadwood’s finale pays off over 30 hours of period world-building, wrapping up its mythological threading with a wallop of sincere emotional solemnity, all while addressing several unfinished plot points and thematic motifs (previously left hanging) into just over 100 minutes.
Frankly, it’s a very similar achievement to “Avengers: Endgame” – you have to already be invested in the lore and characters to fully appreciate it – but it’s an even more narratively successful, long form, storytelling accomplishment, for a number of reasons; chiefly, its enormously empathetic treatment of a communal cast of complex characters. The original series featured over 20 key players, by the time it was canceled, and – with the exception of actors that have passed away – they’re all afforded some kind of natural conclusion here. But what’s truly impressive about Milch’s “movie” is how it acts as a historical progression – of plot, setting, and character – whilst simultaneously serving as a subtle, cyclical echo of the series’ pilot.
We return to Deadwood in 1889, a decade after George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) rode out of town, robbing the community of its most honest arbiter of heartful dignity. Marshall Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) has quietly raised a family, joining many of his fellow, former mining prospectors by investing in the hotel business. His old partner, Sol Star (John Hawkes) is living with a now-pregnant Trixie (Paula Malcolmson), with whom McShane’s Swearengen was always smitten. Al and his goons are still running the Gem Saloon, but several of his associates, mainly Doc Cochran (the always incredible Brad Dourif) and Mr. Wu (Keone Young) are greatly concerned for the curse-word loving innkeeper’s well-being. Returning to South Dakota in order to attend its State induction ceremony, Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) rides the train back into Deadwood. It should celebratory occasion, a reunion of friends who once formed their own community, but tragedy still looms large over the land that used to be completely lawless.
The power-hungry Hearst is now a State Senator (because, you know corrupt, gluttonous murderers commonly earn the respected position of elected officials) and you can bet that the town’s memories of the man may come back to haunt its citizens. To spoil what sets off the events of the movie would surely ruin the finale, for fans especially, but its core idea stems all the way back from the first episode of the first season, involving a land claim owned by Wild Bill Hickock’s (Keith Carradine) old buddy, Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie).
The conflict is extremely befitting of the times in which we’re living, being centered around Deadwood’s mythic equivalent of a tyrannical totalitarian. Milch’s series weaved a realist fable out of U.S. history. It was clear, back in season 3, that the privileged father of the famed William Randolph Heart – a writer quoted at an innumerable number of college graduation ceremonies – was being positioned as the series’ equivalent of a supervillain who wants to rule everything. But what’s so deft about his villainy is how far the systemic corruption reaches, how the audience can see the in-world impact on its citizens; you can feel the specific need to enact change. There’s a phenomenal scene, in which the town’s minorities become involved in an intense, life or death, alley exchange. In another telling, these side characters would have no direct impact on the story, yet the scene is entirely about their humanity. The emotional stakes are so high and their real-world struggles so respectfully outlined, that you fear for them immensely.
For years, “Deadwood” was rightly championed as housing one of the greatest acting showcases in the history of television. “Deadwood” is the reason why Ian McShane solely seems to be typecast as a variation on the infamous Al Swearengen, but in “Deadwood: The Movie,” Timothy Olyphant, finally steps out of his co-star’s Shakespearean shadow, and he’s utterly phenomenal. Bullock is now worn and wiser, adding a rasp of weary kindness to his performance; it’s a wonderfully nuanced new character tick for the broken lawman, embodying his professional appreciation for his hard-earned authority. McShane is also exceptional, as always; his health deterioration perhaps an allegory for Milch’s own personal struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. Change in demeanor and agency aside, the binary relationship between these two, vastly different, town leaders remains the most essential element of the story.
Akin to blood brothers, Thor & Loki, it took 3 seasons (instead of movies) and a homicidal dictator to unite the law-abiding hero and its swindling trickster against a common enemy. “Deadwood” is the true story of Manifest Destiny, a revisionist historic prophecy without the elementary school sugar coating. The long awaited last chapter of David Milch’s seminal series, cements ‘Deadwood’s storytelling vision; a contemporary masterpiece of American Western mythology. [A]
“Deadwood: The Movie” airs on HBO on May 31st.