If you’re a longtime Deadwood fan, Deadwood: The Movie, airing on HBO Friday night, must feel a little like a mirage. Heck, I’ve seen it already, and I’m still not entirely sure it exists.
Deadwood aired for three seasons on HBO, from 2004 to 2006, with the sting of an untimely cancellation eased somewhat by the network’s promise of two movies to wrap up the series’ story. But fans waited. And waited. And waited. And they never got their movies, or a real indication that any would ever be made — until 2018, when HBO greenlit a single, two-hour conclusion. That’s what’s airing Friday night, and it makes a glorious swan song for the series.
The movie is terrific (and I’ll post a full review of it soon). More than anything, watching it reminded me of how rich and wonderful this series is. But all too often, modern TV fans just haven’t seen Deadwood, or are somewhat surprised when critics sing its praises.
I find this surprise preposterous. Deadwood not only deserves recognition as one of the best TV shows of all time — I think you could make a real argument that it’s the best show of all time.
And yet this landmark series, a cornerstone of great TV drama, is in danger of being forgotten as times change and tastes shift. While its two more-or-less contemporaries on HBO, The Sopranos and The Wire, have seemed to weather all storms, Deadwood has been held back for some reason.
So allow me to etch Deadwood’s name upon the sky. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. The series will change your life — and I don’t say that lightly.
Deadwood is the bedrock that all other great dramas are built atop
For the most part, the great TV dramas of the post-Sopranos era (so roughly 1999 to the present) ask how we function in a modern society that seems designed to turn us into cogs in a giant, implacable system that couldn’t care less about us. They’re about navigating civilization — whether poorly or well. And many of these dramas are about what it means to try to tear civilization apart.
Not so with Deadwood, which is about the impulses that give birth to civilization, the idea that living in a society necessarily requires the slow negotiation of the self with other selves.
By the time Deadwood ended, it featured more than five dozen regular or recurring characters, any one of whom could take over any scene they were in. But in the eye of creator David Milch, they were all part of the series’ true main character: the gold rush town of the title, which is a real place. Their negotiations led to a slightly more perfect union with every episode.
The show’s first season frequently invoked the New Testament’s 1 Corinthians 12, in which Paul explains that the church is one body made up of many smaller parts (or, rather, people). Milch expanded this idea to the community at his show’s center. There were leaders, certainly, but events that happened at the lowest levels of the mining camp rippled outward to affect those at the very top. There were no gods; just men and women, struggling to get by.
Throughout its three-season run, Deadwood tackled all of the ideas that lay at the center of our society, from the way that we all agree that money will represent value (when there’s no real reason it has to) to how even the worst among us might become better people and citizens. Deadwood suggested that, at its best, society can even us all out, can make us realize there’s more to life than our own self-interest.
And throughout it all, Milch’s dialogue — which has been called Shakespearean so often that it’s a cliché, but he really did write much of the show in iambic pentameter — sang out as some of the best and most lyrical in TV history, spoken by some of its finest actors. From Timothy Olyphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock and Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane, to Paula Malcomson as prostitute Trixie and W. Earl Brown as henchman Dan Dority, the show mixed historical figures alongside fictional ones with a panache that dozens of other historical dramas since have struggled to replicate.
At the center of it all was Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, a venal, murderous saloon owner in episode one who gradually evolved into a pillar of the community over 36 episodes, in completely believable fashion. At a time when TV was mostly about good men breaking bad, Deadwood went in the opposite direction and made it work.
Why so many people think Deadwood doesn’t deserve a spot in the TV pantheon — and why they’re wrong
At the heart of most detractors’ arguments against Deadwood is the idea that it didn’t have the chance to plan an ending, like most of this era’s “great dramas.” Where shows like Lost to Mad Men knew long in advance when they would be wrapping up, Deadwood was canceled at the end of season three, unexpectedly, thanks to a turf war between the studio that produced it (Paramount) and the network that aired it (HBO). It probably didn’t help that the show was so expensive to make.
Milch had long hoped to revive the show in miniseries form to finish the story — and occasionally there were rumblings that just such a thing might happen. He had always hoped to make it to an endpoint of one sort or another, and spoke often of wanting to get to the actual point in history when the camp of Deadwood burned to the ground and its citizens hoped to rebuild.
And yet the series finale we have — one that in the critic Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution Was Televised, Milch retroactively tried to defend as a planned finale, since he knew a fourth season was unlikely due to the Paramount/HBO squabble — beautifully expresses the ideas at the show’s center.
The characters make horrible moral choices in hopes of preserving what society they’ve been able to build, and the final image is a man scrubbing blood from the floor, telling a subordinate to make up a beautiful lie to cover up the horrors that have happened. Fans generally loved the episode, but the idea that it presented an open parenthesis, an incomplete thought, has dogged Deadwood ever since. The unplanned finale seemed to establish a new set of stories the series would follow going forward. Alas, it was not to be — until now.
Perhaps the existence of Deadwood: The Movie will inspire those who would leave Deadwood out of the TV pantheon to reconsider. The show unquestionably deserves honor, for the vital story it tells and the way in which it does so.
Deadwood is about why society is necessary, why we keep coming together and building communities and villages and whole civilizations. But it is also about the inherent deception at the heart of most societies, about the fact that, to keep things rolling along, we need to tell bigger and bigger lies, which cover up more and more horrifying things. Deadwood doesn’t try to defend or pillory this fact of human nature. It just describes its existence.
There are other ways I could defend Deadwood as my favorite TV drama of all time — from the glorious filmmaking that weaves its dozens of characters into one giant tapestry, to just how funny it can be — but hopefully, I’ve given you just enough of a taste to convince you to explore the show yourself. If you’ve never seen it, give it a try. The movie, at long last, gives Deadwood a planned ending, one that skillfully caps off the legacy of this wholly unusual, splendid show.
Deadwood is available on disc or for digital download. You can also watch on HBO Go. But the Blu-ray is gorgeous and makes a lovely gift, if you’re feeling like it.