clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Deadwood: The Movie is a fitting capstone to one of TV’s greatest shows

It’s the best TV episode of 1997. This is a huge compliment.

Deadwood: The Movie
Al Swearengen is still riding high at The Gem.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After 10 years, they’re all still there — Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen and Trixie and Charlie Utter, and on and on. The residents of Deadwood, the mining camp, and Deadwood, the TV show, are all still hanging around one of the greatest settings for a TV series ever.

And even more people are coming back to town for a celebration of the newly formed statehood of South Dakota. Alma Garret and her daughter, Sofia, arrive on the train, as does Senator George Hearst, the closest thing Deadwood ever had to a villain. Deadwood: The Movie — the long overdue conclusion to David Milch’s magnum opus Western — brings them all back together for one last two-hour journey.

A few characters are missing, whether because they died on the series, which aired from 2004 to 2006; because the actor who plays them was tied up in another gig (Titus Welliver’s Silas Adams is absent due to a conflict with his role as the title character on Bosch); or because the actor who played them died after Deadwood left the air. (Most notably, saloon owner Cy Tolliver, played by Powers Boothe, who died in 2017, is no longer present.)

But mostly, they’re all still there, in Deadwood, the mining camp that became a microcosm of America and maybe even humanity, on the series I love more than any other ever made. (Somewhat regrettably, “they’re all still there” includes actor Jeffrey Jones, who pleaded no contest to soliciting pornographic photos of a teenager in 2002, and whose character is peripheral enough in the scheme of Deadwood that when the actor turns up in a few scenes, it’s actually a little jarring.)

There is something comforting about this, about imagining all of these people living their lives in the camp, even if we haven’t been able to look in on them all these years. But there’s also something heartbreaking about not having the chance to visit for so long. They’re older and weaker, and so are we.

Deadwood: The Movie has a retro feel that ends up serving it well

Deadwood: The Movie
Even Anna Gunn came back, as Martha Bullock!

I mean what I’m about to say is a compliment, even if it might not sound like one: Deadwood: The Movie feels like the best TV episode of 1997.

Its rhythms have a very 1990s TV feel to them, right down to a closing musical montage that wouldn’t have felt out of place on Northern Exposure. It takes its time getting into the story, spending its first 40 minutes or so on reunions and other matters of relatively little importance to the plot. And, yes, there is a plot — revolving around a disputed gold claim, as all plots on Deadwood inevitably must — but if you’ve never watched this show before, you might wonder what all the fuss is about before it kicks in.

The central idea of the film seems to be about the circularity of time and the way generations give way to the next. There’s a brand-new woman who wants to ply her trade at the local brothel, The Gem, and the movie draws lines between her and many other women of the Gem from Deadwood’s three-season run, but not in a way that definitively makes her the daughter of one of them or something. This is just the way life operates. People die, and more people are born, and everything lurches forward and backward in a way that suggests progress but, maybe, doesn’t actually signal it.

Deadwood: The Movie is also deeply haunted by its past self. Frequently, the characters reflect on moments from the original show, and there are few series on TV as interested in the way death ripples throughout a community as this one. Some of the characters continue to ruminate on the death of Wild Bill Hickok, which happened in the Deadwood’s fourth episode ever; even if Hickok’s passing has no bearing on the events of the movie, those who loved him still miss him.

These glances toward the past mean you’ll probably get more enjoyment out of Deadwood: The Movie if you’ve watched the whole series — but I don’t think it’s completely necessary to have done so. There is so much here that will be rich and meaningful to any TV fan, and its story is self-contained enough that you could use it as an entry point to the entire series. (That is if you don’t mind being spoiled on several major events from all three seasons, which are depicted in flashbacks.)

The show comes by its ruefulness honestly. Deadwood: The Movie was originally supposed to be two movies, originally supposed to happen over a decade ago — closer to the end of the series. In the 13 years that have elapsed since Deadwood ended, series creator Milch, one of the greatest TV writers to ever have lived, has landed two TV series on the air that were both canceled after one season (John From Cincinnati and Luck), had several pilots passed on by HBO, and been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

This movie is, in all likelihood, his swan song, and it is infused with an impotent rage in the face of death, by the fact that you can try your damnedest, but you can’t ever outrun the inevitable.

What makes Milch so good is the way he understands humans both as individuals — driven by often contradictory impulses — and as collectives. He understands that a scene shifts depending on who’s in it, and that large communities of people will come to have a kind of group consciousness that shifts and changes based on the faintest trembles of the wind.

And he also understands mercy.

Deadwood began as a series filled with anger. It ends as a series about learning to move past slights and endure.

Deadwood: The Movie HBO

The first scene of Deadwood’s pilot features Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant, who is honestly the best he’s ever been in the movie) hanging a criminal himself, rather than letting a lynch mob do it. As a US marshal, he’s a representative of “the law,” but this far out on the frontier, the law has less meaning than it normally does. The scene embodies the central tension of Deadwood in microcosm: How do we build a civilization out of nothing? Under whose authority?

The first four episodes of the series — which climax in Hickok’s death — are the most classically Western. But after Hickok dies, his murderer isn’t immediately killed by the residents of the camp. Instead, they hold a trial and attempt to convict him in a more lawful fashion. Therein lies the optimism of Deadwood: Individuals may be driven by rage, but pull enough of them together and they might build a better world by balancing each other’s furies.

That sense of balance is why Bullock and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) are the series’ two central characters. Bullock is a man who’s channeled his rage toward the more useful purpose of helping keep the peace, while Swearengen inverts that type — he’s hidden his fundamental sweetness in the name of being a cutthroat bastard. Over the course of the original seasons, they learn better how to balance their true selves and the men they have to be to fulfill the role society requires of them. The joy of Deadwood: The Movie is in how Milch finds ways to continue these essential evolutions after another 10 years have passed in the two men’s lives.

Deadwood was never just about that rage and sudden explosions of violence. Those elements were always part of its mix, but the series was always driven by mercy and kindness, by the small ways that people care for each other in times of need. And in the movie, there are moments when both Bullock and Swearengen find themselves in positions where they don’t need to extend mercy, but they do it anyway, reaching out and taking someone else’s hand, just for a moment, rather than spreading their anger further up and out.

This is how civilization is built, in Deadwood’s estimation: by way of a million tiny moments in which someone chooses not to do further harm when they could, but to find a way to treat others with kindness and charity. Deadwood often suggests — via lengthy shots that don’t cut away but instead track from character to character, drawing them together into a web — that people are connected in ways that remain mysteries to them. The movie suggests not that future generations better understand the mystery, but that as they solve old ones, new ones are born. That’s a natural part of progress.

It’s 10 years later in Deadwood, and it’s 13 years later for Deadwood. The place looks much the same as before, but it also looks a little smaller. The people are older, but they’re still themselves. The viewers, too — we’re all in different places than we were when the show first ran. (Heck, it was just 10 years ago that I began reviewing every episode of the series at the A.V. Club, a few years after the show had been canceled.) And even if there are the rudiments of a plot, what is most miraculous about Deadwood: The Movie is that all these people are still here. Life continues, as it must.

Deadwood: The Movie airs tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO. All three seasons of the original series are available in their entirety on HBO’s streaming platforms.