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‘Deadwood: The Movie’: A Prestige Show Finally Gets Its Goodbye

The wonders of David Milch’s mid-2000s HBO series cannot be fully contained in a two-hour film. But closure has its benefits, too.

HBO/Ringer illustration

A made-for-TV movie, that least prestigious of formats, is an odd conclusion for a prestige TV series. But Deadwood, the revisionist Western that originally ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, has always been something of an odd one out within the prestige pantheon. In part, that’s because Deadwood has the dubious distinction of being one of the few critical touchstones of the mid-aughts to get truly and properly canceled. Of the many shifts that came with treating television, belatedly and often patronizingly, as a proper art form, among the most significant is the idea that a series of a certain cachet deserves the chance to go out on its own terms. It’s now common practice for little-watched darlings like The Leftovers or Halt and Catch Fire to get one last opportunity to wrap up their loose ends, a sort of soft cancellation that eases the blow for creators and audiences while still allowing networks to come off as benevolent patrons. The norm is effectively a trickle-down from titans like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, whose legacies are partly informed by endings in line with the visions of their showrunner-auteurs.

Deadwood’s David Milch, on the other hand, got no such luxury. The story of Deadwood’s abrupt conclusion is a comedy of errors straight out of a midseason episode: Milch tipped off star Timothy Olyphant, who’d just bought a house, before the decision was final; Olyphant, through his agent, tipped off others; finally, the news broke in the trades, inadvertently sealing Deadwood’s fate before it necessarily had to be sealed. However tragicomic the circumstances, cancellation was the logical conclusion to years of conflict between Milch and HBO. Milch’s tyrannical, inefficient, chaotic style of work helped create the myth of the difficult male genius. But it’s also lent itself to a CV littered with abbreviated and frustrated projects: the widely panned John From Cincinnati; the logistically unjustifiable Luck; an alarmingly Succession-like pilot, The Money, that never made it to series; and, of course, the long-promised Deadwood movies. Plural.

Over more than a decade, HBO’s initial promise to give Milch a pair of two-hour movies in lieu of a fourth season gradually morphed into indefinite delays, an extended hiatus, and finally, a single film, which airs this Friday. In the interim, events have conspired to heighten the significance of a Deadwood movie beyond a mere reunion. The passage of time has transformed Deadwood’s reputation from revered-yet-troubled to merely revered; meanwhile, the ascendant careers of actors like Olyphant, Ian McShane, and Molly Parker has made securing the full cast at once more elusive and more enticing. Most striking of all was the revelation that Milch, whose intellect as expressed through Shakespearean profanity defined the show, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015. Milch has discussed his struggles with admirable candor in interviews, including a wide-ranging one with Mark Singer of The New Yorker in which he describes his illness as “an accumulation of indignities.” The Deadwood movie was no longer the capstone of a South Dakota mining camp, but one of the most decorated and distinctive careers in television history.

Such anticipation worked to obscure the fundamental strangeness of a Deadwood movie as a concept. Like many of the best television shows, Deadwood distinguished itself by hewing to and exploiting the strengths of the medium: long-form, ensemble-driven storytelling. To the extent that Deadwood even had a protagonist, the duties were split between Olyphant’s rage-fueled Sheriff Bullock, undermining the white-hat archetype one outburst at a time, and McShane’s Al Swearengen, a pimp turned unlikely community pillar and Deadwood’s version of a Soprano-like alluring psychopath. But the soul of Deadwood never had a single vessel. There were traces of it in Parker’s Alma Ellsworth, a widow whose wealth and distance from polite society made her at once liberated and vulnerable; in “Calamity” Jane Canary (Robin Weigert), the swaggering frontierswoman who drowned her sensitivity in booze; in Sol Star (John Hawkes), Bullock’s Jewish, kind-eyed business partner who formed a connection with Al’s foul-mouthed employee Trixie (Paula Malcomson). One could go on listing supporting players, even the most wretched (Steve the Drunk) or silliest (E.B. Farnum) among them imbued with some scrap of humanity, until you’d exhausted the show’s roster.

Deadwood’s diffusion was an extension of its themes. Through an impromptu settlement turning into a proper town, in an unregulated territory turning into a state, Milch wanted to tell a story about how anarchy turns to civilization. To show this process, Milch crafted a portrait of a collective, each member with their own role to play in Deadwood’s bloody, stop-and-start, inevitable drift toward legitimacy. Deadwood took a cynical, or at least neutral, view toward the slow encroachment of institutions; Milch was clearly no great fan of capitalism or believer in state-sanctioned violence as automatically preferable to the off-the-books kind. Still, he was fascinated by the mental gymnastics and strong-arming required to lock these institutions into place, as well as the telling traits they could bring out. For every Swearengen, who found his dormant collectivist instincts awoken by outside threats, there was a George Hearst (Gerald McRaney)—pure, vampiric brutality afforded a sheen of propriety by the magnitude of his wealth.

Such sprawl and nuance are far better suited to a 36-chapter saga than an abbreviated epilogue. A feature-length project is simply not able to accomplish what Deadwood originally sought to, and it’s best to go into the movie not expecting that it will. Instead, Deadwood: The Movie awkwardly straddles the line between serving as a microcosm of the series and delivering the simple, feel-good pleasures of a traditional last-hurrah special.

The movie centers on South Dakota’s official statehood celebration, set 10 years after the finale. Before we lay eyes on the built-up town or meet an aged-up character, we first hear the sound of an incoming train, which tells us everything we need to know. Deadwood is now connected to the outside world, as unbreakable a link to modernity as any—and a telling contrast with the runaway horse that used to accompany Deadwood’s opening titles. The occasion lures back some familiar faces, from the nomadic Jane to Hearst himself, now a sitting U.S. Senator representing California.

What follows is essentially a rehash of late-period Deadwood’s defining schisms. Hearst wants to impose a harbinger of development, in this case telephone lines, that will inevitably advance his own interests; he’s so ingrained into America’s power structure that they’re essentially one and the same. (“We’ve no say as to the pace of modernity’s advance. I myself am merely its vessel,” Hearst declares.) This desire puts Hearst directly at odds with one of Deadwood’s more purely decent denizens, Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Bullock responds in a way that’s sympathetic, but also rash; Al is more cautious, wary of Hearst but also aware of the benefits that come with communication. “Discover your deepest nature, Swearengen. Walk with the future,” the tycoon urges. The movie already includes choppily edited flashbacks, but for those who remember Hearst’s cold-blooded murder of the prospector Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) or Bullock impulsively perp-walking the magnate to jail, they won’t be necessary.

Deadwood’s eternal war between profit and morals, progress and chaos is balanced out by more straightforward wish fulfillment. Fans will want to experience the specifics for themselves, but all the tropes of a TV happy ending are in place. A baby is born, a wedding is staged, a funeral is conducted, and remembrances are given. Practically every life event that can be used as a peg for a special is. Viewers are connected enough to these characters for such developments to carry weight. But it’s also disorienting to watch a show that helped redefine what TV could be succumb to such structural crutches.

The trademark dialogue, too, splits the difference between classic Deadwood and a more conventional style. HBO apparently insisted on a locked script, preventing the last-minute rewrites and elaborations that contributed to Deadwood’s inimitable rhythm. Though the result still includes many a memorable turn of phrase—readers will be pleased to know McShane drops his first “cocksucker” less than 10 minutes in—the sentences are noticeably plainer. Vintage Deadwood virtually has to be viewed with subtitles to follow various conversations, with episodes as much read as watched; the movie requires no such assistance. Raw exposition, triple-underlined by the aforementioned flashbacks, is another new addition.

But Deadwood has never shied away from its own meta streak, and the movie proves no exception. The tug-of-war between a nearly omnipotent Hearst and the sympathetic townspeople has been widely interpreted as a stand-in for Milch squaring off with HBO. Milch even gave Hearst the same back problems that led to his signature, almost Socratic writing style, dictating paragraphs of dialogue to a gaggle of assistants while reclined on the floor. The movie finds Swearengen ill and nearly out of commission: “You went somewhat long at your liver, Al, is what you goddamn done,” Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) flatly informs him. In a diminished titan struggling to make one last stand, it’s all too easy to see Milch himself working through his illness to make this feature a reality. The backbone of Deadwood stands in for the backbone of Deadwood, delivering an outcome that’s imperfect yet hard won.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.