That exciting time, when networks including HBO, FX, and AMC debuted shows such as The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, has given way to the fire hose of “peak TV,” as streaming networks flood the zone with content and their broadcast rivals struggle to keep up. In this new universe of entertainment—where ratings matter less and less and any brand name, no matter how niche, is of value—it was almost inevitable that Deadwood might one day return to finish what it had started. This new film, however, does more than just reboot the series for name recognition alone. There’s a particularly tragic tinge to the circumstances of the movie: Milch recently revealed he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, making the entire affair feel particularly elegiac. Even so, this script is among the greatest things he’s ever produced.
Deadwood revolves around the real frontier town of the same name, established on stolen Lakota Sioux lands in 1876 and annexed into the Dakota Territory soon after. A gold-rush town, the real Deadwood was initially populated with iniquitous saloon keepers like Swearengen (played in the show by Ian McShane), hard-bitten prospectors looking to stake out early claims, and faded figures of the Old West such as Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). The show tracked the slow progress toward civic sophistication that followed the conquering force of these “pioneers” as the camp built a health-care system of sorts, held hugely corrupt elections, and started clinging to leaders such as Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former lawman who is quickly pressed back into service on arriving in Deadwood.
Deadwood: The Movie is set in 1889, a decade after the final season, as the town prepares for South Dakota to become a state. The narrative threads between the most recent episode, “Tell Him Something Pretty,” and Deadwood: The Movie are surprisingly taut—Milch is looking to cap off not only the general history of Deadwood, but also the specific clashes between its key residents that were left simmering after the last season. The characters are largely unchanged (except for the gray in their hair and the wrinkles on their faces), but the town’s sets have been given a suitably fancy sheen, as the muddy camp of the original show has transformed into a genuine boomtown with power lines dotting the landscape.
The engine of all that commerce is George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), the villain of the show’s third season, now back in town as a U.S. senator who has never forgotten the slights he suffered in years past. If Deadwood was a show about the way American democracy organizes itself around raw capital—in this case, gold mining—Hearst (named for a real-life figure) was that system personified, a ruthless businessman with no interest in anything but the accumulation of wealth and power. Even wrapped in Congress’s veil of civility, Hearst remains a nightmare of a man, someone whom Deadwood’s disparate denizens can rally against as he returns to settle old scores.