When Deadwood abruptly ended its television run in 2006 after three seasons, well short of what its creator, David Milch, had initially planned, the reasons for its untimely demise were never fully explained. Why did a network renowned for its critically acclaimed output pull the plug on a show that some argue is the greatest in the medium’s history? Over the years, that mystery has become part of the show’s lore. It made a sort of sense that a story about the grand American experiment, where democracy and commerce sprang up on stolen frontier land amid violence and chaos, ended with the main character, Al Swearengen, mopping a pool of blood on his floor and wondering what would come next.
Thirteen years later, a conclusion has finally arrived in the form of Deadwood: The Movie, a feature-length HBO film written by Milch and directed by the series regular Daniel Minahan, starring almost the entire vast ensemble of the original show (minus deceased characters and actors). It’s a perfect, long-delayed swan song that offers satisfying endings for almost every member of the cast while still managing to tell a story that stands on its own: an examination of how American civilization formed a thin veneer over the ruthlessness that helped create it. As such, Deadwood: The Movie feels like an elegy for the “golden age of TV,” the creatively fertile period in the early aughts when television was finally seriously considered an art form.
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.
If you haven’t seen any of Deadwood’s three seasons, the film will likely be an unfulfilling experience. It does its best to fill in some crucial plot details with a few flashbacks, but these scenes exist less for newcomers than for fans who might not remember every detail from years past. Deadwood has long been one of my favorite shows, but I hadn’t fully rewatched the series since it ended; when the movie was announced, I took it as an opportunity to dive back in, an experience I highly recommend. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the show and you’re looking for a refresher, “Tell Him Something Pretty,” the aforementioned third-season finale, is the episode to watch, given that the movie revolves around many of its dangling threads.
The real joy of Deadwood: The Movie is watching great actors such as Weigert, Olyphant, McShane, and so many more sink their teeth into these evocative characters one last time. Milch gives every character a chance to shine without structuring the story in a way that feels like a greatest-hits anthology. That connectedness is something Deadwood benefits from—almost all the action is set on a single thoroughfare, where all 30 members of the ensemble can crane their necks down from their balconies or out their windows to take in whatever action might be unfolding. Deadwood has always been a show about the ecosystem of a frontier society and the way it reflects the brutal but unique hodgepodge that is this country. By giving everyone involved one last moment in the limelight, the movie version encapsulates that concept perfectly.