Deadwood: The Movie
Of all the TV shows unceremoniously canceled too soon, HBO’s beloved Western series Deadwood was one of the most painful losses. After talking about it for thirteen years, creator David Milch has gathered almost the entire cast for a reunion movie, hoping to provide fans (and himself) the closure denied to them the first time around.
How much of the original cancelation back in 2006 may have actually been Milch’s fault has never been entirely clear. Reportedly, he refused the network’s offers of a shortened six-episode season or a pair of two-hour wrap-up movies, preferring to cut his losses and move on to other projects. Even though HBO was willing to continue on in some fashion, no one else wanted to make more Deadwood without its creator. As a result, the sets were eventually struck and the cast members were released from their contracts. Over time, it seemed like the story would never get a proper ending.
Unsatisfied with the way he left things, Milch spoke at various times of tinkering with story ideas. That work finally came to fruition with a completed script as his own health is now failing. Fortunately, just about everyone who worked on the show the first time around was eager to return and finish it off.
Deadwood: The Movie takes place in 1889, ten years after the original show left off. Most of the characters, however, have been aged-up to look about thirty years older. That must be due to hard living on the frontier, I guess. As South Dakota celebrates its official statehood, wealthy mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) returns to Deadwood in his new role as a U.S. Senator, re-igniting animosity from those who remember his villainous deeds, not least among them hot-headed Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), formerly the sheriff but now serving as marshal, and saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), who’s still the most powerful man in town. Hearst’s appearance also coincides with the returns of “Calamity” Jane Cannary (Robin Weigert), who has spent the ensuing years traveling the world, and Bank of Deadwood founder Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), who comes on business.
More familiar faces abound, most of them looking worse for wear but essentially doing the same things they did ten years ago. The weaselly E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) is still mayor, which I suppose answers what happened in that election we never got to see the results of. Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) is still Al’s devoted right-hand man. Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) survived his tuberculosis and seems fine. Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) now runs the Bella Union casino. Bullock’s business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) owns a hotel with him, and Sol’s fiancée Trixie (Paula Malcomson) is even more disagreeable than ever now that she’s about to have a baby.
Most of the pleasures of the movie come from catching up with the characters – and really, they’re almost all here, even small-time members of the supporting cast, like Con Stapleton (Peter Jason) and Aunt Lou (Cleo King). The only notable absences who weren’t already killed off and whose actors are still with us are Titus Welliver’s henchman Silas Adams and Brian Cox’s theatrical producer Jack Langrishe. The latter isn’t much of a loss, as his pointless storyline really dragged down the show’s third season. Actor Powers Boothe passed away in 2017 and his snarling Cy Tolliver is greatly missed, but Milch decided not to address that character’s fate, leaving viewers to assume that he must have died somewhere along the way.
For the most part, the movie balances all these returning characters without feeling overly burdened by fan-service. Despite his recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Milch’s dialogue is as poetic and profane and pure pleasure to untangle as it ever was. Stepping back into the world he created is a real joy, and it’s clear that the cast relishes the opportunity.
On the other hand, the fact that the town has remained stuck in stasis for the past decade can be distracting. Especially in a lawless frontier town like this, wouldn’t you expect a younger generation to have moved in and fought to take over from the old guard? As it plays out, the movie feels like a bunch of old fogies reliving past glories, with next to no acknowledgement that life has moved on around them. This is especially pronounced in my case, because I just finished a complete binge of the original series, jumping right from the final episode to the new movie on the same night. The contrast between the two is jarring. I wonder if it might have played better for me if I hadn’t seen the show in a dozen years.
The movie’s plot also feels a little perfunctory and, truth be told, doesn’t really bring any more closure to the story than the final series episode did. It doesn’t even resolve the new storyline it introduces, just puts it on hold for a while. That may be deliberate; it feels less like a cliffhanger than a shrug, suggesting that some things can’t end cleanly.
In the grand scheme of things, these are minor criticisms. Deadwood: The Movie offers enough grace notes for its characters to satisfy just about any fans who’ve waited more than a decade to see them again.