When HBO’S Deadwood was unceremoniously canceled 13 years ago, diehard fans pleaded for a reprieve that never came. So when news broke last July that the period western would be resuscitated as a film and receive a proper ending, countless critics who (rightfully) consider it a masterpiece—not to mention legions of fans who frequented the now-defunct site SaveDeadwood.net, 2006’s version of #SaveBrooklyn99—have been awaiting the May 31 arrival of the feature-length finale. The showdown we’ve all been waiting for is here.
Deadwood never pulled in Game of Thrones numbers for HBO, but it was, in the parlance of the day, excellent water-cooler television. Visionary creator and executive producer David Milch crafted a thoroughly researched, multilayered drama of biblical proportions featuring an array of con artists, gunslingers, and whores, many of whom were based on real people from the Dakota Territory of the 1870s. Timothy Olyphant, who plays straight-arrow Sheriff Seth Bullock, and Ian McShane, as corrupt saloon owner Al Swearengen, fronted a first-rate cast that reveled in Milch’s profane and witty dialogue, often spewed in poetic, Elizabethan rhythms. (Imagine Shakespeare slamming his hand in a car door, and you have a rough idea.) As HBO stablemates Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and The Wire started to wind down, Deadwood’s deep dive into the birth of a lawless town kept viewers hanging on every shift in the fictionalized political landscape. After a third season, HBO pulled the plug—an unimaginable move in this, the era of Peak TV—leaving a gold mine of plot resolutions woefully unexcavated.
The film picks up ten years after we last saw Swearengen scrubbing fresh blood from his barroom floor, with the denizens of Deadwood—all of them as foul-mouthed as you remember—reuniting on the verge of South Dakota’s impending statehood. “In a weird way, had the series gone on, I’m not sure we’d be at this point now,” says Carolyn Strauss, who was president of HBO Entertainment at the time of the show’s cancellation and served as an executive producer on the series and movie. “There’s something extraordinary about coming back to something 16 years after we began it and allowing the true passage of time to play a role.”
Olyphant’s Bullock is “still the same old guy” struggling with the same old anger-management issues, the actor says. “Everybody for one reason or another comes back to town, and we’re gonna find out if the whole thing explodes.” Olyphant also promises performances as compelling as Milch’s dialogue. “There were times I’d say, ‘The problem with this goddamn show is that everybody knows how to steal the scene,’” he says. “And it’s true. They’re all masters of their craft. They were ten years ago, and now they’re just better.”
Advance knowledge of plot points is hard to come by, but per Robin Weigert, who was plucked from obscurity as a New York theater actress to deliver a bravura performance as Calamity Jane, at least one death is imminent: A hush-hush funeral scene was filmed near the show’s Melody Ranch location in Newhall around the same time as last year’s wildfires. “The air was thick with smoke,” Weigert recalls. “There was something so big about the sense of mourning that day. It’s now part of the tremendous poignancy of that moment in the film.”
The return of Deadwood comes at a crossroads for HBO, which is ramping up production in an attempt to compete with Netflix and other streaming services. Len Amato, president of HBO Films, acknowledges that there’s a lot riding on the Deadwood movie, but only from a creative standpoint. “We know there was disappointment when the show ended,” he says. “We hear about it every year from TV critics. But the pressure on a project like this is that you want to live up to the legacy of the show, and you want to do right by David.” And by an eager fan base that will finally get to watch this series ride off into the sunset.