30 May 2019
Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane
The moral panic caused by the Game of Thrones finale was a reminder that your biggest fan can turn Rupert Pupkin if they think you didn’t quite nail the landing. Whatever misgivings you may have had about The Iron Throne, at least the show delivered a grandstand finish. The 2006 finale of HBO’s Deadwood can barely be called that. A show abruptly cancelled after its third season was completed, its swansong fell flat with character arcs terminated in mid flight and a whole world of possibilities unexplored. Set in the historic lawless mining camp in the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s, Deadwood melded profanity and poetry like no TV show before, reimagining the historic figures of the town in a bloody, grimy revisionist western that felt resolutely arthouse from its first shot to its last. It deserved better and now Deadwood: The Movie is a bold attempt to right that wrong, 13 years after its cancellation.
It does the trick. While it isn’t quite Deadwood at its jaw-dropping best – few things in TV history are – there is enough of the old magic left to deliver a satisfying ending. We find Deadwood well on its way to gentrification, a far cry from the rough-as-guts encampment that greeted us in 2004, caked in shit and blood. Trains not wagons now deliver newcomers, the thoroughfare looks more like a street, less like a pigpen, and there’s even a public phone. We are 10 years down the line from the final action of the TV show, with the town coming together to celebrate South Dakota becoming the 40th state of the Union. Philosopher king Al Swearengen is in still in situ at The Gem, perma-angry marshall Seth Bullock still inhales and expels pure righteousness and malevolent robber baronGeorge Hearst is back in town.
Perhaps because it’s so concerned with tying up loose ends, this final episode lacks the tension of Wild Bill Hickock’s murder or Hearst’s season three rampage, where it felt like the camp might be burned to the ground at any moment. Deadwood is now too firmly established to feel under any real existential threat. Still, it’s a great place to get your throat cut. In the film, a brutal murder puts Bullock on the warpath, Trixie’s past recklessness puts her life in danger and the return of Calamity Jane pretty much guarantees carnage. There’s an epic shootout when a stand-off escalates. Deadwood, now a legitimate town, is here to stay but so is the bloodshed. Gentrification has its limits.
The big relief for fans is that the language is still extraordinary. Creator David Milch’s mastery of the spoken word is as strong as ever. Deadwood’s monologues can be celebrated as standalone pieces, so if you loved Al’s reflections on his upbringing or EB Farnum’s floor scrubbing cri de coeur you will appreciate flashes of that brilliance throughout the movie.
Deadwood always excelled in finding beauty in depravity. Murder, betrayal and mutilation were always ever-present threats in the show, but over time the cruelty softened. Civilisation comes through necessity and even evil men must bow to progress. Heroes and villains find common purpose. A fragile consensus forms. The movie develops the theme. Producer Carolyn Strauss says, “It’s about the passage of time. The toll of time on people.”
And time has taken its toll on David Milch, with the onset of Alzheimer’s likely to curtail his career. It’s a particularly cruel affliction for one of the finest minds in TV. His legacy is outstanding: he’s been involved heavily in three revolutionary shows, writing for Hill Street Blues, co-creating NYPD Blue then producing his masterpiece Deadwood. A born renegade, he was expelled from Yale Law School for shooting out a police siren, suffered a heart attack while arguing with actor David Caruso while filming NYPD Blue and is a recovering heroin and gambling addict. There is no one in TV like him.
The movie honours the characters and conflicts properly, and only occasionally strays into ‘playing to the gallery’ territory. Even that feels more like Milch’s affection for his characters coming through rather than any desire to please the audience. If the response to the Game of Thrones finale teaches us anything, it’s that fans should often be ignored. Deadwood is far too important a work to be infected by fanfic. Like The Sopranos, it is unashamedly about big ideas – civilisation emerging from chaos, inventing right and wrong, capitalism red in tooth and claw. Milch is a heroic writer – artistically ambitious and fearlessly intellectual, with the soul of a poet.
Deadwood’s complexity and inherent difficulty means that it will never be as influential as many lesser shows. There was no stampede to make the next Deadwood the way there was for The X-Files, The Office or Lost. Still, you can hear its echoes in prestige TV like Ripper Street, Justified and Black Sails, and it inspired at least one screenwriter to take up the pen. Thirteen years on, it remains as fresh and compelling as it ever was and it now has an ending worthy of its revered name.
Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO in the US on 31 May, and on Sky Atlantic in the UK on 1 June.