David Milch’s long-awaited conclusion to his dark Western series hugs fans like a warm blanket.
When the Deadwood’s third season came to a close in 2007, no one, not even showrunner David Milch, knew in advance it would be its last. HBO pulled the plug with little warning, so there was no attempt made to put anything like a bow on its final episode. Fans assumed the pair of wrap-up movies Milch had planned would be coming in a year or two, but they never materialized.
Instead, for over a decade the residents of Deadwood were left frozen in time: Al (Ian McShane) and Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) bonded in an unlikely partnership against murderous magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney); Alma Garret (Molly Parker) on her way out of town, perhaps for good; Joanie (Kim Dickens) and Calamity Jane’s (Robin Weigert) relationship just beginning to blossom. Audiences wondered: would it even be possible to wrap up the show now? Would HBO ever let it?
Now that the long wait is finally over and the Deadwood movie is here, it’s hard to say what it might have been if Milch had been able to make it when he’d wanted to. The entire original cast (with the exception of the late Powers Boothe) is in top form, and the dialogue (always the true star and soul of the show) is as sharp as Al’s blade, but there’s something lacking that’s hard to put your finger on. Our return to Deadwood is a comfortable one, but that might be part of the problem.
The movie picks up 10 years after the events of the final episode, with George Hearst’s return to Deadwood to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood in 1889. A parade of familiar faces welcomes us back. Trixie is pregnant with Sol’s baby, though the two have yet to tie the knot. Bullock is marshall and seems to finally have some true happiness with his family. Al is deathly ill and largely indignant to the fact, much to Doc Cochran’s (Brad Dourif) intense frustration. But the town isn’t immune to change: cutting through the Black Hills, a plume of smoke trails from the chimney of a roaring steam engine, pulling up to Deadwood Station with Alma Garret in tow. Deadwood’s season of lawless isolation is over for good.
Tensions rise and clash not over gold this time, but land — land Hearst needs to continue construction on a line of telephone poles he’s building across the state. A California senator now, his sense of entitlement has only grown and now it’s landowner Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) that stands in his way.
Our return to Deadwood is a comfortable one, but that might be part of the problem.
The drama that unfolds is riveting, with moments perfectly designed to have fans on the edge of their seats or clapping with delight, but there’s not much particularly cinematic about this effort. It feels much more like a reunion episode than it does an important continuation of the story. It’s pure joy to see our old friends on screen again with relationships reforming or coming to a close, with beloved characters seeing moments of redemption or comeuppance that the show had previously denied them.
While the end of the show was abrupt, Milch knew how to complete an arc, which means there’s a lot about the final episode that works as an appropriate ending. There’s an innate finality to it. Hearst’s storyline felt complete. The triangle between Bullock, Alma, and Martha felt resolved. Al and Bullock’s relationship had evolved. Where did we really need to see the show go to be satisfied?
With all these years passed, the Deadwood movie just doesn’t feel especially necessary, and that muddles the film’s sense of purpose. This conclusion doesn’t feel needed as much as it satisfies our desire to say a proper goodbye to one of the best shows of the 2000s. And with Milch’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis, there’s a more intense bittersweetness to it: this really is the end.
Ultimately, where does this leave us? Instead of ready to let go, viewers might find themselves merely wanting more, eager for a next episode that will never come. But if the worst one can say is that the Deadwood movie feels more like an encore than a send-off, that’s far from the worst position to be in.
Deadwood: The Movie premieres on HBO this Friday, May 31st.