'Deadwood: The Movie' Wraps Up a Classic Series With Fitting Sentimentality

Warrick Page/HBO

"Congratulations on the rising body count," sneers the villainous businessman-turned-Senator George Hearst as the action heats up in the long anticipated Deadwood movie, which debuted May 31 on HBO more than a decade after the final episode of the series aired. The sarcastic comment is directed at the town's perpetually fuming sheriff, Seth Bullock, played with nostrils flared and brow furrowed by Timothy Olyphant. But, like many stray lines in this elegiac reunion, it could also be read as sly meta-commentary on the movie itself and the odd circumstances that led to its creation. In the town of Deadwood, complexity comes with the territory.

Could it be any other way? Never the most trigger-happy prestige drama, Deadwood was always a showcase for the baroquely profane, rhythmically dense writing of its creator David Milch, who conceived of the series as an ensemble Western about the emergence of civilization from the frenzy of gold mines, rowdy saloons, and crowded brothels. Having made his name as a writer on groundbreaking network cop sagas like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, Milch used his canny understanding of serialized storytelling and the limited content restrictions of premium cable -- yes, this is the "cocksucker" show -- to construct a darkly funny, defiantly vulgar, and deeply moving narrative of American expansion. With the lawman Bullock and the crime boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) at the center, the size of the cast and the scope of the plot grew with each season. Like the frontier itself, it appeared endless. 

Until it stopped. Unlike the two David-produced HBO dramas it's most often compared two -- David Chase's The Sopranos and David Simon's The Wire -- Deadwood was canceled in 2006 after its third season, never getting the chance to tie up its many loose ends or say a proper goodbye. A pair of TV movies were long rumored and discussed in the press, but failed to move into the production phase. In the meantime, Milch worked on other short-lived HBO projects, like the oddball surf drama John From Cincinnati and ill-fated gambling series Luck. Following years of struggle, Deadwood felt dead.

Warrick Page/HBO

And yet, through a mix of Milch's dogged resilience and HBO's hunger for content, the show comes roaring back to life for one night only. Set in 1889, during South Dakota's statehood celebration, the movie opens with the mechanical chug of a train and the more human ramblings of Robin Weigert's hard-drinking Calamity Jane, trotting into the town on horseback for the festivities and in the hopes of reuniting with her former lover, the ever-resilient Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). That metaphorically potent choo-choo also carries wealthy aristocrat Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) back to the town, along with her child Sofia. In short time, Bullock and Swearengen also get their own introductory moments, along with familiar faces like Doc Cochran (Brad Douriff), Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Sol Star (John Hawkes), and Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown). It's difficult not to get choked up seeing them together. 

Initially, there's an uncanny quality to the movie's bright look and the outdoor vistas. Partially because of budget restrictions, the original episodes of Deadwood were often shot in dimly lit interiors and had little use for the flashy visual extravagance associated with a modern HBO blockbuster like Westworld. The most important scenes often occurred in cramped rooms; the show's pyrotechnics were mostly limited to the language. If you remember Deadwood as a talky, quasi-theatrical viewing experience, the sunnier aesthetic of the movie might take some getting used to. The telephones lines bringing outside communication to the town aren't the only innovation on display.

Similarly, if you don't have a decent recall of the show's final season, which focused on the town's deadly battle with the tormenting capitalist Hearst and ended with Swearengen scrubbing blood off his office floor, you might be a bit confused about the specifics of the plot. A decade later, most characters have similar roles in town, but Milch's script immediately puts them at odds with Hearst again, picking up right where the show left off. With some expository dialogue and a handful of unobtrusive flashbacks, Milch and director Daniel Minahan do their best to bring you up to speed. (I'd still recommend watching the third season's finale, "Tell Him Something Pretty," as a refresher.) If you only caught a couple episodes in the show's initial run and tune into the movie to see what all the fuss is about, it won't exactly stand on its own. 

Warrick Page/HBO

There's an inherent awkwardness to the "TV movie" as a form. Wasn't the appeal of the show rooted in its expansiveness? Aren't Milch's gifts best served by the serialized peculiarities of multiple episodes? How could a mere two-hour story that ditches the slower pace of the series really capture the magic of Deadwood? Unsurprisingly, the movie doesn't quiet all those concerns as it pings from heated familial conflicts to violent land disputes.

The script is packed with incidents -- births, auctions, deaths, weddings, funerals -- that can feel jerry-rigged to bring all these people into the same room, and each individual doesn't always have much to do. Alma, one of the show's richest creations, feels particularly underserved by the story; Bullock, who didn't always drive the action on the show, gets many of the big moments here. At the same time, the dialogue remains completely singular, and the actors clearly relish the chance to step back into these parts and play off one another.

With the recent news that Milch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015, the Deadwood movie takes on an even more melancholy and wistful tone. The gentle glow of the movie doesn't feel like a betrayal of the show's fundamental identity. Despite the show's reputation for brutality and bloodshed, its best episodes, like the finale of Season 2, have always had a sentimental quality. Having endured so much pain and hardship, the characters relished the pockets of communal joy and heartfelt connection that emerged from the chaos of frontier life. The term "fan service" is often used as a cudgel against artists who may or may not be pandering to their loyal audiences, but the Deadwood movie feels like an ideal version of that concept. As a whiskey-pourer like Swearengen would know, there's honor in serving somebody.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.
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