During Deadwood’s original heyday, I always said it took three viewings to truly appreciate what’s going on in an episode of the show: once to see what happens; twice to luxuriate in the filthy poetry of showrunner David Milch’s dialogue; and a third to enjoy how it all comes together in a seamless, immersive combination of character, language and storytelling. Time has been exceedingly kind to the series, and rewatching it again - a possible seventh or eighth for me - Milch’s work pops even more now than it did back in the mid-2000s, providing a landscape whose historical primitivism hid an inspiringly progressive look at the roles of marginalized people in a society that hadn’t yet begun to consider it existed for anybody other than white men.
Thirteen years after the show was canceled, HBO’s welcome but woefully overdue finale to the series Deadwood: The Movie serves as a sharp reminder not just of the distinctive patois of Milch’s work, or the detailed, tactile environment that he created on screen, but the intelligence and above all else sensitivity of his storytelling, filtered once again through a phenomenally rich ensemble of characters it feels deeply satisfying to revisit one last time.
Picking up twelve years after the series finale, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) remains the sheriff of Deadwood, and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) its unofficial oligarch. As South Dakota prepares to join the Union, Swearengen’s authority is no longer as commanding as it once was, especially now that he is in ill health. But when George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now a Senator, arrives in town with plans to buy up the surrounding land in order to bolster his expanding telephone business, Swearengen monitors the situation as the calculating predator he always was - especially after a nine-months-pregnant Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) mouths off at Hearst, more or less unapologetically revealing her role as his attempted murderer so many years ago.
Hearst never had many friends in town, but after a pair of his henchmen murder the last remaining holdout to sell his claim, he abandons all pretense of civility towards the locals and attempts to leverage Trixie’s freedom with Al in exchange for ownership of the land. Detaining a witness who saw the murder, Samuel Fields (Franklin Ajaye), Bullock becomes determined to make the politician pay for these (and many other) crimes. But with not only his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and children, or his business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), but longtime lover Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) watching the adjudication of his duties, Bullock finds his resolve - and his calm - tested by the prospect of exacting vengeance on a repeated perpetrator of violence against his friends, family and loved ones.
From the coal-engine train blasting through the hills around Deadwood to the gunfights in the street, Milch’s finale hangs heavy with the gravitas - if not the cinematic sweep or patience - of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, reminding the town and its isolated, self-sufficient people of modernity’s encroaching changes - and dangers. Daniel Minahan, who directed four episodes of the original series, chronicles the growth of the storefronts, thoroughfares and people with a reverent sensitivity, showcasing, for example, the juxtaposition between the Gem Saloon’s upgrades since the last time audiences saw it, and the deterioration of Swearengen, its ailing proprietor. Though Milch’s story focuses primarily (and by necessity) on the leads whose fates we’re perhaps most curious about, Minahan gives each character, big and small, a beautiful and unique moment that encapsulates or maybe celebrates their personality, such as Farnum, now Deadwood’s mayor, scurrying across town as Hearst’s behest, trading one controlling master for another in exchange for the perception of esteem and power.
At two hours, the film hustles a bit to revisit as many of these characters as possible - not quite the condensed timeline of the final two seasons of Game of Thrones, but there’s a parade, a murder, a birth, a wedding, and at least four shootouts, which is busy even for this wild west town. But Milch’s tenderness towards his creations is evident in every frame, reminding longtime fans not just of how many meaty, complex characters he created even for the periphery of the show, but how thoughtful he was to give them agency and sophistication without betraying the historical context in which they lived.
There’s something wonderful about watching Wu (Keone Young), Al’s body-disposal expert, prevail upon his employer to use some of his Eastern teas as a medical aid; or seeing Jewel (Geri Jewel) ignore Swearengen’s insults as she tries to comfort him by massaging his feet. Or Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) reuniting with Joanie (Kim Dickens) and insisting on saving the woman she loves by repairing their relationship. Not to mention Alma and Trixie, one a vulnerable, laudanum-addicted heiress and the other an abused prostitute, both demonstrating their mettle by fearlessly standing up to Hearst.
For a show that very much explored the passage of time and our individual ability and preparation to keep up with changes happening around us, it feels like it would be impossible for The Movie not to acknowledge the years that have elapsed since the show was canceled. As with all of Milch’s dialogue, those lines resonate with poetry and meaning without taking viewers out of the present moment of the story - a lacquer that makes even mundane exchanges feel special and deep. But then again, that’s what always made the show as a whole so powerful: its ability to make us live within that world, to experience the clash of cultures, economic strata, to deal with the day-to-day and bigger-picture issues that the characters faced, and to view them with a sense of elegance and melodrama in the best possible ways.
As of the writing of this, I’ve only seen Deadwood: The Movie once, and in terms of the storytelling, you may or may not need two more in order to fully “process” Milch’s victory lap - even if you don’t understand everything the characters are saying, you’ll know immediately what they mean. But like the series itself, I can’t wait to go back and watch it again because it’s that rare goodbye that feels like a greeting from an old friend - the reintroduction to a world you wouldn’t want to live in, but always remains an exhilarating place to visit.