It’d be tough to think about the Deadwood film as that alone, a mere two-hour tour through a corruption-riddled mining town in the waning days of the 19th century. The movie exists very much as a long-awaited finale for the Deadwood series, which was unceremoniously canceled after three seasons at HBO more than a decade ago. To enjoy the film without the context of the show is possible, probably, but it’d also be akin to starting in on the last episode of a television series. It’d be equally tough to refrain from using the f-word multiple times while writing about Deadwood, so consider this a spoiler warning for both series and film and a graphic language warning to fucking boot.
In the ever-expanding slew of reboots and revivals intent on wringing out every droplet of goodwill you might have once had for an old TV show — take Twilight Zone, X-Files, Twin Peaks, the upcoming Amazing Stories or, sure, fine, fucking Roseanne — it’s possible that Deadwood fares well out of necessity, plain and simple. The show never had an ending and the movie gives it an ending. Few truly wanted more Zone, more Files, more Peaks; not a fucking soul wanted more Roseanne, except for maybe the refined Ms. Barr herself. But the clamor for more Deadwood has really only intensified since that fateful cancellation in 2006. Fan-driven revivals aren’t guaranteed to turn out well (see: Anchorman 2) but if you have to watch your favorite characters get dragged out for one last ride, squeezed into their old costumes, it’s more comforting to think you’ve dragged them out yourself for good purpose.
Deadwood‘s movie works well as an ending, yes, but it also fires on the same cylinders as the original series while managing to give meaningful story time to an impressive array of characters. Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock, George Hearst, Calamity Jane, Alma Ellsworth — these are the “main” characters you’d expect to return (played by original actors Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Gerald McRaney, Robin Weigert, and Molly Parker respectively). Not only do the secondary and tertiary tier return in nearly-full force, but characters like Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Trixie (Paula Malcomson) and Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye) get unexpected arcs that further enrich Deadwood as a tapestry of unforgettable characters. The only recast character is Sofia Ellsworth (played in the movie by Lily Keene), which makes sense given her young age in the series. And the only player missing is Cy Tolliver, what with the passing of Powers Boothe in 2017; Deadwood‘s just a little less colorful without his effortless menace.
The most important return is probably David Milch, the writer and creator responsible for Deadwood in the first place. Milch’s pen is adept enough to shuffle through the character list at a clip befitting a two-hour film, spending time with everyone while propelling the narrative forward. If there’s one criticism to level at the original series, it’s the lack of action from episode to episode, overtaken by the verbosity of the dialogue and the number of players. The threat of violence seeped into nearly every scene of the show, but in actuality there were only five or six true action sequences across all 36 episodes. Milch got away with that by having such a gift for dialogue, but film’s a different medium. Thus do our final hours in Deadwood contain gunfights, fistfights, standoffs, and deaths of both natural and unnatural causes.
This shift works, providing an air of excitement to the act of tying plot threads into bows. Then again, though, Deadwood was never really about the plot. Calamity Jane Cannary finally gets an action beat after running scared from several throughout the show, traumatized by the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok. The scene resolves a major thread of the film while providing development to her character, plus the gunshots jolt us jaded millennials out of our short-attention-span stupors. But the resulting scene — one of quiet dialogue, nothing more, between Jane and Joanie Stubbs — is one of the great moments of Deadwood, series or film. Jane, having lived with that trauma for more than ten years now, admits she thinks she felt Wild Bill’s sure hand on her own in the moment, pulling the trigger together. It’s Joanie’s dialogue, not the gunshot, that gives this character closure: “No, Jane — that was you.”
Maybe the toughest nut to crack in that regard is Al Swearengen, the patriarch of Deadwood and He Who Says Fuck A Lot. If the general thematic thrust of the story plays witness to the Deadwood camp being forced into the modern world, then Swearengen is the one fighting most desperately to keep the newborn society in the lawless past. On the surface he’s memorable because of his tongue, because he spits out curse words like sunflower seeds and fucking precedes fucking everything with fucking “fuck”. On a deeper level, though, Swearengen is the incarnation of the classic theme of the American West, the pioneering Butch-and-Sundance figure that thrives in that ungovernable space of time before industrialization finally sweeps through. We know that classic tale, and we know it only ever ends one way.
The rub, of course, is this: if Al — or Deadwood on the whole — gives in to accepting the onset of railroads and telephones and modernity, then he ceases to be the Real Al. And the film wrestles with that subtly, allowing him to concede some ground in giving his unrequited blessing to the marriage of Trixie and Sol Star. But he’s still Al, raging against the likes of Hearst, refusing to give up the lifestyle that literally kills him. In a bitter way, that’s the stubborn ending both Deadwood and Al were always working toward. Amidst the increasing commonality of useless television revivals, Deadwood manages to go out with a bang and gets the satisfying, definitive conclusion it always deserved.
…the rest of those TV revivals can go screw, and that goes double for fucking Roseanne.