“That left-cheek ass-blister’s a percolating son of a bitch,” mutters Calamity Jane, shifting in her saddle as she drunkenly steers her horse toward Deadwood, South Dakota. It’s been a decade since the hard-drinking, hard-punching Jane—played, phenomenally as ever, by Robin Weigert—has stumbled through the frontier town’s muddy, bloody streets and smoky, sweat-soaked saloons. It’s also been about that long since Deadwood viewers were here, and it’s a relief to find the place hasn’t changed much: New-fangled telephone poles now blight the horizon, but Deadwood’s residents remain proud and profane. “Wu, feed that fuck to the pigs,” says Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), his gunpowder still floating in the air; not far away, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) holds court in his Gem Saloon, weaving a monologue through Deadwood’s rich, Shakespearean cadences. Older and not necessarily wiser, Swearengen needs little prompting to ruminate on murder, and loss, and how to best fuck over whomever his enemy is today.
Long-running shows rarely end well—the slow-simmering mysteries and ever-evolving relationships that make great TV so addictive are also the things that are hardest to conclude.
Long-running shows rarely end well—the slow-simmering mysteries and ever-evolving relationships that make great TV so addictive are also the things that are hardest to conclude. For every Breaking Bad that goes out with a satisfying bang, countless others flail and whimper—remember Lost, or Battlestar Galactica, or The Sopranos, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or True Detective, or The X-Files, or (oof, this wound is fresh) Game of Thrones.
Deadwood’s series finale, on the other hand, didn’t disappoint—mostly because it never existed. Alongside The Wire and The Sopranos, the western was one of the remarkable HBO shows that changed the course of television, but unlike those shows, Deadwood simply ceased to be, unceremoniously abandoned after its third season in 2006. For a while, it looked like the show had been fed to the pigs—but now it’s returned, with an excellent TV movie that serves as both continuation and conclusion to one of the best shows ever made.
Series creator David Milch’s script, thankfully, doesn’t feel boxed-in, with a story that, for the most part, makes time for each member of the show’s unmatched cast; meanwhile, veteran Deadwood director Daniel Minahan manages to recapture not only the show’s hard-weathered aesthetic but its way of letting very sad characters be very funny. Just about everybody’s back: Ostensible Mayor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) stumbles around, fucking things up; trusty Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) remains a far better man than the town deserves; Bullock’s BFF Sol Star (John Hawkes) proves as reliably wry as ever; and former prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson) tries, with mixed results, to escape the shadows of the past. (She also gets some of the best, Deadwood-iest lines, like “Well, whose fuckin’ blood is it?”) And through the middle of town stomps the imminently hateable Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now a United States senator. Deadwood was always about community, but it was also about the fundamental injustices that established America’s identity—and Milch is still willing to mess not only with the history the show is based on, but the creaky myths of how the West was won. Here, Hearst is a relentless, self-righteous pioneer—manifest destiny made flesh.
This Deadwood movie isn’t the best place for new viewers to come onboard—even old-school fans might benefit from a quick Wikipedia recap—but even as it pushes the story forward, it instantly brings back the show’s inimitable feel. There are punches and shoot-outs, and fiery speeches and glimpses of tenderness, and it’s all beautiful and ugly, welcoming and dangerous. It’s Deadwood. And perhaps more than any other show, it feels like an actual place—a place where, alongside all these weirdos and villains, you can scrape the mud from your boots, ignore the blood on the floor, and take another burning swig from a half-empty bottle. It’s great to be back, if only for a few hours.
Deadwood: The Movie airs Fri May 31 on HBO.