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We last saw the great Al Swearengen brought to his knees, scrubbing blood from the floorboards, the result of a desperate and uncivilized choice he felt he had to make to maintain civility in Deadwood.
I can make an argument that on many a thematic level, that shot from the third-season finale of Deadwood was as good a closing image for the series as anything creator David Milch could have intended — violence and its corrosive effect on modernity and power and whatnot — but the rest of the episode strayed far from closure. It wasn’t meant as a series finale, and it didn’t feel like a series finale. So for nearly 13 years, fans have been holding their collective breath.
AIR DATE May 31, 2019
Get ready to exhale. As unlikely a prospect as it may have seemed for more than a decade, Deadwood: The Movie has materialized as an actual thing that exists and will air on your TV on May 31. Over the course of its 110 minutes, audience reactions are likely to sway from general incredulity (that it’s real at all) to gratitude (that it still feels like Deadwood) to contentment (that the all-time classic drama finally has a real end). I don’t think Deadwood: The Movie is a great movie in its own right or even a great episode of Deadwood, but it’s satisfying, and given what was required, that’s enough.
The movie, written by Milch and directed by Daniel Minahan, picks up in 1889 as the town of Deadwood is preparing to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood. If you’ll recall, much of the original draw of Deadwood for its rough-and-tumble denizens was its place on the outskirts of the law, so a full embrace in the bosom of American identity is as big a deal as the telephone attracting a perpetual line in the town’s center and the powerful locomotives now able to bring people to Deadwood. If the series was about the Sam Cooke promise that change is gonna come, the movie finds that change has arrived, and deals with whether our characters are ready for it.
The aforementioned train brings Alma (Molly Parker) and a fully grown Sofia (Lily Keene) back to town, where George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now a senator, is visiting for the statehood ceremony and also to tie up loose ends. This is worrisome for the pregnant Trixie (Paula Malcomson, especially wonderful), who made an unsuccessful attempt on Hearst’s life, and for Al (Ian McShane), who helped cover up that crime. Concerned, as ever, with keeping the peace is Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), matured from clench-jawed young Turk to gray-haired father of three. Meanwhile, returning to town drunk and on horseback, making her a real throwback and one of several callbacks to the pilot, is Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), determined to set things right with Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens).
Perhaps the only new character of even minor note is Jade Pettyjohn as a young woman named Caroline. Mostly, though, the movie is all about bringing back nearly every imaginable and available Deadwood character, including Sol (John Hawkes), Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Doc (Brad Dourif), Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), Johnny (Sean Bridgers), Wu (Keone Young), Jewel (Geri Jewell) and too many others to list. This is not pandering in that obnoxious way that Fuller House or the wretched Veronica Mars movie pandered, but there’s surely fan service involved in making sure you get appearances by as many characters in this world as possible, even if a few have to be shoehorned in. Me, I’d have gladly surrendered one or two character pop-ins so that other, more favored characters might have been serviced more adequately, but I’m sure the peripheral players I’d have cut would be somebody else’s favorites.
Fully intact is Milch’s trademark verbosity and profanity. The latter gets the most press. As many words for “snow” as Eskimos allegedly have, that’s the number of shades and meanings Milch can draw from colorful distribution of “c–t” and “fuck.” It’s the tortured and convoluted cadences, with their extraction drawn from Shakespeare or the Bible or Milch’s own natural rhythms, that already require the most acclimation and then generate the most pleasure. And it’s McShane who remains the master of the Milchian delivery, and who also bears most of the scars wrought by time on these characters. If McShane is the ideal avatar for Milch’s expressions of tragedy, Sanderson has always been underrated as the avatar of Milch’s humor, on full display here as well. Steely yet wry Olyphant confidently occupies the middle ground, and McRaney is a spectacular embodiment of entitled evil. How McShane was the only one of that quartet to earn an Emmy nomination, and only one at that, is insanity. I know what Wu would call Emmy voters in this instance.
The third-season finale, though building to limbo, was not a cliff-hanger in need of resolution, and that nods to what I would call the biggest flaw in the movie. The narrative imperative is primarily the passing of time and a morbid “If not now, perhaps never” sense of mortality surrounding a show that has already lost Powers Boothe and Ralph Richeson from its ensemble. Although the movie contains at least two highly dramatic instigating events, the murder that really drives the story doesn’t occur until 40 minutes in, and it’s shrouded with little mystery. Milch isn’t approaching this closing chapter with a need to answer unresolved questions from the series or even within the movie itself; the urgency is minimal and the stakes are elegiac.
Though it was never exactly a thriller, Deadwood always had the capacity to build a suspenseful set piece or to deliver violence in a harrowing or nightmarish way, with the show’s darkness and moral brutality going hand in hand. Here, modernity has brought with it a surprising amount of sunshine, and you feel Milch’s perspective shifting from one focused on the harshness and brevity of life to one reflecting on the consequences of a long journey.
Even if you come into Deadwood: The Movie not knowing about Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it’s hard to miss the poignancy that runs throughout, sometimes laced with pleasure at returning to these characters and this space, which has been re-created flawlessly. The past is, at all times, near the surface, sometimes in the form of flashbacks that make your recent Deadwood rewatch redundant and sometimes just in the interactions of characters who maybe haven’t seen one another in a decade and whose memories aren’t always perfect. In this sense I truly don’t know whether it’s a choice that within the text of the movie, you never get the impression that life continued in Deadwood after the previous finale. Normally in circumstances like this I prefer the sensation that the characters have existed without my watching, but here they’re all bonded by events that took place a decade earlier, and rarely affected by anything that happened in the interim. This could be a play on the theme of memory and how people hold onto threads from the past at the expense of their present-day stability.
As was the case in Showtime’s recent chapter of Twin Peaks, the aging of the characters is fundamental to the gravity of this new Deadwood. Interestingly, while Twin Peaks gained layers of richness from the natural passage of time, Deadwood is hamstrung because so many of the show’s stars have aged so subtly and the show is so dependent on augmented hair and makeup. Too much heavy lifting is left to powder-white mustaches and wigs; otherwise you’d be left to ponder that a character actor like Hawkes or Sanderson or McRaney can settle into “middle age” without the kind of physical changes that might force introspection. Whether it’s makeup, acting or the true impact of age, McShane is the standout here. Go back and see the version of Al in the pilot, slick black hair and dangerously handsome, to see the toll of the modern age. I mentioned my willingness to cut a dozen third-tier cameos, but what I’m saying is that I’d probably have been satisfied to watch Olyphant and McShane talk at each other for 90 minutes.
Where the movie finally goes is someplace powerful, if maybe more of an easy straight line than Milch would have drawn had he been given a fourth and final season. Deadwood has always been HBO’s great unconcluded series — its only one, I’d argue. (I don’t think Carnivàle is great, sorry. And Enlightened, as unintended as its conclusion was, has a perfect ending.) Deadwood: The Movie gives the show an end and neither diminishes nor burnishes the series’ quality. And that, again, is enough.
Cast: Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson, John Hawkes, Anna Gunn, Dayton Callie, Brad Dourif, Robin Weigert, W. Earl Brown, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Gerald McRaney, Jade Pettyjohn and Lily Keene
Writer: David Milch
Director: Daniel Minahan
Premieres: Friday, May 31, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
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