There are all of these folksy ways to describe something comforting and familiar — fits like a glove! getting back in the saddle! riding forth again! — and so many of them have roots in the American West, in a place just like Deadwood, South Dakota. A place defined by violence and hardship but community and camaraderie, too. A place you survived by brushing yourself off and getting back up again. Nothing is left undone. No challenge is left unchecked. Every story has an end. And my, is the conclusion of David Milch’s Deadwood a mightily fulfilling, blissful thing, an overwhelmingly fitting end to a show that simultaneously upheld and upended various Western traditions and cliches. These motherfuckers really pulled it off.
Milch’s Deadwood, when it aired on HBO from 2004 to 2006, was a sprawling ensemble series, with characters plucked from the history books, sheriff Seth Bullock and brothel owner Al Swearengen and cowboys Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and businessman George Heast, and dialogue that was a glorious chimera of Shakespearean hyperbole and gutter-filth profanity. It was, much like David Simon’s contemporaneous The Wire, a show interested in the relationships between complicated, flawed, sometimes monstrous people and the lines of alliance and enmity that develop in a place defined by corruption, lawlessness, and bureaucracy. Nearly everyone was a little bit bad and a little bit good, nearly everyone was trying to be a little bit better while tempted into being a little bit worse. The Western tradition is full of clear-cut heroes and villains, but Deadwood had none.
Sheriff Bullock’s (Timothy Olyphant, always very hot) eyes strayed from his wife to the wealthy widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker). Pimp Swearengen (the dyanmically excellent Ian McShane) had a soft spot for the prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who worked for and then with him at the Gem Saloon, ultimately treating her more like a daughter than a sexual object. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) is a drunken mess half the time, but her cantankerous exterior hid a fragility and devotion to her friends, including the extraordinarily honest and kind Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) — perhaps the only really good person in Deadwood. All of their stories sprawling over these seasons, their everyday problems (Al’s kidney stones, Alma’s laudanum addiction) and their greater struggles (Seth and Al’s facing off against the murderous, immoral Hearst), and all of it cut short when HBO unexpectedly canceled the show after its third season.
Thirteen years later, we arrive at Deadwood the Movie, in which only 10 years have passed since the series finale “Tell Him Something Pretty.” It is now 1889, and South Dakota is being officially recognized as a state, and so it’s a time of celebration, reunions, and reminders in a town where Seth is still sheriff and interpreting the law in his own way; where Al is still standing on his balcony, peering down at the goings-on in the town’s main thoroughfare; where Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) is still offering a higher-class experience than Al’s Gem Saloon; where E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson) is still both Deadwood’s mayor and the Grand Central Hotel proprietor who spies on his own guests. And yet there are changes, too: Sol (John Hawkes) and Trixie are living together, with their first child on the way. Mr. Wu’s (Keone Young) family has grown, and his entrepreneurial grandson now operates as a go-between for the man and the Chinese community and Al. And Charlie Utter, who spent his entire life working to own a plot of land in Deadwood, is now the last man refusing to sell his parcel to Hearst, now a California senator, who has returned to Deadwood to bring telephone lines and modernity to a community against whom he still holds a grudge.
How the town reacts to Hearst’s return is the forward momentum of Deadwood the Movie, and how Milch balances looking backward at how our beloved characters have changed and forward at how Deadwood will undoubtedly continue to change is masterful. I am not ashamed to admit that every returning face inspired in me a jolt of recognition and often love, from W. Earl Brown’s Dan, Al’s right-hand man, to Brad Dourif’s Doc Cochran, to Geri Jewell’s Jewel, to Franklyn Ajaye’s Samuel Fields, the only black man left in Deadwood, and every character here gets a moment of attention and honor. This cast is spectacular, every single actor and actress hitting their marks perfectly, and every fiery insult from Malcomson’s Trixie or jutted jaw from Olyphant’s Seth or puzzled grimace from McShane is a reminder of how fantastically this ensemble worked together back then, and how effortlessly they reprise these roles now.
And to see how they all unite against Hearst is a profoundly cathartic moment for our times: A figure of depravity and greed and unfettered capitalist onslaught, stood up to by a gang of hooligans and prostitutes and enforcers, all these people he finds repellent? There are beautiful moments throughout Deadwood the Movie that reminded me of the potential of everyday people, of their capability to protect who they love and stand up to an oppressive force and do what is right. “The lone holdout on the path of progress,” Hearst sneers at the people of Deadwood, and yet his misunderstanding of how their clannishness is bound together by love is a fundamental misstep in his quest for dominance.
In the final minutes of Milch’s Deadwood, there are three instances of clasped hands, of characters who come together in moments that are profound for them as individuals and as partners. Each scene is unique and each scene is sincere and each scene encapsulates what Deadwood is about, this idea that this fucked-up place and its fucked-up people were still a community and a home. “We’re all of us haunted by our own fucking thoughts,” one of these characters admits to each other, and yet Deadwood the Movie is about making amends, about setting things right, about getting back in the saddle, about riding forth again. It is a perfect ending for a show that explored early and often the redemptive nature of second chances, and if this is Milch’s legacy, it is a flawless one.
Deadwood the Movie airs on HBO on May 31.
Header Image Source: HBO Media Relations