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In Praise of 'Deadwood: The Movie'
May 31, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

The long-awaited Deadwood: The Movie answers the question of how you finish off a show that had one exquisite ending already.

The answer here is “you finish it well,” and fans can get the specifics when Deadwood: The Movie premieres Friday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

It’s difficult to say much about the movie without slipping into spoilers.

What can be said, with pleasure, is that most of the original cast has returned to pick up the story of late 19th-century life in the mining boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota.

This includes Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, proprietor of the town’s most important saloon and therefore the most important man in town; Timothy Olyphant (top) as Seth Bullock, the sheriff whose ideals sometimes get subverted by his temper; Molly Parker as the wealthy Anna Ellsworth, one-time paramour of the sheriff; Anna Gunn as Mrs. Bullock, wife of the sheriff and mother of their three young kids; Paula Malcomson as Trixie, queen of the town prostitutes; Kim Dickens as Joanie Stubbs, another entrepreneur who deals in women; John Hawkes as Sol Star, Bullock’s deputy and Trixie’s flame; Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane, who takes a drink now and then; and Dayton Callie as Charlie Utter, one of the townsfolk who has been working to bring civilization to Deadwood.

And yes, Gerald McRaney as George Hearst, the ruthless, ambitious schemer who made considerable money in Deadwood with the help of bilking and killing.

That’s not everyone. It’s a large cast. But that’s enough of a list to confirm that writer David Milch didn’t have to do many write-arounds to wrap up almost all the major stories.

Toward that end, Milch sets the new story ten years after the last one ended. It’s now 1889, and the occasion in Deadwood is a celebration of South Dakota’s new statehood.

All the locals are primed for the parade and Hearst himself, now the junior senator from California has traveled back to accept the thanks of a grateful town for his part in putting it on the map.

Except that a lot of people in town, like Swearingen, Bullock, and Trixie for starters, don’t see thanks as what Senator Hearst deserves.

And to be honest, he’s not in town just to give a speech, either. Telephone lines are pushing West, and Hearst would love to get in on the action. This requires financial transactions that trigger the primary action in the movie.

On the whole, Deadwood: The Movie feels a little less violent and even a trifle less profane than many of the original 36 Deadwood TV episodes. That’s a relative matter, however, and still leaves plenty of airtime for both.

It’s still an Old West town, with hot tempers, deep grudges and a lot of weaponry. Don’t bet against that dusty Main Street hosting a challenge or two in addition to the parade.

That said, Deadwood has cleaned up quite a bit in the ten years since it was a frontier town with more street justice than legal justice.

That uneasy truth about the old Deadwood was what made the ending of the TV series, back in 2006, so powerful.

It finished with a simple shot of Swearengen dropping to his knees to scrub a pool of blood off the floor of his saloon.

If any show has had a more perfect ending, raise your hand.

Milch and director Daniel Minahan wisely seem to acknowledge that nothing they could do in the movie would match that scene. So they don’t try. Instead, they go for a broader stroke, touching on enough of each major character for us to see where all those early struggles eventually led.

It’s not that everyone gets a happy ending. What they do get, what we all get, is a sense of how Deadwood, and by extension America, sorted out enough of its mistakes, ignorance, and cruelty to move forward.

This movie, projected initially as a pair of two-hour films that would replace the fourth season Milch never wrote, doesn’t compete with or even disturb the first ending.

It simply offers a second one, in a different framework with a different focus.

Maybe because 13 years have elapsed, this Deadwood does feel as if it needs a little time to re-create the classical, at times almost Shakespearian dialogue that gave the original series its singular rhythm.

By the time Bullock and Swearengen hold a wonderful conversation about the nature of the law, we know that all the good times have not passed and gone.

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Noel Holston
"What they do get, what we all get, is a sense of how Deadwood, and by extension America, sorted out enough of its mistakes, ignorance, and cruelty to move forward." What a great, succinct summary of the series< David. Nice writing.
Jun 5, 2019   |  Reply
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