Deadwood Duels its Demons in its Long-Coming, Satisfying Conclusion

TV Reviews Deadwood
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<i>Deadwood</i> Duels its Demons in its Long-Coming, Satisfying Conclusion

A decade has passed in Deadwood between the show’s finale and Deadwood: The Movie, and longer has come and gone in the real world. Beloved characters have vacated the town, passed away with the beloved actors behind them. Deadwood isn’t used to that much temporal space. The longest narrative gap it ever weathered over the course of its 2004-2006 run was a seven month stretch hastening an affair and a bonanza gold mine. It’s a show where events and episodes occur over hours, where the threat of even minor change can send its entrenched group of outcasts to the brothel-worn mattresses. Time, and the perspective its passage brings, is new for the show. But its addition only serves to cement its legacy as one of the best ever.

As South Dakota looks to enter the United States, Deadwood is about to finish the painful pubescence it began during the show and finally grow up. Call it New Country for Old Cocksuckers. The profane show left off with seething, begrudging closure—the kind found after a lopsided armistice—when gold magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) strong-armed Alma Garret (Molly Parker) into selling her lucrative claim by, among other things, having her husband murdered. With all parties in that conflict returning to town to celebrate this new statehood, irredentism and its dictatorial opposite come into conflict. Hearst may own the town, but nobody stays bitter like a Deadwood resident.

Hearst wastes no time stoking those long-burning fires, either. He wants the plot of land preventing his telephone poles’ connection and, as all familiar with that evil capitalist understand, he’s getting it one way or another. His methods to get that property are what kick off the plot. Tragic reunions, new beginnings, and those signature beatings—all the run-ins, disappointments, and excitements good fan service requires are included in its wide-ranging story. And the funerals have gotten way more elaborate since Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Sol Star (John Hawkes) buried the murderer Ned Mason in the show’s second episode.

Everyone, including the protagonistic owners of the hardware store, gets a life update. Community leader, killer, and brothel/bar operator Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is on a jaundiced decline as law enters the land. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) has somehow survived her alcoholism, but is even more death-obsessed than she was after Wild Bill Hickok’s murder. Some get more detail than others, like Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) or Mr. Wu (Keone Young), who merely drop by for familiarity’s sake and to help the characters actually doing something during the movie. But everyone that came back for the film still gets a small moment to shine.

Some of these developments are propped up by flashbacks that could be clip show-ish; others more delicate and wistful recollections whose images reignite the pain we haven’t seen these characters experience in 10 years. They’re obsessive fragments, moments of time snipped, captured, and replayed like a haunting tune stuck in their heads. The focus on memory feels natural, but it’s perhaps even more understandable when taking into account the Alzheimer’s diagnosis of show creator David Milch (who also wrote the film). The “curiosity, bitterness, and incredulity” of mental decline meets the “unflinching dignity” of idealism, something seen in every corner of Deadwood’s hard, angry, honorable inhabitants.

The film is the first time flashback and criminal evidence have ever been explicitly used in Deadwood, a show where vague threats and ominous implications reign. It’s also the first where its heroes aren’t simply relegated to secretive tactics, planned deceit, and targeted violence to beat the lopsided odds. A lifetime’s accumulation of power and wealth is a benefit of maturity. But everything certainly isn’t perfect because the stoic heroes in Deadwood, matured or not, are still a severe minority.

The show’s danger returns while much of its humor has gotten drier with age. Deadwood’s compelling volatility, which could often see a punchline cut to a bloody punch, has mellowed and smoothed its edges. The movie’s decision to use complacency and its speed bumps to invite and explore new dangers takes some getting used to, especially with its bumpy pacing. That said, Deadwood: The Movie is still compellingly shot and deliciously composed. Series (and HBO) mainstay Daniel Minahan slips the two-hour production into the proper aesthetic like no time had passed at all.

The cast echos this powerful return to form, with Olyphant’s softened severity like well-worn leather and the jokingly abusive repartee between Hawkes and Paula Malcomson’s Trixie as natural as that between any curmudgeonly old couple. The script sometimes scuffles with their familiar-but-progressed characters, toying with the idea of living in the past and enjoying these hard-won relationships like any good fan fiction reunion would. Though saccharinity advances and the events of the film are heightened far beyond the daily meanderings of the show, a fitting bittersweetness wins the day.

Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) says, “All bleeding stops eventually,” whether that bleeding refers to the steadily dripping pain of an unfulfillable love affair, the inevitability mortal end to suffering, or the nagging need for closure—but old Deadwood has about bled out. Change has come, despite plenty of kicking and screaming, and some ends still remain loose. For old fans, this fits right in. For those wondering about the show’s charms, this is a nearly impossible point to work backward from. As a series capper, it’s a satisfying, loving end that fulfills old Deadwood’s imperfect promises while mostly avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia.