Warning: This article contains spoilers for Deadwood and Deadwood: The Movie.
From 2004 to 2006, HBO’s Deadwood aired to popular viewership and critical acclaim. The western blended fact and fiction in a way few successful shows do. Set during the political formation of the Dakotas, Deadwood’s stellar casting, whip-smart scripting, and brilliant direction transformed what could have been a semi-historical oddity into a mainstream success. Then, as soon as it came about, the series was unceremoniously canceled after its third season.
Deadwood’s end was a symbolic, as well as aesthetic loss. During the show’s run, prestige TV had yet to establish itself in the popular consciousness. As such, other programs were left to pick up the mantle. Future HBO series like Game of Thrones drank deep from the Deadwood well, combining genre conventions with the precepts of esteemed dramas to great effect. But unlike many of its successors, Deadwood was more than the sum of its parts.
Behind every great scene was an unprecedented degree of thematic lucidity. The show wasn’t so much about cowboys and shootouts as it was a meditation on the nation building project of Manifest Destiny. Deadwood examined a fundamental tension in frontier life. Settlers simultaneously wished to escape the confines of American society as it existed back east, while also reproducing its conditions in new territories. Territories already granted to Native Americans, mind you. To this end, Deadwood wasn’t just an entertaining show, it was a deconstructive work of art.
Before Deadwood, television depictions of the old west cloaked themselves in a veil of romanticism. Consequently, the fictionalized conflicts between Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Al Swearengin (Ian McShane), and George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) were unlike anything viewers had seen before. Its world and characters were coated in shocking layers of grime and moral ambiguity. But to viewers’ delight, this direction provided gripping drama and genre deconstruction in equal measure. As early as the third season’s conclusions, viewers were sad to see it go.
Then, thirteen years later, showrunner David Milch returned to wrap up his story with Deadwood: The Movie.
As with many series revived years after their initial cancellation, the film takes place a decade after the show ended. The plot commences with South Dakota’s official incorporation into the United States. This burgeoning statehood serves thematic, as well as narratives purposes. As far as the story is concerned, opening on this day brings Deadwood’s players back into the fold. While the likes of Bullock and Swearengin spent the interim ten years in camp; Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), and antagonist George Hearst only return for this monumental occasion.
George Hearst’s arrival negotiates the stakes of Deadwood: The Movie. Whereas the show reflected on the inescapable influence of economic power — even on the frontier — the film adds to this theme. Now that George Hearst has become a senator in California, he represents consolidated economic and political might. As a result, his reignited conflict within the town reaches a new, more extreme pitch.
Longtime fans will appreciate how well the film matches the pace and tone of its predecessor. In under two hours, Hearst murders Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) for his land, instigates several shootouts, crashes a wedding, and achieves all of this without compromising the various subplots that lend Deadwood so much of its character and charm. Swearengin’s declining health, the marriage between Trixie (Paula Malcomson) and Sol Star (John Hawkes), and Bullock’s newfound status as a marshal do not pick up where the series left off. Still, these plot developments feel true to the original’s intent.
In this regard, Deadwood: The Movie forgoes fan service. It instead challenges viewers’ understanding of the settlement circa 2006. Because where Deadwood deconstructed the western, its sequel takes aim at television revivals.
Underpinning the film’s plot is the inexorable march of progress. Throughout the movie, characters in Deadwood remark on the last decade’s technological advents. To put a finer point on it: Hearst murders Utter because he wanted to install telephone poles on the land. The march of time and progress feeds the film’s core conflict. Hearst may set himself up as a utopian harbinger of progress, but change nevertheless come at a brutal cost.
This narrative conflict between preservation and progress reflects the tension animating all revivals. Even if Milch wanted to resume his story right where he left off, too much has changed to facilitate that. Deadwood couldn’t return as it left: structured as a multi-season show with an unaged cast of characters. But rather than ignore this fact, Deadwood: The Movie incorporates it into the plot. In fact, the film’s climax depends on this passage of time.
Near the story’s conclusion, Hearst is almost lynched by the town’s residents. This event mirrors the first scene of the show’s first episode. In the earlier instance, Bullock has to appease a crowd demanding the lynching of a horse thief. Because he knows the crowd can’t be calmed, Bullock executes the thief himself, claiming a semblance of justice and legal authority. Yet, in the later scene, despite the harm Hearst has done, Bullock protects him.
Some viewers may take issue with this choice. But whether Bullock was right or not isn’t the point. Deadwood, as a show and film, shares DNA. Both versions of the story feature difficult moral choices their characters aren’t always equipped to handle. The film could have provided the same resolution as the premier, and many viewers might have considered it a more satisfying conclusion.
But Deadwood: The Movie isn’t here to satisfy. It’s here to challenge.
Deadwood’s medium and landscape had to change to assure its return. But to match the original’s thematic heights, it also had to challenge the narrative and directorial conventions of TV revivals. Twin Peaks’ return succeeded for similar reasons. It challenged viewers’ expectations of how the story should continue, thus providing a new lens through which to view the original. Others, such as Gilmore Girls: a Year in the Life, feature a series trying to rediscover its original charm. The path getting there might be interesting, but audiences are left with the absence of meaningful progress.
Deadwood: The Movie succeeds because it understands the logic of revivals. The structure and world of the story can’t remain the same. Otherwise, viewers will have to contend with a hollow recreation of a 15-year-old series. But beneath that, the spirit of the show remains the same. Deadwood’s cast may not behave as they did fifteen years ago, but viewers will feel more in touch with their struggles and follies because of it.
As with all great revivals, it might be wrong to suggest Deadwood has transformed. Instead, Deadwood has grown up. And out of all possible outcomes for the film, I’m confident in writing this may be the best.