Deadwood is an enigma. First hitting small screens in 2004 in the midst of a television revolution started by The Sopranos and poised by HBO to take the “Event TV” mantle from the New Jersey crime drama as it was already looking to wrap up. A Wild West story of epic proportions, the show was an instant favourite to everyone that watched it.
Running for 36 episodes across three seasons, Deadwood told the story of life in a newly founded mining camp. Starting in 1876 some six months removed from Custer’s last stand. The war with the Native Sioux people is dwindling towards an end and people are heading to the Black Hills to find their fortune in gold. A camp soon becomes a town and a community is built. But a town without law relies on its leaders to keep the peace and we join the citizens of Deadwood, both newly arrived and founding members, at a time when all are fighting for that power.
Each season spanned a fortnight in the somewhat fictionalised history of Deadwood – running more or less a day per episode. With most action focussed on bar owner Al Swearengen (the award-winning Ian McShane) along with the veritable clown car of employees under the roof of his Gem Saloon – including barkeep and main henchman Dan (W. Earl Brown) and lead whore Trixie (Paula Malcolmson). As well as former lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) who arrive in camp after its initial formation, along with Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), a soon-to-be widow who inherits enough wealth to help prop up the camp and an already entrenched ex-army doctor Cochran (Brad Dourif). Thirty hours of time with this insane extended family would find fans rooting for the town of misfits and anti-heroes over the impending government takeover that loomed as the series came to an unexpected close in 2006
Speaking of 2006; as the summer was spinning up that year, fans were mortified to suddenly read reports that HBO would not be renewing the contracts of its stars and as such, the sun would be setting on the dusty town for the last time at the end of its third season. Such a lack of closure nowadays would be the start of a #SaveDeadwood campaign and a hope that another company would pick up the cost of keeping an award-winning show on the air. 2006, however, was the year of seemingly empty promises of movies and TV specials to round off stories that left fans unsatisfied. Here we are, 13 years later, and those promises have finally been fulfilled.
It has been a decade since the events that closed out the final episode of Deadwood. In that time, aside from Seth – now a U.S Marshall – and Sol swapping their hardware business for a luxury hotel and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) taking over the Chez Ami saloon, the town of Deadwood is frozen in time and – not necessarily purposely – fighting off the tide of the modern age. Life has gone on, the one-time settlers have aged, but Deadwood is still Deadwood.
However, celebrations for the tenth anniversary of the mining camp’s annexation into the state of South Dakota see the return of self-made pioneer George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), the man who caused a small war’s worth of carnage to further his own interests who now sits as a Senator for California. Vying to buy up any land that he didn’t get his hands on during his first pass in the town to provide a smooth path for his enterprises, no matter the cost. The town that has settled down from his last visit is suddenly thrown back into turmoil as Hearst tries to position himself as a returning hero.
Between Trixie screaming at the parading Hearst from her balcony with her trademark foul mouth and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) refusing to sell his land to the entrepreneur set the returning businessman back to his old ways. Bribing or killing those that get in his way.
Now the folk trying to call Deadwood home must band together and fight the tyrant trying to wreck their lives.
Deadwood always fell into a strange category when it came to television. Unlike, say, The Sopranos, The Wire or even Game of Thrones, shows that people would be aware of through some form of cultural osmosis whether or not they had seen it, Deadwood always seemed to be more than just lesser-known, it was – and still is – relatively unheard of. Criminally so. Even in this time of revivals and rescues, that makes the long-awaited release of Deadwood: The Movie even more astounding.
More surprising still, is that even after 13 years, writers, cast and crew have barely skipped a beat. Not to say that a poor-quality execution was expected, but for this comfortable pair of slippers to still feel this good after so long was a welcome gift from writer and creator David Milch.
One of the TV show’s greatest strengths was its cast. The love-hate relationship between McShane’s Al and Olyphant’s Seth was always such a joy to watch. Swearengen’s moral ambiguity always butting heads with Bullock’s straight-as-an-arrow personality. It’s wonderful to watch that on screen again and believe that these two have been uneasy allies for a decade. Both having aged – not necessarily gracefully – but never wanting to move on from their home and both impeccably played by their seasoned veteran actors. Ian McShane has found a new fanbase since his time with HBO, not least of all as middle-management in the splendid John Wick series. And to watch him take up the profanity-spewing role of Al give viewers a glimpse of just how much he must enjoy playing the part as he gives everything to the older, but no duller, bar owner. McShane knows fans love Swearengen – his trademark insult as he calls his girls “loopy cunt” makes an appearance here, to my personal glee – and he clearly delights in giving the audience what they want. Every scene with the pimp on his balcony, the master of all he surveys, is pure joy.
Similarly, Timothy Olyphant’s older and wiser Seth Bullock is infinitely watchable. As the marshal strides across the boardwalk, his stare pierces through the small screen and into the hearts of everyone watching as they fear the lawman will know what they’ve done wrong. While viewers of the recently canned Santa Clarita Diet will know just how great the 51-year-old looks, his transformation into Kurt Russell in Tombstone is the stuff of black magic and world-class make-up. Neither Olyphant’s, nor Bullock’s, intensity has lowered one iota in the decade that has passed since he first confronted Hearst; and as he and the Congressman stand-off from balcony to boardwalk again, all that tension that dragged viewers to the edge of their seats returns.
But Deadwood is an ensemble piece. From the unforgettable “Calamity” Jane (Robin Weirgert) drunkenly stumbling around town, to the barman pining over a long-lost love from the closing season all those years ago, and all those in-between. Everyone has a part to play and even those characters you hate, you love to hate them. As you watch, knowing something bad is coming, knowing it must happen, there isn’t a single character that you could or would want to cast aside for the benefit of plot or progression. Making each bad turn of events a catastrophe. Deadwood is a living, breathing entity all on its own and to spend time in it is to love it, along with everything and everyone that comes with it.
More than a decade after fans had given up all hope of closure for the fair town of Deadwood, HBO have woven a tale that is both a thrilling continuation of a story thought to have forever been left in limbo and a fresh look – with some slight digs at our modern day society too – at the western genre as a whole. Deadwood: The Movie is not only the series finale fans have been desperate for since we faded out on Swearengen scrubbing another blood stain from his floor all those years ago, but it is also a movie event worthy of a trip to the big screen. While this is the end for Deadwood, as it nips at the ankles of some of the best films of the year, the film and its cast will take you through your entire spectrum of emotions – You’ll laugh, you’ll worry, you’ll damn sure shed a tear – and as we close out on this legacy long held dear by fans, the future looks bright for HBO and their soon-to-be-released The Sopranos prequel film.
Directed by: Daniel Minahan
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson