What a grand surprise, after such a piece of time, to return to the damp streets of Deadwood; after thirteen years in purgatory, David Milch finally brings his Western masterpiece to a close with Deadwood: The Movie. Both a reunion special of epic proportions, and a poetic rumination on the Sisyphean journey of life, Deadwood: The Movie is more than a proper send off for the heartless cunts and conniving cocksuckers of South Dakota’s original social experiment; it is David Milch’s reflection on the power of time and memory, a series of beautiful observations on the fragility of human mortality filtered through the dusty, still-muddy lens of Deadwood.
As a dream might come alive to draw a breath, Deadwood: The Movie‘s unexpected existence offers the most satisfying conclusion imaginable for one of television’s greatest dramatic experiments.
Set on the weekend of South Dakota’s ascent to statehood in 1889, Deadwood: The Movie is, at heart, a remix of the original, unintended series finale from thirteen years ago: both are centered around the death of a beloved community member at (now Senator) George Hearst’s hired hands, the shocking reminders of mortality and power causing a rippling effect through town. There are moments of beauty, of heartbreak, of hilarity, and joy; despite its truncated length (and subsequently, plot – characters like Dan, Alma, and the Doc unfortunately don’t get a whole lot to do here), Deadwood: The Movie is an evocative and deeply moving piece of art, an emotional work beautifully directed by series stalwart Daniel Minahan, who indelible cinematic touches give great breadth to the powerful, poetic wordplay in Milch’s signature, bittersweet monologues (he also employed the help of Regina Corrado, one of the writers during the original run, and also serves as co-executive producer of the film).
The birth of Deadwood as part of South Dakota marks the death of it as a camp, the inevitability of progress arriving in the form of telephone poles, trains, and corrupt federal officials making their way into the bustling mining camp. With it, the characters of Deadwood: The Movie bear the weight of time’s passage: from Joanie to Johnny, to Jewel and the Gem itself, everyone is a bit grayer around the edges ten years after the violent, abrupt events of ten years ago, the memories of their time as a burgeoning camp fading with the town’s time as an uncultured experiment in personal freedom (in all its communal glory and personal horror).
The return of Alma Ellsworth, Calamity Jane, and George Hearst to mark the occasion kick off the events of Deadwood: The Movie, which play out a season’s worth of story developments in rapid succession. A few of these beats – Trixie’s public admonition of Hearst, Harry’s strange arc through the film, Bullock’s accelerated explosion – are obvious byproducts of the film’s abbreviated running time, but still work in the context of giving the film dramatic propulsion, all centered around the unexpected reunion of Deadwood regulars when everyone arrives, popping the beautiful, quiet bubble of family life Bullock’s built with Martha (and away from Al) over the years.
As much as Deadwood was defined by its ability to meander through episodes, waxing philosophically in its singularly vulgar way, it still contained the ability to shock, sudden crescendos of violence accentuating the quieter reflections weaved into the show’s incredible storytelling – from Charlie’s death to the midday shootout in the thoroughfare, Deadwood: The Movie certainly doesn’t lack in these moments, either.
Deadwood: The Movie’s ability to effortlessly navigate both halves of its dramatic identity, help drive the most central themes of the story: at its heart, Deadwood: The Movie is about the power of memory. Written in the wake of Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the movie’s flashbacks and dominating focus on the past are symbolic of Milch’s the moments we carry with us through our lives, imperfect recordings of emotion that define us, even as the faces and events themselves inevitably fade from our minds.
Most sharply reflected in characters like Sol, Trixie, and Joanie, the town of Deadwood passing the torch to the next generation of hookers, saloon owners, and elected officials serves as perhaps the greatest embodiment of these ideas; even as it grows into something new and improved (“catching up with the future,” as it were), Deadwood is inevitably tied to its own past, doomed to repeat the cycle of Hearst’s corruption and contagious, pointless violence in some form or another until the end of time.
All we can hope to do, is be a little better each time, carving out the best path we can, for as long as we can remember to: as faces, memories, and lives inevitably fade (“all bleeding stops eventually,” after all), the beautiful trappings of memory also leaves us, one of the most horrible gifts of life’s final act. Milch’s script, at its very best, is a poignant observation: our memories trap us, challenge us, and anchor us as human beings through life.
We remember the people we love, the people we hate, and the minutes of our lives defined by unexpected proclamations, arrivals, and farewells; and as time inevitably marches forward, we are shaped by the days behind us (look no further than Al’s whiskey drinking; lest we remit our inherent habit of repeating the choices of the past, we are doomed to be defeated by them), until we are slowly freed from them, as our minds and bodies slowly fade.
Equally beautiful and disturbing, our memories are the most precious things we have, treasures of immeasurable personal wealth never to be taken lightly or willingly forgotten, no matter how painful they might be (Al’s constant massaging of his lost finger a beautifully bleak testament to this idea that even the most painful memories serve their purpose). harness the power of memory is to learn to forgive, to remember how to love, and to ensure the peace of modernity’s advance, something we have more moral authority over than someone like Hearst would seem to believe.
As a dream might come alive to draw a breath, Deadwood: The Movie‘s unexpected existence offers the most satisfying conclusion imaginable for one of television’s greatest dramatic experiments. In what may be David Milch’s final major screenwriting credit, Deadwood: The Movie offers an incredibly poignant, measured reflection of life, viewed through the kaleidoscope of its many memorable characters, as perfect a farewell, as inglorious the dispatch may be, one could possibly imagine for HBO’s iconic, unforgettable series.
Safe passage to us all.
- this turned out to be a very brief review because I’m traveling this week, and I wasn’t able to watch the film in advance – but I’ll have more thoughts, plot-related and otherwise, on Deadwood: The Movie when One Vile Rewatch reaches its conclusion later this summer.
- when Bullock discovers Charlie’s body, a rumble of thunder is heard in the distance, calling back to one of the show’s defining scenes in season one.
- The only new character is a wannabe-whore Caroline Woolgarden, whose unassuming, quiet arc arguably reflects the whole “breaking the wheel” argument Game of Thrones stumbled in making during its final season.
- I think I laughed the hardest when Johnny yelled out “Shot, I am” after the the shootout in the thoroughfare.
- Garrett Dillahunt completes a trio of Deadwood characters with a cameo in the film, like a drunken ghost admonishing Bullock and Hearst, the men who sealed the fates of his two previous characters in the series.
- A few favorite moments; Bullock’s “I’m home,” Al giving Trixie away at her wedding, Bullock sitting with Samuel (the man inadvertantly responsible for little William Bullock’s death in season three), Farnum sneaking through the hotel walls one last time, and Bullock and Alma’s first and last scenes together.
- “Saloon is a sanctuary”… Al would’ve really loved Cheers.
- just a fun fact: Al had the equivalent of roughly $320,000 (in 2019 dollars) hidden in his mattress. Never one to trust a bank, that one.
- What an amazing final thirty minutes. Just an unbelievably breathtaking distillation of everything Deadwood. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect final scene, a wonderful, touching send off to this incredible film.
(note: this article was updated to reflect Regina Corrado, not Nic Pizzolatto as the original version stated, helped Milch refine his script)