Rating: Realistically, this is more of a B… but in my heart, it’s an A
Summary: Ten years after the end of the series, the town of Deadwood celebrates South Dakota’s newly crowned statehood.
Before Westworld, before Game of Thrones, before True Detective, Chernobyl, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, John Adams, and Barry, HBO had Deadwood. A dark Western loosely based on historical events that ran from 2004 to 2006, Deadwood was one of the first big leaps HBO took and often goes overlooked when talking about shows that changed television.
It was a rare and special show, breathing with a different kind of life. Deadwood had a cast that would now be considered all-star (they all went on to make some serious money), led by David Milch (NYPD Blue), a writer who refused to underestimate the intelligence of Deadwood‘s audience. Prior to this, Westerns went through a cheesy action period, but Deadwood was vibrant, gritty, and terribly authentic. It didn’t have gunslinging, glamorous action a la Magnificent Seven, but it did manage a “shoot first, ask questions later” vibe without drawing guns all the time, due to its a high quality of dialogue and delivery.
Milch never shied away from the racism, sexism, violence, and danger of the time as other Westerns were prone to do. He and the Deadwood team expertly crafted tension into dialogue, balancing fear and panic with odd, delightful humor. All of the discourse was accurate to the time period, Shakespearean in many ways, and simultaneously formal and colorful; there are five lines of poetry for every expletive uttered on the show. It was challenging for the actors to translate, which gave us a beautiful roster of fully formed, three-dimensional characters. As a result, the show provided a complexed immersion into a genre which had otherwise been simplified and romanticized to the point where the time period felt intangible. And all those things came together in a neat little package that showed audiences the potential of the medium- it could be just as good, if not better, than a film. Something this ambitious in its script, characters, story, costumes, set, fake blood, practical effects, everything else- could be pulled off in the television format.
It is, quite simply, one of the most complete worlds to exist on television or on film. It is safe to say that half the shows we have now would not exist had it not been for Deadwood- and that includes Game of Thrones.*
Deadwood was canceled after just three seasons and as its story introduced its big bad, George Hearst (yup, the one that made the family famous. Like I said, the show was ambitious). “Untimely” doesn’t even begin to describe it and words like “premature” and “unfortunate” don’t do it justice. Imagine if Game of Thrones ended after the Red Wedding. Imagine if Harry Potter discontinued right after Goblet of Fire or Breaking Bad folded just after we met Gus. Costs ran high, it was rumored that Milch would get carried away more than once, and maybe HBO thought they could get three shows out of what they were paying for one. The news of the cancellation came about two weeks before Season 3 started airing- which meant there was no chance to wrap up the story, reshoot, and give everything you’d like to see in a series finale. The Season 3 finale felt unresolved (tension was peaking, I tell you!) and left watchers wanting more- more of the time period, more of the town’s progress, more time with the grey characters we couldn’t help but love, and at least one more “SWEAR-GIN!”
This all lends itself to why I hold Deadwood: The Movie so near and dear to my heart and I regard it more as a series finale than a movie or sequel or whatever. I don’t like revisiting things that have ended that don’t need another ending for the sake of a sequel. The idea of a Goonies sequel makes me uninterested in the original movie. No, I don’t need a sequel to District 9, no matter how much I love it, no matter how good 9 is. And I don’t need a Buffy remake either, but I understand why they want to do it. What I do believe in is finality- which Deadwood never got. This movie never should have happened and wasn’t supposed to happen: Milch refused a shortened season, it ended more than ten years ago, HBO consistently turned the idea of a movie down, and everyone moved on. Somehow, the stars aligned: HBO gave in (the show has a strong cult following), Milch finished his script, the cast carved out time in their schedule (like, all forty of them- it’s amazing, really), and we got our series finale. I got closure. It’s not perfect and it’s certainly not accurate, but it makes all the time I had without Deadwood feel worth it. I can overlook some of the creative liberties Milch took in this due to the original series’ abrupt ending. I’m here for the show, the dialogue, the characters.
And boy, did I get all those things. I’m glad I got the opportunity to see some of my favorite television characters off. I’m glad I got to watch something, knowing in the moment that this would be the last of their interactions. And it just felt right. There’s no other way to describe it. If you’ve watched The Wire, Deadwood: The Movie registers very similarly to that series finale- everyone gets an ending that feels true to their character’s narrative, even if it means watching some of my favorite characters go down not-so-happy paths. And just like that Wire finale, there’s an odd sense of joyful continuity, knowing that the story isn’t quite over; here, things are left to continue as history dictates, but there’s still a sense of finality within each of the stories. It serves as a celebration of the series, while tying up all the loose ends appropriately. (Yes, I cried.)
These are the emotions I love to feel when a beloved series goes out. This is what makes me look back at a series with fondness and appreciation.*
The show has always revolved around the theme of progress and how either politics or technology affect a town struggling to hold onto its way of life, and this extension is no different. We’re reintroduced to characters, now in places clearly meant for the fourth and perhaps final season, and there are casual reminders as to where they might have left off with each other or how their relationships evolved offscreen. It’s pretty impressive that after ten or so years, the ending feels just as tight and as natural as the rest of the series- nobody misses a beat. By the end, we are gifted a lovingly crafted, careful farewell that- I think- registers as one of the best television finales. (I’m fully aware that my emotions are playing heavily into this.) I hope that with this- and its splash across the HBO homepage for at least a month- more people are exposed to the original series and Deadwood takes its rightful place as one of the greatest television shows of all time.