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Deadwood gets an emotionally nourishing, necessarily abbreviated conclusion

Timothy Olyphant (left), Ian McShane
Photo: Warrick Page (HBO)
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There’s a lot of poetry in Deadwood: The Movie. Of course there is: It’s the feature-length coda to one of the most idiosyncratically and dazzlingly written television shows of all time, which fucked up the English language flatter than hammered shit but stood before HBO audiences of the mid-2000s beholden to no conventional-TV cocksuckers. But as a startlingly complete array of the Western’s original cast returns to speak David Milch’s backward Shakespeare once more, no one sums up the spirit of Deadwood—movie or TV show—like Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) during a house call to town boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane):

“I take us to be collections of cells, each aggregate a smaller, separate life inside us, time slows, and finally stops.”

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For all its artful profanity, for all its gnarly depictions of how the West wasn’t fun, Deadwood has always been described by its creator in words not unlike the doc’s: It’s about the progression of entropy to organization, individual agents of chaos coalescing into a civilization—collections of cells, each aggregate a smaller, separate life. David Milch is also a believer that time is the true subject of all stories. Deadwood: The Movie is both of these philosophies in practice, in addition to an emotionally nourishing, necessarily abbreviated conclusion to a show that went a decade and change without one.

Milch devises an auspicious occasion to reunite the components of his morally complicated body: The United States’ annexation of the Dakota Territory, the looming, series-long threat to Deadwood’s unchecked freedoms, now realized. It’s a formality, really, because after all that time and effort spent staving off the inevitable, Deadwood has already resigned to the forces of westward expansion and manifest destiny. There’s an alarming degree of order in the thoroughfare circa 1889, and a number of new structures, including a stone building housing the Bullock & Star Hotel. The Chicago North And Western Line runs through the camp, bringing with it cargo and passengers: On the day of annexation, that includes telephone poles owned by the despicable George Hearst (now the junior U.S. senator from California, still played with immaculate smugness by Gerald McRaney), and visiting dignitary Alma Ellsworth and her ward Sofia (Lily Keene, replacing Bree Seanna Wall). These arrivals cause no small amount of trouble for the “Bullock” half of Bullock & Star (Timothy Olyphant, his face taking to his old Deadwood push broom like his head takes to a wide-brimmed hat).

This is the mechanical part of Milch’s script. The people of Deadwood now occupy sturdier houses and wear tidier clothes, but the place is still run by the competing interests of Swearengen and Hearst, as evidenced by the ongoing mayoral administration of a man who’s toadied for both: E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson). But reassembling everyone who lived there in the 1870s turns the place back into the powder keg of old, and a rash decision by Trixie (Paula Malcomson) plunges the camp into a bedlam befitting its wilderness period. Some scars, like the crescent Bullock carries on his forehead as a reminder of his season-two tangle with Swearengen, never fade.

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The cowardly murder that follows forms the spine of the movie’s second act, but any narrative is just gravy. After an abrupt cancellation and years of false starts, sometimes it’s just enough to watch Olyphant and McShane parlay. When the statehood bunting gets unceremoniously tossed into the thoroughfare, it’s not just a sign that the celebration has served its narrative purpose—it’s a symbol of the unchanged nature hidden beneath Deadwood’s newfound finery. Running the length of two standard-issue Deadwoods, and condensing what could’ve been a whole season’s worth of plot, some of the cast are given short shrift—Parker especially, who’s on hand to do little more than make goo-goo eyes at Olyphant and serve as a plot device in the overarching Bullock-versus-Hearst conflict. Deadwood: The Movie is ostensibly a farewell to the whole gang, but it really boils down to three individual stories in search of punctuation: Peace for Bullock, justice for Trixie, and grace (or some form of it) for Al.

Resuming one of the best television performances of the 21st century with more rasp in his voice, McShane makes a fearsome lion in winter. (In his final shot at winning an Emmy for playing Al, his campaign launches on the very last day of eligibility. Deadwood always did like to push a deadline.) But it’s Malcomson who runs away with Deadwood: The Movie, as Trixie struggles with the life that was exchanged for hers at the end of the series proper. Malcomson gives a haunted, haunting turn, and as she grapples with having another death on her conscious and weighs her commitment to Sol (John Hawkes, happy to be here), she summons a strength and resolve that’s reciprocated in the camp’s ultimate face-off with Hearst. She is no longer the victim snuggling up to her abuser at the end of the show’s pilot; with resurgent cycles of violence and exploitation threatening to turn back the clocks in Deadwood, she warns a new arrival to The Gem, Caroline (Jade Pettyjohn), away from that path.

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Malcomson and McShane’s series-premiere epilogue is one of many flashbacks that play throughout the course of the movie, a device that sets the stage for recollections of the murder committed by Hearst’s goons. It’s a multi-pronged approach to jogging the characters’ and viewers’ memories, while also bringing Deadwood novices up to speed. But given recent revelations about Milch’s health, this also feels like the creator capturing his own remembrances before they leave him for good. As with the third season of Twin Peaks, this long-delayed TV revival has an extra dimension to its poignancy, the joy of collaborators reuniting while they still can. There is great joy and great pain watching these characters interact again, while tracing the lines on their faces and registering all their gray hairs. It’s not just a story about time—it’s many stories about time. Some of the most intimate scenes—like Doc and Al’s “collections of cells” talk—are shot at a remove, across thresholds or through doorways. It creates the vantage point of a creator who had to step away while his creations kept on living, though he still occasionally peers in on them.

The cast and crew of Deadwood didn’t get to see Deadwood change gradually over time; it was taken from them in one fell swoop. Even if it amounts to something less meaty than their roles were the first time around, even if they’d been killed on the show twice, those who could come back did so, to speak the vulgar poetry and be a separate life inside the collection of cells. There could’ve been a more robust conclusion, one where the reconciliations aren’t as rushed and the eventfulness not so “movie of the week” eventful. (To quote the producers’ note to critics, regarding spoilers: “marriage, birth, death, etc.”) Our time to reconnect with these characters is short, but we get to see where the years have taken them. That’s beautiful and rare, in the coarse, jagged-edged way that Deadwood was always beautiful and rare.

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