Even in the ever-expanding era of Peak TV, “Deadwood” (the series) was like nothing else. So it was with both anticipation and trepidation that fans awaited the long-rumored, entirely improbable “Deadwood: The Movie,” which finally arrives Friday on HBO.
The first ending of “Deadwood” (the series) was something of a saga in its own right. Critically revered in its run during one of HBO’s influential peaks from 2004 to 2006, the Emmy-winning series brought new meaning to the phrase “revisionist western.” Inspired by the real-life mining camp of Deadwood, the series delivered richly drawn characters, raw violence and a baroque mix of free-flowing profanity and Shakespearean flourish from the mind of David Milch.
Production squabbles and Milch’s unconventional, sometimes in-the-moment process abruptly cut the series short after three seasons. If you squinted, there was something of a conclusion laced into the Season 3 finale (Milch could see the writing on the wall), but there was always a sense that characters drawn from history, such as fiery lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), big-hearted but broken Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and, most indelibly, Ian McShane’s conniving saloon owner and pimp Al Swearengen, deserved closure.
After 13 years that ending has arrived, and it stands as a minor miracle given the schedules of a cast that’s much more in demand than years past and the recent struggles of Milch, who has battled a gambling problem and shared his recent diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.
But if we think of “Deadwood: The Movie” as the reunion tour for an influential band that was denied its curtain call — think of the Pixies or maybe the Smiths but with less acrimony — does “Deadwood” still have something to say this many years removed from its prime?
It turns out, just as unexpectedly, yes. Though colored by a bittersweet note of melancholy from the passage of time and memory in a way that inevitably draws a dotted line to Milch himself, “Deadwood” seamlessly falls into step with its celebrated past.
Plus, if nothing else, one of the greatest benefits to “Deadwood: The Movie” is revisiting a series that carries signifiers of a different yet equally wide-open time on television. Fresh from his success on “NYPD Blue,” Milch delivered a piece of historical fiction that may have looked immediately familiar — westerns and their attendant mythology have been around about as long as there were cameras to depict them — but even now the original series sounds like nothing else.
What other show in 2019 could balance its bracing, multi-syllable profanities and unforgiving brutality of its setting with a richness of language that made room for Swearengen’s elaborate soliloquies to a severed head, or the town’s mayor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) exploring his own foolish motivations with a cadence suited to “As You Like It”? Moreover, what series would dare try?
That said, the movie begins with a genial note that briefly colors the whole nearly two-hour enterprise with that dreaded accompanist for every reunion tour: nostalgia. Set 10 years after the events of the third season with the town commemorating its position as part of the new state of South Dakota, the movie revels in a pleasant familiarity in seeing these lived-in characters reflect the years.
Now in declining health, Swearengen still banters with Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), and even as an alcohol-preserved Calamity Jane teeters into town to reconnect with her past love (Kim Dickens), the town’s gravel-voiced conscience Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) greets Alma Garret (Molly Parker) and her full-grown adopted daughter Sofia (now played by Lily Keene) at the train. Even Swearengen’s brutal enforcer Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) looks stately in a close-cut beard.
As other characters appear, some are shown alongside their former selves in flashbacks that refresh the memory of past conflicts while throwing a bone to newcomers, though it’s hard to imagine approaching the movie without some familiarity with these characters. The movie wants us to recognize what the years have done with these people (and, by extension, the rest of us).
The unstoppable march of time and progress beats throughout the restarted “Deadwood,” where telephone poles rise at the request of a familiar, still-powerful villain in new U.S. Sen. George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), whose hunger for vengeance remains undiminished by his years of apparent success. Modernity approaches but this remains Deadwood: Peace can’t last.
Revealing much of what comes next would be a disservice, but suffice to say greed and its companion violence again set the town on edge with a sudden loss and an effort to protect a witness (Franklyn Ajaye) that carries an echo to present day. Even as Deadwood commemorates being slowly dragged toward civilization by joining the United States, the powerful are still as feral as any of the town’s drunken hoopleheads, but are far outside the reach of law.
And somehow, “Deadwood” hits these notes with its attendant parts not just intact but free from rust. Where else but here would someone respond to criticism with a growled “Proferring that assessment, sir, is far from your bailiwick,” which spurs the low reply, “Far as that, I went ahead and profited anyway.” It reads like a mouthful, but in the context of “Deadwood” these are syllables to be savored.
That kind of fearlessly poetic dialogue surely endeared the show to as many as were turned away, and while there’s an abundance of in-jokes for the believers – Swearengen affectionately refers to Trixie by a familiar, entirely unprintable phrase, Sol (John Hawkes) again fails to call off one of Bullock’s fits of rage and Garret Dillahunt lands an odd trifecta by briefly appearing as his third distinct character on the series – the movie ties up its long-dormant loose ends while managing to avoid the typical rites of fan service. Even the instant uplift of a wedding is beyond reproach.
Unexpectedly, for a place as dark as “Deadwood” the prevailing mood is hopeful. The advance of time, and its attendant complications (“Every man worth the name knows the value of being unreachable,” Swearengen gripes at the thought of a telephone in his bar), may be unavoidable for even this once-untamed camp. But the collective sense of right and wrong within this community still fights for a foothold, sometimes in spite of itself.
‘Deadwood: The Movie’
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)