We’re living in the Golden Age of Television. It’s a phrase you hear a lot and it’s true. It’s also an age where the hunger of nostalgia means any show could be revived. The reboot has almost become a genre of its own. From Will & Grace, Fuller House and Roseanne America has tried (and sometimes failed) to recapture what made these shows megahits in their era. Hulu has a new season of fan favourite Veronica Mars arriving over the summer and Kelsey Grammer is said to be shopping around to bring Frasier back too.
Deadwood: The Movie isn’t a reboot. It hasn’t been done to capitalise on nostalgia, it’s here because HBO have finally given creator David Milch the chance to finish his masterpiece. The series ended in 2006 whilst still in its prime. The story of its cancellation is a confusing one and changes depending on who is telling the story. Milch, who is beloved by everyone he works with, didn’t make life easy for HBO executives. His desire to re-write large sections of the dialogue whilst on the set, or to completely change scenes often meant cast members being called in on days off to shoot scenes they hadn’t prepared for. It’s a way of working that kept everyone involved in the series on their toes and despite the hectic nature of the first three seasons, you won’t find a member of the team who has a bad word to say about Milch or his ad-hock approach. Milch reportedly wouldn’t succumb to HBO’s demands for a proposed fourth season. They wanted to see scripts beforehand and for Milch to commit to a firm filming schedule. This didn’t sit well him as his best work had often come from a thought he’d had whilst being on set. There’s another story that involves star Timothy Olyphant, who felt so confident of a fourth season he bought a house and then got a call from Milch telling him the show had been cancelled. It hadn’t but by the time it came time to sign the cast up again, both sides seemed content to let the show go.
Rumours of a return to Deadwood have circulated ever since. A few years ago speculation was rife that Milch had written two feature-length episodes. The cast was asked about it endlessly, and while most were keen, nobody had received the official call and they all doubted it was possible to get everyone back together. As a Deadwood fan, I gave all hope that the story would get the conclusion it deserved. Then, rather more quietly than I’d expected, HBO announced Deadwood: The Movie. The cast were all in place, Milch had agreed on a ‘locked script’ meaning once HBO had given it the go-ahead no pivotal changes were to be made, and Deadwood fans rejoiced!
This two hour movie picks up in 1886, 10 years after the show’s story ended, with the timeline remaining broadly faithful to the real town’s history – in the intervening years the town has burned down (and been rebuilt), the evil George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) has become a senator, and Bullock a US Marshall. As South Dakota is accepted as the 40th unified American state, Deadwood’s past and present residents gather to celebrate, and to reopen old wounds. It is a credit to the cast and Milch that at no point does this return feel like a reunion piece. Milch plonks us right back in Deadwood and I felt instantly reconnected with everyone. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) lurks inside the Gem Saloon. His health is in decline, he’s not as strong as he used to be, but his sharp tongue hasn’t aged at all. He’s still the huge presence he always was uttering obscenities from his balcony. The story Milch is telling here is as brutal as it is beautiful.
Hearst’s’ return to Deadwood is unwelcome. His presence makes people, angry, fearful and uneasy. As he addresses the people of the town, Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who shot Hearst in the third series, shouts and screams at him, reminding him of all the bad he’s done and putting herself in danger in the process. Trixie is still with Sol (John Hawkes) and the pair are expecting a baby. Hearst is back and has his eye on a key piece of Deadwood land. His return puts Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) on high alert. Bullock is still happily married to Martha (Anna Gunn) and the pair have a lot of children.
Although Milch gives each of his characters enough to here, to me, this felt like it was Bullock’s story. Olyphant shines as Bullock wrestles with his own feelings towards Hearst which conflict with his role as Marshall. Swearengen and Bullock have always been the heart of the series, butting heads in the saloon on countless occasions. The two are more alike than they’d ever admit. There’s a crucial scene where Bullock allows an angry mob to beat Hearst to within an inch of his life. It’s as brutal as any beating we’ve seen in Deadwood and Bullock watches on before deciding to call a halt and pulling Hurst back on his feet. It’s a nod to Bullock’s dark side but his duty as a Marshall eventually overrides it. The return of Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker) further complicates things for Bullock. The feelings the pair shared throughout the run of the series haven’t diminished in the years Ellsworth has been away. There are only a few moments between them over the course of the two hours, but they are delicately done by Olyphant and Parker. Although there are scenes here that echo the more brutal and gruesome moments of the original run, the film really excels in the quieter moments.
Milch’s trademark dialogue is as perfect as ever. It’s the tender moments between all the characters that’ll I remember the most when I look back on this final chapter. Al’s frailty gives him a slight vulnerability we’ve not seen from him before. He’s more reflective and softly spoken with those he’s close too, though he’d never let those outside of the privacy of his bedroom know that. There are some really carefully balanced scenes between Al and Trixie. Trixie may be with Sol but the two have always carried a torch for one another.
Milch certainly packs a lot into Deadwood’s finale but it does feel like a proper feature-length episode rather than a collection of moments or a series of reunions. He manages to capture everything that made the original series so iconic and make it feel refreshing and exciting all over again. The fact that Milch announced to the cast that he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease adds a further bittersweet twist to what truly is the perfect send-off for both Milch and one of the best television dramas in recent memory.
Deadwood: The Movie airs Saturday 9.00pm on Sky Atlantic.