Deadwood: The Movie has a seemingly impossible challenge. It has to work as a standalone story, but also as a series finale. It has less than two hours to do something the show normally used to do in 12, involving a massive cast without shortchanging the major characters. And it has to live up to both the expectations of 13 years of anticipation and the legacy of one of the best shows in television history.
And it pulls off all that and more. What we have is an incredibly moving film that rewards both the characters and fans of the show and offers a worthy and fitting goodbye to Deadwood.
If you’ve never seen an episode of the series, you can still enjoy the movie as an entertaining frontier story with compelling characters. Its main plot is easy enough to follow for newcomers, and while it mostly trusts its audience, it occasionally uses quick flashbacks to fill in the most important background information you might otherwise not be able to infer.
But the real rewards here are for those who have seen every episode of the series. The time and care the show took to let us really know these people is why this movie is so emotional. It doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting or worry about exposition. We know who these characters are, what they’ve been through, and what brought them to this moment. We know how meaningful it is for both of them when Jane and Joanie reunite, or what someone means when they speak about a fallen friend at a funeral. It’s why a thankful hug between Seth and Alma has the emotional weight of a lifetime. We care about these people, so the movie can move fast without ever feeling rushed.
With only two hours to tell its story, Deadwood: The Movies sacrifices the show’s classic monologues and soliloquies. It doesn’t have much time to spend with minor characters, though many of them show up in fantastic cameos that reveal just how much their lives have changed over the last ten years… or just how much they haven’t.
Even though Deadwood looks better and the future (in the form of telephones) is coming for it, the town hasn’t actually changed. Things are cleaner and the buildings look nicer, but other than some cosmetic alterations and some new business ventures (Seth and Sol have opened the Bullock-Star Hotel) and growing families (the Bullocks have three kids), most characters are still where they were when we left them, just with more gray hair. Dan, Johnny, and Jewel still work at the Gem; Sol and Trixie are still together; and Al is still yelling, “Fucking Wu.”
When George Hearst riles up old troubles, the Deadwood we knew and loved reveals itself to still be at the center of this community. The detestable Hearst, now senator of California, has returned to Deadwood to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood, but a pregnant Trixie can’t help but call him out for his murderous past in front of the whole town. Hearst then realizes who she really is and what she did to him. With an important business deal on the line, one he is willing to close at any cost, Hearst heads down a predictable path that drives the plot.
As we remember, the people of Deadwood are fiercely protective of one another and it doesn’t take long for guns to come out. Bullock and Swearengen come together like they they used to, even if there hasn’t been much cause for them to meet over the last decade. Since season three ended, these people have been living slightly more peaceful versions of their lives, but they are still the people we knew.
This isn’t really a movie; this is a series finale—the one the show never got. It’s also more of a direct follow-up to season three, in which Al sacrificed poor Jen to save Trixie and get Hearst out of town, than you might expect. (The way this logically follows the series’ last episode makes it seem like this unwanted “hiatus” was all part of David Milch’s plan.) But it’s still a fitting end to the entire series, especially in the way it tells the story of its two driving forces, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock.
Al is old and a hard life has finally caught up with him, but his best traits now outweigh his worst. Seth, now a father and leading figure in town as a U.S. Marshall, has also grown wiser and less prone to outbursts (not entirely, though). And their moral compasses, always two sides of the same coin, are still driving who they are. Their actions in the movie feel honest, like the show always did. It’s hard to imagine either of them getting a better farewell than the ones they get here.
As you watch these characters—older, wiser, both hardened and softened by the years—it’s hard not to think about all of the Deadwood stories we never got to see. But this movie isn’t bittersweet because of what never was, it’s beautiful because of what it is: a poignant and moving tale about how the past and the future are always pulling on us. At the same time, it is a wonderful farewell to a group of people who ran off to hide from the world only to build a new one for themselves.
And to learn they really did that, whether we saw it or not, makes this a Deadwood finale that was worth waiting for.