When Deadwood abruptly ended its television run in 2006 after three seasons, well short of what its creator, David Milch, had initially planned, the reasons for its untimely demise were never fully explained. Why did a network renowned for its critically acclaimed output pull the plug on a show that some argue is the greatest in the medium’s history? Over the years, that mystery has become part of the show’s lore. It made a sort of sense that a story about the grand American experiment, where democracy and commerce sprang up on stolen frontier land amid violence and chaos, ended with the main character, Al Swearengen, mopping a pool of blood on his floor and wondering what would come next.
Thirteen years later, a conclusion has finally arrived in the form of Deadwood: The Movie, a feature-length HBO film written by Milch and directed by the series regular Daniel Minahan, starring almost the entire vast ensemble of the original show (minus deceased characters and actors). It’s a perfect, long-delayed swan song that offers satisfying endings for almost every member of the cast while still managing to tell a story that stands on its own: an examination of how American civilization formed a thin veneer over the ruthlessness that helped create it. As such, Deadwood: The Movie feels like an elegy for the “golden age of TV,” the creatively fertile period in the early aughts when television was finally seriously considered an art form.
That exciting time, when networks including HBO, FX, and AMC debuted shows such as The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, has given way to the fire hose of “peak TV,” as streaming networks flood the zone with content and their broadcast rivals struggle to keep up. In this new universe of entertainment—where ratings matter less and less and any brand name, no matter how niche, is of value—it was almost inevitable that Deadwood might one day return to finish what it had started. This new film, however, does more than just reboot the series for name recognition alone. There’s a particularly tragic tinge to the circumstances of the movie: Milch recently revealed he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, making the entire affair feel particularly elegiac. Even so, this script is among the greatest things he’s ever produced.