Deadwood: The Movie will debut on HBO on May 31st, nearly 13 years after the pay cable giant aired the unplanned series finale. That’s a very long time, particularly in Peak TV. You may have questions, whether you watched every episode back in the day or have experienced the show entirely through Richardson thumbs-up memes. So let’s trudge through the muddy thoroughfare to find answers!
So what’s Deadwood, anyway?
Deadwood was a Western that HBO aired for three seasons from 2004-06. Created by David Milch (NYPD Blue), it took place in the 1870s in what was then an illegal mining camp in the Dakota territories. Through a mix of historical characters — lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olpyhant), barkeeper and crime boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), legendary gunslinger Wild Bill Hicock (Keith Carradine) and his friend Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) — and fictional ones like wealthy widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), the series told the story of how a dangerous collection of outlaws came together to recognize the value of being part of a civilized society.
Why is everyone so excited about this reunion movie?
First, Deadwood is on the short list of the greatest dramas to ever appear on television. Milch’s baroque dialogue borders on Shakespearean. The performances — most especially by McShane, but really by everyone — are spectacular. And the sense of community that the show carefully builds makes it so emotionally satisfying, the first time you watch and everytime after.
Second, Deadwood didn’t have an ending the first time around. For a variety of reasons too complicated to get into here (though Timothy Olyphant offered me his take here), HBO abruptly canceled the show after the third season was already completed, when Milch and all involved were expecting to make a fourth. The story of Deadwood just stopped. And HBO has been promising a reunion film (two films at one point!) for almost all of these 13 years, so it’s about goddamn time.
Can I watch the movie without having ever seen the show?
You could, but why would you? The caliber of the performances and dialogue would be clear, but you wouldn’t get nearly as much out of it if you hadn’t experienced the 36 episodes leading up to it.
Do I need to rewatch the entire series before watching the movie?
It would be nice, but time is short and 36 hours of one show is a tough ask in Peak TV. The movie — which takes place about a decade after the show ended — features periodic clips of important moments from the series, which may be enough by themselves to catch you up.
If I had time for only a few episodes, which should they be?
The most important would be the inadvertent series finale, “Tell Him Something Pretty.” Many of the events of the movie spin out of choices that Al, Seth and others made to prevent industrial magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) from utterly devastating the camp and everyone in it. Since Hearst (now a U.S. senator for California) returns as the movie’s main villain, a Hearst primer would probably be most valuable, including his debut appearance in the Season Two finale, “Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To,” and whichever Season Three episodes catch your fancy. (“A Two-Headed Beast,” with the epic, disgusting brawl between W. Earl Brown’s Dan Dority and Hearst’s chief henchman, is a personal favorite.)
From Season One, the pilot episode does a strong job introducing most of the major characters, and Wild Bill’s final poker game in “Here Was a Man” is valuable to understanding what’s going on with Jane and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) in the movie. That season’s finale, “Sold Under Sin,” has a lot of important material about the affair between Seth and Alma, as does the two-parter that begins Season Two, “A Lie Agreed Upon,” which also introduces Bullock’s wife Martha (Anna Gunn). Also valuable to appreciating the Bullock marriage, as well as Seth’s friendship with Samuel Fields, aka “The N—er General,” is that season’s “Advances, None Miraculous.” And Season Two’s “Requiem for a Gleet,” with Al going through a medical crisis, also helps inform the relationship he has with his inner circle as depicted in the movie.
If I have no time at all, can you remind me where things ended?
Thirteen-year-old spoiler warning: In the series’ penultimate episode, prostitute-turned-banker Trixie (Paula Malcomson) tries and fails to kill Hearst to avenge his murder of Alma’s second husband, Ellsworth (Jim Beaver). Hearst, who doesn’t get a great look at his would-be assassin, demands her dead body as his price for sparing the rest of the town. Al, who remains deeply in love with Trixie even though she’s left him for Bullock’s friend Sol Starr (John Hawkes), decides to instead sacrifice a sex worker named Jen who vaguely resembles Trixie, and whom only his man Johnny (Sean Bridgers) cares much about. The devil’s bargain fools Hearst, who rides out of town appeased and smug, leaving Al to scrub out Jen’s blood and again consider the human cost of bringing the camp into the American experiment.
Also relevant to the movie, from near the end of the series: Jane is in a relationship with former madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), and both have been helping Martha Bullock run a school for the local children.
How excited should I be for the movie?
To paraphrase Al Swearengen, what a type you must consort with, that you not fear beating for daring to question the quality of this long-awaited miracle.
More seriously, the movie is wonderful, though how much you get out of it will depend on how much you cared for the show in the first place. There are some bumpy spots early on, and certain characters are at the whims of real-life complications. (Molly Parker, for instance, could only fly down on weekends while filming Lost in Space in Vancouver, so while Alma gets a few choice moments, it’s more like an extended cameo.) But the last 45 minutes or so left me a weepy wreck, so lovely were so many of the moments.
And I should warn you that, in typical Deadwood fashion, the movie isn’t exactly a definitive ending, either. It provides closure for many characters, and for the experience of the series as a whole. But several plot threads are deliberately left hanging — because the stories on Deadwood were never as important as the characters and their relationships. It’s the conclusion this incredible show always deserved, even if it’s only a conclusion in certain ways.
Do you have more to say about the movie?
Yes, but any more than what I’ve already hinted at would be way more than anyone should know before watching. Come back here on May 31st after the movie’s finished for a fully-spoiled review of the whole shebang. I’ll open the canned peaches for you in the meantime.