It’s a bitter irony of the otherwise rosy era of Peak TV that one of the people most responsible for its existence has largely been excluded from its bounty. Without NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz, a brutal, sometimes racist detective struggling with (and sometimes giving into) his worst instincts, there might well have been no Tony Soprano, no Don Draper, no Walter White. And yet David Milch, the co-creator and writer who shaped Sipowicz into an engrossing, morally complex protagonist, has had only three shows on the air since 2001, and only one of them has outlasted a single season. In the past decade, he has aired only 10 hours of television.
That number goes up to 12 this weekend, but the significance of Deadwood, the movie-length finale to Milch’s 2004–2006 series, goes way beyond getting him back in the game, or even providing the show’s fans with a (very) long-awaited sense of closure. The sprawling saga of a budding, virtually lawless town in what was not yet the state of South Dakota, Deadwood was a show whose existence was as miraculous as its demise was abrupt. For three seasons, Milch and his cast and crew built a world so rich and detailed it felt as if you could step into it and walk around—and so convincingly squalid you’d think twice before doing so. Deadwood’s pillars were Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the breathtakingly foul-mouthed saloonkeeper with a finger in most of the town’s innumerable scams, and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a retired lawman and aspiring hardware store owner with a highly developed sense of morality and a core of seething rage. But the show expanded to include dozens more, like Alma Garret (Molly Parker), a laudanum-addicted society woman whose prospector husband is murdered by one of Swearengen’s men and takes up residence as a widow; Trixie (Paula Malcomson), a prostitute who works out of Swearengen’s saloon and rivals him in both temper and baroque profanity; and E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), the wheedling proprietor of the town’s main hotel, a study in spinelessness who manages to play both sides against the middle and still end up with nothing.
Deadwood wasn’t canceled so much as left in a ditch. The third season ended without the actors’ contracts being renewed, but it wasn’t until reports surfaced of the show’s mammoth sets being fed into dumpsters that the finality of its ending sunk in. Rumors swirled that Milch would wrap the story in a pair of two-hour movies, but they came to naught, and Al Swearengen was left scrubbing bloodstains off the floor of his beloved Gem, having committed coldblooded murder to save the town he loves.
When the movie, which was written by Milch and directed by Daniel Minahan, joins him 10 years later, little has changed except for the state of his cirrhotic liver. He still stands on the balcony overlooking the town’s main street, calculating every angle and his percentage of the potential profit. Deadwood has grown, and, it being 1889, South Dakota is on the verge of statehood, but the town is not much closer to lawfulness than when we left it. The biggest change is that George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), the murderously ruthless businessman who served as the third season’s antagonist, is now a senator from California, although he doesn’t allow that to put a dent in his ruthlessness or his murdering. Hearst’s return to Deadwood prompts a confrontation with Trixie, who put a bullet in him 10 years earlier and narrowly escaped with her life, and before long we’re back where we left off—not with the characters, whose lives have changed in numerous ways—but with the confrontation between Bullock’s inflexible lawfulness, Swearengen’s mercenary civic-mindedness, and Hearst’s more rapacious brand of capitalism.
It’s impossible to fit a series’s worth of characters into a movie’s frame, and some of the characters inevitably get short shrift. Parker’s schedule only allowed her to shoot on weekends, so Alma’s story is handled, sketchily but effectively, in a handful of scenes. John Hawkes’ Sol Star, the “hardware Jew” who served as Bullock’s partner and foil, barely registers here, and although Robin Weigert’s alcoholic Calamity Jane gets more in the way of screen time, her story feels disconnected from the main road. (One of the advantages of series TV’s open-ended storytelling is that there’s less compulsion to drive toward the finish, which as the show’s being written may not even exist yet.)
But hearing Milch’s dialogue, which is Shakespearean in both its ornateness and its obscenity—the word cocksucker can serve as nearly every part of speech—gave me a thrill that felt like the onset of a heart attack. Deadwood was a show you could watch over and over again simply to savor the rhythms of its words, or simply sometimes to untangle their meaning. In Deadwood, bartenders and prostitutes no less than titans of industry and Eastern dandies are poets of a sort, the richness of language being one of the few pleasures they can equally afford. (It’s also something, unlike land or gold, that can’t be stolen from them.) When Swearengen asks Bullock, who favors a direct (and possibly fatal) confrontation with Hearst, if he’s ever considered “not going straight at a thing,” I fixated not on the line but on the way Swearengen drops Bullock’s name into the middle of the question rather than at the end, as if to illustrate his fondness for taking a more circuitous route.
Deadwood ends too quickly, and not just because I was reluctant to leave its world behind once more. Watching it, I could imagine a universe in which the show ran for years more, enough to more fully explore characters like Mr. Wu (Keone Young), the de facto head of the town’s busy Chinese quarter, or Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye), one of its few black residents. The show was exceptionally good at making characters feel like they lived full lives when they weren’t on screen, suggesting avenues it could have explored if there’d only been time. That world is closed now, but those stories are still there, waiting for others to find them and pull them into the spotlight.