[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Deadwood” Season 3.]
“Deadwood,” creator David Milch’s revisionist Western depicting an emerging community in the hills of 1880s South Dakota, has often been the odd one out in HBO’s foundational pillars of TV’s golden age, having not had the outsized viewership of “The Sopranos” or the cult-turned-phenomenon rise of “The Wire.” That may be attributed to the show’s unexpected cancellation in 2006. Accounts vary on why exactly the show was axed — conflict between Milch and HBO being the most likely culprit, since the show was very expensive and Milch’s creative process usually involved extensive last-second rewrites.
But when the show concluded after three seasons, it was denied a proper ending, frustrating both audiences and the cast and crew.
That is what has haunted the series since its conclusion – the perception that since the final episode was not meant to be so, the series has always been unfinished, a work cut down in its prime that never got the send-off it deserved. Season 3 doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, exactly, but it wasn’t written as a true finale, and that sense of irresolution had dogged the show ever since. The prospect of a movie follow-up has been dangled before fans for over a decade, its likelihood shrinking with each passing year.
But now, somehow, after 13 years and innumerable false starts, there is “Deadwood: The Movie,” a chance for the show to achieve the finality it lacked. Remarkably, the expansive main cast has returned in its entirety (save for Powers Boothe, who passed away in 2017), as well as Milch, who wrote the movie despite a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. So now that the show has miraculously been resurrected, what unfinished business does the movie need to settle?
Most of the final season of “Deadwood” focuses on George Hearst’s (Gerald McRaney) efforts to secure the massive gold claim held by Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), who struck it rich in Season 1. Hearst, a megalomaniac obsessed with hoarding wealth, is relentless in his pursuit, running afoul of virtually every resident of Deadwood, particularly saloon-owning crime boss Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and local sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who, over the course of the season, set aside past grievances to join forces in resisting Hearst, galvanizing the entire town together in the process.
Hearst’s brutality finally culminates in his ordering the murder of Alma’s husband Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), one of the camp’s most beloved residents. This wanton act of cruelty drives former prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson) to shoot at Hearst, wounding him in the shoulder. Hearst demands the execution of his attempted assassin, but since he didn’t get a good look at Trixie’s face, Swearengen is able to kill another blonde prostitute as a substitute. The ruse works, Hearst is satisfied, and leaves Deadwood to see to other business.
Time has been kinder to this finale than you’d expect, but certainly when it aired there was a great deal of frustration, especially once the show was canceled. After weeks of maneuvering, scheming, clandestine murders, and political corruption, all building to a showdown with Swearengen or Bullock or both, Hearst just… leaves town, with both his and the camp’s forces congregated in the thoroughfare, ready for an open war that never truly begins. Hearst recognizes that there’s no need for a fight, since he’s achieved his primary goals in camp, having amassed nearly all of the town’s gold claims and rigging the local elections to ensure his power can remain consolidated. The residents of Deadwood are beneath him.
No matter how much audiences were clamoring for a climactic showdown, the show’s events (and history itself) didn’t dictate it. But an ending where a rich man commits countless sins while receiving virtually no comeuppance was always going to feel like a letdown, no matter how true to life it remains to this day. Milch seems to have recognized this, since as the “Deadwood” film trailer makes clear, the movie looks to pick up right where the conflict with Hearst left off, even with 10 years in the rearview mirror.
“Deadwood: The Movie” premieres Friday, May 31 on HBO.