Deadwood: The Movie concludes the bloodiest, sweariest, most swaggering Western there ever was

Real feeling lies underneath the shocking vulgarity of the show’s language.

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The words spoken near the opening of Deadwood: The Movie must – after more than a dozen years since the series was unceremoniously cancelled by HBO – seem as much addressed to the fans who had waited so patiently for this moment as they are to the denizens of this rough-and-ready town. George Ambrose Hearst rises to speak on the occasion of South Dakota’s achievement of statehood in 1889. A gold-mining magnate, he is now the junior senator from California; like us, he’s been away a long time. And he is, in fact, the villain of the piece: it’s very Deadwood to have him say what we’ve all been thinking. “It moves me greatly, returning after years have passed to witness the changes wrought by time, ingenuity and invention,” he intones from the podium. “Though none would deny the facts and cost of a past we who gather here have known together – some portion of which must still be measured in blood.”

Deadwood: the bloodiest, sweariest, most swaggering Western there ever was or has been, and for my money the best thing that’s ever been on television, full stop. Come at me with your Sopranos, come at me with The Wire and Breaking Bad – and don’t get me wrong, those are fine shows indeed – but the three brief seasons (2004-2006) of Deadwood top them all. The series was created by David Milch, who with Steven Bochco had reinvented the TV cop drama in the early 1990s with the brilliant NYPD Blue. Set in the 1870s, Deadwood was a wholly original, rococo blend of fact and fiction. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), proprietor of the Gem Saloon, Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), his business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes), Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carradine) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) are all real figures who moved through the gold-mining camp in the Black Hills. Many of them are buried in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery – and you can still stay in the Bullock Hotel.

Milch’s characters, however, live and breathe as fiction while remaining pinned on a rough map of historical event. The show concerns itself with the progress from camp to community. Its inhabitants – tricksters, whores, cardsharps and the odd honest man or woman – make their way as best they can against the background of the violent colonisation of the American West. The star of this show is its language, fabulously vulgar and shockingly ornate, rising to the positively Shakespearean at times. It’s dangerously contagious stuff: the viewer is always a little worried that one day she herself might slip and call someone a
motherfucking limberdick cocksucker in casual conversation.

Yet underneath all the savagery is real feeling. Here are lost souls looking for new lives in a new country. The anchor of them all is Swearengen; Ian McShane’s performance is a masterclass in brutal ruthlessness; he’ll do whatever it takes to keep the Gem, and the town of Deadwood, a going concern. “I don’t want to talk to these cocksuckers, but you have to,” he says in the show’s first season. “In life, you have to do a lot of things you don’t fucking want to do. Many times, that’s what life is: one vile fucking task after another. But don’t get aggravated. Then the enemy has you by the short hair.” And yet within McShane’s Swearengen, and throughout the whole show, there are moments of tenderness that can take your breath away. 

The show was axed in 2006 because HBO hoped it would be as big as The Sopranos; it was, instead, a succès d’estime. The series didn’t end, it stopped: and for years there had been rumours of a reunion film. The final result is a two-hour movie that shows a glimpse of Deadwood’s future, and the future of the country it was now a part of: the opening shot is of a steam train barrelling through the landscape, David Schwartz’s darkly joyful theme music rolling alongside. Set ten years after the series ended, the plot concerns Hearst’s pursuit of land belonging to Charlie Utter, loyal stalwart of the town, so that he can run telephone lines into Deadwood.  

But the plot is hardly the point: this is a reunion, and one which seems to have been as emotional for those taking part as for those watching. In recent years, David Milch has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which makes watching this conclusion all the more moving; and the fact that almost every cast member from the series still alive appears in the film speaks to the devotion Deadwood inspired in everyone connected to it. Paula Malcomson, the Northern Irish actor who plays Trixie, a former prostitute and the pillar of the Gem, put it very simply: “It was everybody’s favourite job they’ve ever had,” she has said.

If the conclusion feels surprisingly sentimental, it’s sentiment that’s been well-earned. Deadwood: The Movie is true to the show’s original spirit and is as satisfying a conclusion as could be hoped for. “We’re all of us haunted by our own fucking thoughts,” Al Swearengen says near the end of the film. “So make friends with the ghost. It ain’t going fucking anywhere.” I raise a glass of whiskey to you, Al, and to the ghosts of Deadwood, beloved and admired cocksuckers all. 

Deadwood: The Movie
HBO/Sky Atlantic

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind