News · TV

The Legacy of ‘Deadwood’ Will Finally Carry On in Movie Form

HBO has greenlit the long-awaited two-hour finale film that fans of the influential Western have been promised for over a decade.
By  · Published on July 26th, 2018

More than 10 years have passed since HBO axed Deadwood, arguably one of the network’s most demanding yet rewarding television programs. In its prime, the Western series was consistently lauded for its impeccable quality in virtually all areas of production.

Deadwood sports a thoroughly praiseworthy cast, and a strong and cohesive directorial vision. Above all, every episode is chock-full of fantastic, if expletive-laden, dialogue. These wordy witticisms that combine old-timey language and more anachronistic swearing are a well-deserved highlight of the show by far. It elevated the show’s 1870s premise beyond being just a potentially boring history lesson to a fascinating character-driven, high-stakes drama.

Unfortunately, Deadwood had sadly never reached its full potential when it was abruptly canceled in 2006 after just three seasons. Since then, the prospects of ever seeing an appropriate ending to the various storylines threading the show together has been touch-and-go. Chatter about a finale comprising two two-hour long films began almost immediately after Deadwood‘s cancelation in May 2006, but the plan was eventually scrapped. In 2009, Al Swearengen himself — series star Ian McShanedeclared that “Deadwood is dead.”

That supposed final nail on the coffin didn’t stop several more years of “never say never,” though. Finally, HBO chief Casey Bloys has definitively answered the prayers of many a Deadwood fan quietly biding their time. During his session in the Television Critics Association summer press tour, the HBO president declared:

“We are greenlit on the ‘Deadwood’ movie. We’re looking at an October start date. It has been a logistics nightmare getting all the cast members’ schedule lined up, but we are there.”

Production of the Deadwood movie is said to start in October this year with David Minahan, who directed four episodes in the series, set to helm the project. Moreover, Bloys states that HBO is aiming for a tentative spring 2019 premiere date.

This announcement comes over a year after McShane asserted that a “two-hour movie script has been delivered to HBO” by series creator David Milch and the ball was in the network’s court. A few months after McShane’s statement, Paula Malcomson, who plays the prostitute Trixie on the show, determined that the screenplay was going to do right by her character. This assurance that “her voice is still so present” even a decade after the original timeline had wrapped was enough to pique further — if initially tentative — intrigue.

Not all cast members were totally convinced about the prospects of a Deadwood movie. Timothy Olyphant — also known as protagonist Seth Bullock — was considerably more skeptical in March 2018. Nevertheless, Robin Weigert, who portrays the rough and tough Calamity Jane in the series, really got us buzzing by confirming less than a week ago that “there’s a 90% chance [the reunion will] finally happen.”

And here we are. The band will be back together for a final hurrah, proving that sometimes we can have nice things. “Nice” being a relative term with regards to how one ought to “enjoy” Deadwood, of course.

Because frankly, the taxing nature of Deadwood makes it tough to engage with. I certainly didn’t think I’d care much for watching the show as someone who isn’t particularly fond of traditional westerns in general. The strong dependence on historicism gives the series a certain amount of clout, but it doesn’t sound as immediately innovative as something like Game of Thrones or Westworld.

Deadwood‘s general premise doesn’t sound all that fun either. The show is set in the eponymous camp-turned-town, tracking a fractured community’s growing pains from lawless settlement to cohesive society. The series is the epitome of a slow burner too, with each season following two weeks in the life of the town and every episode corresponding to a single day.

The sheer amount of discomfort inherent in the portrayal of a deliberately unbridled wild west is something else to contend with. Deadwood features many of the typical narrative tenets found in HBO programming, and these aspects can be problematically depicted to excess.

The series openly portrays assault, racism, and sexism to varying degrees. Whether such direct indulgence in these violent themes actually serves as any kind of commentary or critique of history will always be contentious.

Furthermore, a general sense of calculative ruthlessness permeates Deadwood by default anyway. The show’s overarching landscape dictates that characters probably have to maul one another for personal and professional survival. Their enterprises are more than likely to be such unforgiving affairs and overall, the series is just a massive commitment to even ingest.

Yet, for those willing to sit through all of that, Deadwood is still a town worth visiting, even if one’s stay is primed to be perpetually unpleasant. There are no outright heroes in Deadwood, and the series instead implores us to engage with multiple complicated, well-rounded characters. We won’t even like a good portion of them, at least not all the way through. Nevertheless, this proves that there is a flipside to painting an unflinching portrait of frontier life: being overt and unrelenting — with themes both good and bad — actually keeps the show grounded.

Deadwood Paula Malcomson Molly Parker

And yes, there are actually pockets of goodness to be found in Deadwood if you’re looking in the right place. The women — though few and far between — are slivers of hope amidst the muck and grime kicked around by the unsympathetic men surrounding them. Characters like Trixie, Jane, Molly Parker‘s Alma Garret, and Kim Dickens‘ Joanie Stubbs are often mired by deeply unfortunate circumstances. However, they also rise up above hardship and find independence and agency in their own ways.

The women of Deadwood are brave, resilient, and definitely far more heroic than the men, making them a vital driving force for hope in an uncompromisingly dark show. This is why Malcomson’s comments about Trixie’s prominence in the Deadwood film is an exhilarating one to consider. Weigart also spoke to Entertainment Weekly after the official announcement of the Deadwood film dropped, and details her hopes that her character Jane is allowed more opportunities to show her caring side, believing that “her passion and compassion will still be leading her.” Get these fantastic women back on my screen now!

Celebration is thus in order now that the will-they-or-won’t-they saga surrounding the Deadwood movie is actually coming to a desirable conclusion. There is a ton of TV out there vying for our attention, but Deadwood has always been one of the most self-assured programs out there and always deserved a more satisfying conclusion than it got back in 2006. And thus:

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)