Sunday 16 June 2019

Deadwood: The Movie gives series a surprisingly warm, almost sentimental finale

Pat Stacey: It was worth a 13-year wait to bid farewell to a classic series

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in the long-delayed finale of Deadwood
Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in the long-delayed finale of Deadwood

Pat Stacey

Thirteen years is a considerable amount of time in the average human life. In television, it’s something close to an eternity.

An awful lot about the medium has changed since 2006, when Deadwood was unceremoniously cancelled by HBO after three seasons, during which David Milch’s magnificent series subverted and reinvented the Western.

Put it this way: the top-rated drama series on US TV that year was CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which looks terribly old-fashioned and episodic by modern standards.

The way television is packaged, presented and watched has been radically altered by the rise of Netflix, which created, for better or worse, the culture of binge-watching by making all episodes of a series available at the same time.

Game of Thrones proved that the traditional one-episode-a-week way of doing things hadn’t been totally obliterated by streaming. Then again, Game of Thrones had a huge following and sky-high ratings.

Ratings were never Deadwood’s strongest point. Its peak audience in the US for the first season was 4.5 million. By the end, it was attracting just 2.4 million viewers.

Deadwood was ultimately felled by a combination of low viewing figures, high production costs and corporate squabbling over money between HBO and co-producer Paramount.

The one thing that hadn’t changed in the intervening 13 years, however, was the public clamour for one last season that would give the series and its rich cast of characters the proper ending they deserved.

**WARNING: SPOILERS**

Finally, in the small hours of Saturday morning, after years of rumours and false starts, viewers in Ireland, Britain and the United States got their longed-for bit of closure with Deadwood: The Movie (although the on-screen title was just plain Deadwood), set in 1889, 10 years after the events of season three, just as South Dakota is about to enter the Union as the 40th state.

Such a great series deserved a bigger finale than a single film the length of two regular episodes; in the circumstances, though, it was a lot more than we thought we’d ever see back in 2006, and far better than we had any right to expect.

Gratifyingly, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Maybe this wasn’t Deadwood at its absolute, towering best, but it was still the Deadwood we used to know and love, albeit it one where modernity, in the shape of a public telephone, is beginning to exert a civilising influence.

Nearly all of the main characters who had survived to the end of season three were present, including Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Sol Star (John Hawkes) and Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif).

And pretty much all of them got their moment to shine. As with the first season, which focused heavily on the murder of Wild Bill Hickok (one of the many real events that featured in Milch’s wonderful weaving together of history and fiction), the plot engine here was also an unlawful killing.

The loathsome George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now a US senator but still as vicious and corrupt as ever, has town favourite Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) murdered so he can grab his valuable land.

In a way, though, story was secondary to the unashamed sense of celebration at getting the old gang back together one last time.

Ironically, for a series in which so many the characters were motivated by selfishness, ambition, greed or unadulterated wickedness, this was a surprisingly warm, almost sentimental finale. Even Al Swearengen got a moving death scene.

There’s added poignancy in the fact that David Milch is suffering from Alzheimer’s. This was most likely his final work for television.

He’s a very special writer who created a very special series. Both deserved a very special farewell act.

Deadwood: The Movie is available on Sky Atlantic catch-up

Read more: Black Mirror, Big Little Lies, Deadwood movie, Too Old to Die Young among June streaming highlights

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