“All bleeding stops eventually,” says Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) during David Milch’s feature-length epilogue to his previously unfinished Western symphony, Deadwood. A truth that Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) should know better than anybody.
After all, when we last saw the apparently cold-veined, crime-lord saloon owner, he was down on his knees, scrubbing at a thick pool of blood on his floorboards. It was the mess of a murder — by him, of an innocent girl, to save the life of Trixie (Paula Malcolmson), who’d attempted to kill businessman George Hearst (Gerarld McRaney). The vengeful Hearst seemed hoodwinked by the switcheroo, but we knew it wasn’t over between him and the gold town’s denizens. Except… It was. HBO axed the show — one of its finest, up there with The Wire and The Sopranos — and we were all left dangling. Until now.
At first, Milch’s long-awaited return to Deadwood, directed by HBO stalwart Daniel Minahan, feels a bit strange. The town is a little less grubby, a little less muddy (though maybe that’s just the high-def), and its residents are a bit saggier and greyer. They don’t seem to have moved on much, either. It’s as if they’ve been left in gentle stasis since the end of Season 3.
Deadwood doesn’t feel cinematic – it is closer to a compressed fourth season.
Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) is still the town’s stiff-backed Marshall. Weaselly E.B. Farnum still runs the hotel and acts as a sham mayor. The Doc’s still sawing bones and scowling over his spectacles. Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) remains a Madam, though she’s now taken over Cy Tolliver’s Bella Union (Powers Boothe having sadly left us since Deadwood’s last airing). Calamity Jane’s (Robin Weigert) still a loveably sozzled swaggart. And Al’s still up there on his Gem Saloon balcony, beadily surveying his hill-shadowed domain for threats and opportunities.
Of course, things have changed. Al’s liver is failing, for a start, and he’s far mellower than we’ve ever seen him before. McShane marinates the old rogue with an empathic world-weariness that warms the edges of his gruff cussing, and makes you wonder how you ever coped without him on your telly for all those years. The town itself, meanwhile, is no longer filled with jostling gold prospectors. The future itself has arrived in Deadwood, via steam-powered locomotives and telephone wires, with Hearst, now a senator, returning to exploit it for all its worth and predictably settle some old scores.
Though this was originally billed as a “movie”, Deadwood doesn’t feel cinematic. It is closer to a compressed fourth season, its sub-two-hour running time taking in a birth, a funeral and a wedding, with its developments coming thicker and faster than a Game of Thrones finale. It doesn’t really have any surprises up its sleeve, either; plot-wise it’s as straight as Main Street, its characters behaving as you’d expect, and its revelations well signposted.
But that doesn’t matter. It is a hugely welcome reunion, and a pleasure to wallow once more in Milch’s rich, poetic but curse-studded dialogue, which is as flowery and filthy as it ever was, right down to its beaut of a last line. There is also an oddly feelgood tone to the whole piece. We are re-joining these people after they’ve long-since bonded as a community, and that is how they face the latest threat from Hearst: old cocksucker foes unified against a greater cocksucker.
Finally, tantalisingly, it doesn’t really feel like an ending. While it doesn’t quite pull a Sopranos, if you crave closure, you might be a little frustrated. But Milch chooses his exit well, taking a door that might just swing both ways. There is, you sense, still some blood left in Deadwood. Still, this is a finely wrought return to a modern Golden Age TV classic, which more than makes up for its lack of surprises with the almost tender treatment of its characters, and dialogue that’s written to be relished.