The Deadwood movie shows there's still a big difference between films and prestige TV

A two-hour film, no matter how well executed, was never going to match the storytelling of the show

A scene from Deadwood.
(Image credit: Warrick Page/HBO)

There were so many reasons for the Deadwood movie to be disappointing. The weight of nostalgia it carried was too heavy, the gap in time too great, the world changed too much in the interim. Even putting aside the state of his health, creator David Milch was reportedly not allowed to make the movie in the wild, last-minute way that he had made the show (writing dialogue mere hours before they were shot and making production choices based on who was around). Instead, he wrote scripts, delivered the pages to HBO for approval, and then shot them. They were good pages, as it turned out; not nearly as random as the show often was — and a lot of the beats were re-treads of season three — but I don't think anyone went away unsatisfied. I found Calamity Jane's part very moving, Swearengen and Bullock are wonderful foils for each other, and Hearst still serves as a wonderful villain. In short — once you got past how old everyone looks — it looked and sounded and felt exactly the way that Deadwood feels.

Yet can we ever return to a western like Deadwood? In a sense, we didn't. I'm pretty sure that the real ending was always to have been the fire that really did burn down the town in 1879, and which the three seasons of the show heavily foreshadowed. We'll never get that ending. If David Milch had planned in 2003 to build to a fiery climax, what we got instead was a family reunion, a revival, a classic album re-recorded by the band's surviving members. It was good for what it was, but that's what it was. And I don't want to come off as critical of what was, at its heart, a curtain call. But the reason a two-hour "movie" could only be disappointing is that Deadwood was a television show — delivered in 12-episode seasons — and this was a movie, a fundamentally different thing.

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Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady is a founding editor at Popula. He was an editor at The New Inquiry and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, Pacific Standard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakland, California.