We might never learn the real truth -- oh, I mean, yeah, we probably will at some point, but indulge my lede a minute -- but my theory about the end of the superior HBO western series goes as follows: Creator David Milch, who wrote many of the "Deadwood" scripts among other things, was basically forced by his bosses at HBO to direct more of his energies to his new contemporary surfing series, "John From Cincinnati.' In return, he was initially promised two two-hour movies to give "Deadwood" a proper send off, as a kind of last season. Only, they double-crossed him, had no intention of filming the "Deadwood" movies, and only told him that to get him busy on this new show they were really excited about. Incensed after learning of HBO's betrayal, Milch proceeded to write one of the worst, most bizarrely convoluted and constructed series in recent memory with "John," and HBO, horrified, cancelled it after a lone, utterly bizarre season.
Anyway, that's one man's opinion. What remains of "Deadwood" is classic Milch: Brilliant, frustrating, irritating and ultimately, unfulfilled. The swirling storyline, involving historic figures and real side people alongside fictional add-ins, amidst the growing concern of a South Dakota frontier town on the brink of annexation by the U.S., is part Shakespearian theater, part historic re-enactment and part profane human condition at its most ugly. It also forces you to constantly assess and re-assess your estimations of many of its main characters. The hero sheriff, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), is righteous and vengeful, but also has an illicit affair with a wealthy widow (Molly Parker) before having to marry the wife (Anna Gunn) of his recently murdered brother; the chief villain, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, in an unforgettable role), the murderous and conniving owner of a bar and brothel in town, starts out as evil incarnate, but soon morphs into the most convincing, engaging and sympathetic character on the show; Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), a real-life superstar amongst western heroes, idly plays cards and doesn't seem terribly much interested in furthering any more of his legacy.
Over the course of three tangled, soliloquy-rich seasons, Milch brought in so many side characters and fascinating opposing elements that you could forgive him the inevitable dull sequences where you were stuck having to pay attention to a particularly loathsome, petty or irritatingly verbose character, whose cares and aspirations you found utterly without engagement. In that way, I suppose, the end of the last episode, in which our rag-tag group of original settlers leave Swearengen's bar to engage in a winner-take-all battle against the beyond-evil capitalist George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) and his personal army of mercenaries, is fitting enough. We'll never know what happened (well, again, unless we read some history books), but, like Butch and Sundance, we depart never having to witness them beaten, bloody and broken. Half-sprawling masterpiece, half-long-winded mendacity, Milch's magnificently lurching creation was as close to witnessing the very beginnings of a civilization's growing pains as the TV might ever capture.
This special Blu-ray boxed set includes many hours of bonus content, including an interview with Milch about the conclusion of the show, a feature on the real-life inhabitants who inspired the show's characters and an audition reel of Al Swearengen.