The world ends when you’re dead

Like it or not, the third season of Deadwood—released last month in a customarily beautiful DVD set by the rats at HBO—is probably the show’s last gasp. There’s still talk of a pair of movies to wrap things up, but creator David Milch is knee-deep in the unrepentantly woo-woo John From Cincinnati, and Deadwood’s cast and crew have moved on. Too bad. The series was perfectly poised for a season-long denouement, so a four-hour where-are-they-now finale would be little more than fan kibble.

Given that, this last set offers diehards a chance to reassess Deadwood’s trickiest season, and gives neophytes another opportunity to see what all the fuss was about. In some ways the antithesis of the preceding seasons, this one spends its 12 episodes defying viewer expectations. Even the richly profane vocabulary of the eponymous camp’s brutal éminence grise, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), is restrained, and fist-happy lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) mostly keeps his free-floating rage bottled up. Moreover, a good portion of the narrative is driven by new characters—particularly the leader of a visiting theater troupe (Brian Cox)—at the expense of established ones.

But Deadwood is about nothing if not flux, and its most powerful facet always has been a deft understanding of the clash between individual desire and collective aspirations. In the broadest terms, the show concerns itself with what, if anything, human beings (specifically American ones) owe each other. Watching Deadwood’s burgeoning community lose its grasp on civility in the face of its own worst impulses—terrifyingly personified by carpet-bagging capitalist goon George Hearst (Gerald McRaney)—is as illuminating as it is heartbreaking. It also provides a conclusion of sorts, though hardly a happy one. But then who expected Milch, HBO, or history to tell us something pretty?