Set, as it is, several decades before women won the right to vote in the United States, one might be forgiven for expecting the women of David Milch’s Deadwood to fall into the seemingly set roles women have held in western after western. There’s the supportive frontier wife and the feisty prostitute, the nearly regal madam and the schoolteacher, even a woman who seemingly wishes to take on the role of a man to survive a male-dominated world.
But the women of Deadwood are more than types. Just as the men of Deadwood remade themselves in the process of transforming a piece of land into a mining camp, the women likewise came to begin anew. But where Deadwood’s men may have reinvented themselves once, the women of Deadwood have done it several times over.
Alma Garrett Ellsworth (Molly Parker) may be the Deadwood citizen who is the least like the person we first met. She has gone from a perpetually drugged trophy wife to one of the town’s foremost powerbrokers who clearly has the upper hand in her second marriage. When she first arrived in camp, Alma was deeply dependent on her husband, a stereotypical East Coast dandy who knew nothing of the ways of the frontier. She was weak, reliant on crutches of all sorts. But a string of events pushed her into the mainstream of Deadwood society. First, her husband was murdered, and she dealt with the calamity by breaking her addiction. Second, she found herself caring for a child, the victim of a massacre by agents only vaguely under the control of the series’ central character, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). Third, she was adopted into the body of Deadwood as a whole, and forged friendships with the prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson) and various men, including Wild Bill Hickock (Keith Carridine) and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), whom she would eventually take as a lover. Finally, Alma discovered that her gold claim (inherited from her dead husband) was extraordinarily rich, giving her by default plenty of leeway in her dealings with the locals.
An appearance by Alma’s father toward the end of Deadwood’s first season highlights how far the character had come by that point. He arrived on the scene to attempt to beg money from his daughter (he had previously pulled the strings that led to her cold, distant marriage he hoped would benefit him financially). Alma does not want to do what he asks, but fears she will slip back in to her old patterns. When Bullock gets word of what is happening, he beats her father horribly. She has awakened passion in him and he in her. By stripping away every bit of her comfortable life in East Coast society, Deadwood has forced Alma to be reborn as a calculating wheeler-dealer.
At the start of season two, Alma finds herself pregnant with Bullock’s child, even though he has left her for his wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) who has arrived at the camp. She decides to keep the baby (against Trixie’s counsel), and immediately throws herself into the affairs of Deadwood with renewed vigor, financing a new bank and arranging a new marriage that will both offer her and her children protection and allow her the maximum amount of maneuvering room. Alma seems to treat this second marriage (to her underling Ellsworth, played by Jim Beaver) as almost another form of negotiation.
The opening episodes of the third season find Alma mostly sidelined by a health problem. But her misfortune ripples throughout the town, evoking concern from a wide cross-section of its citizenry.
Curiously, my wife likes Alma the least of any of the female characters on Deadwood. She finds Alma to be, in so many words, a tremendous bitch. While this may be the simple byproduct of how the role is written and performed, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that Alma has had to make herself more like a stereotypical businessman than any other woman in the series. She has to to be taken seriously. While her money would get her to the table, to get what she wants she has to take the initiative; that requires her to sideline her emotions (the trait we most tend to associate with women, even in our ostensibly modern society). Gifted with the economic freedom she didn’t know she needed, and the ferocity of motherhood she thought would be denied to her, Alma is unafraid to take whatever is within her grasp.
If Alma is divisive, another female character is perhaps the most warm-hearted character on the show (as well as the most foul-mouthed). Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), based on a historical figure who lived in the real Deadwood, is the citizen of the town who is most open to other human beings. She’s willing to sit down with men of all races for a drink or two, and she cares for the plague-ridden Andy Cramed when he’s left to die in the middle of the forest. Indeed, as Milch points out on the commentary track for the pilot, Jane gained the nickname “Calamity” because she was willing to put herself in harm’s way. She scouted for Custer and helped the town’s reverend and doctor care for disease-ridden residents during the smallpox outbreak that began with the wastel Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier, whose character reinvented himself as a reverend).
If there’s one thing I dislike about the second season, which I generally consider superior to the first, it’s that Jane doesn’t have as much to do—she’s quite possibly my favorite character, or at least the character who is the easiest to love. Jane comes into sharp focus in the second season when she shares a drink with the Nigger General (Franklin Ajaye). While it’s jarring enough to hear the general tossing around a racial epithet most of us would never utter as a part of his name almost casually (even in our hip-hop-steeped culture), when Jane uses it, it feels almost as though the show will comment on the casual racism of the 1800s too overtly. Instead, Jane treats it as just another name, just another person she could turn in to a friend (it’s worth noting, perhaps, that Jane is drunk for most of the series, and perhaps that’s why she’s so accommodating).
Curiously, Jane is the series’ most outwardly masculine female character, but inwardly, she’s almost stereotypically female. She’s a romantic in many ways, still pining for her beloved Wild Bill, standing vigil at his grave and reporting the latest news of the town. She’s pining for a man who never could have been hers, one of the few in Deadwood actually devoted to his absent wife. Jane carries with her a whiff of the romance of the Old West, which may be why she was gradually marginalized as the series went along; she represented a world that was no longer still with the residents of Deadwood.
Jane seems utterly without a self-promoting motive (unusual for this show), able to be trusted by just about anyone in Deadwood. Bullock calls on her for law enforcement purposes (she has guarded prisoners on a few occasions). And in the Season Three premiere, when Joanie Stubbs, at her lowest point, needs someone to turn to, she turns to Jane. Jane is as able to cuss out a wrongdoer as she is to recount her exploits with the Army before an audience of schoolchildren. Despite having one of the foulest mouths in Deadwood, she ranks with the whitest of the series’ murky white hats.
While Alma and Jane both represent, in many ways, the ways in which women of the frontier could learn to exist as separate individuals in a male-dominated society, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) acts as a cautious reminder of just how fleeting that sort of power could be. While she also tries to build a life for herself that will be separate from, but equal to, the lives of the men around her, the world foils her. Joanie came to town with saloon owner and pimp Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), a man who has trouble shifting with the times. At first, she was Cy’s prize—his lover and his finest working girl. Despite this, Joanie began to stand out from the gaggle of whores at Cy’s place. It was clear she had ambition (she colluded with other employees to make sure she would escape any untenable situation), and she also seemed to harbor desire for other women (in particular a teenager who came to Deadwood—played memorably by Kristen Bell). When that teenager was cruelly slaughtered by Cy, Joanie began to separate from him, even announcing that she couldn’t work for him anymore.
In the second season, Joanie sets up her own brothel, Chez Amie. At first she prospers, thanks to her natural business sense and help from friends. But she is soon trapped when Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), the advance man for mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), takes a liking to her girls. But something is not quite right with Mr. Wollcott, and he soon kills three of Joanies employees, including her longtime friend Maddie (Alice Krige), who betrayed Joanie moments before Wolcott slit her throat. When Cy sides with Wolcott, Joanie is isolated and made powerless, forced to send her girls away and nearly bankrupt herself. She has no choice but to return to Cy, and when the third season begins, she is in a dark place.
The story of Joanie’s brothel might seem a mere plot mechanism (a glimpse of Wolcott’s evil depths here, a little prostitute intrigue there) if not viewed within the context of Deadwood’s feminist aspirations. Women can be free in Deadwood only up to a point. Once that point is reached, a woman needs money (Alma) or a guileless personality and sharpshooting abilities (Jane) to be taken seriously. Otherwise, it’s far too easy to end up as collateral in the ever-twisting machinations of Deadwood’s men. This would seem to be a statement by Milch and his writing staff on how the mechanics of institutions, from business and politics to war, often hurt society’s most vulnerable members.
Still, Joanie, like the other prostitutes of Deadwood, is resourceful. One can only assume she’ll bounce back. Indeed, she’s roughly at the same point as Trixie (Paula Malcomson) when the series began. When we first met Trixie, she was a bit of a shell, just another girl Swearengen could sleep with (though, admittedly, his favorite). But she, too, is jarred out of her state of being by young Sofia, Alma’s future adoptee. In caring for the girl, Trixie finds strength. She goes against Al for the first time and helps wean Alma off of laudanum, even though Al wanted her doped up to make it easer to wrestle away her gold claim. When Al threatens Trixie, she stands up to him; soon she’s defying him with regularity. By season two, Trixie seems largely free of Al’s control, learning about accounting from her lover, Sol Starr (John Hawkes). As season three begins, it seems that she and Sol may settle into something approaching a domestic lifestyle.
But Trixie isn’t just a “prostitute with a heart of gold” or someone who manages to embrace the semblance of a dream and rise above a miserable situation. She’s also a bit of a mother figure to the other women of Deadwood. She’s the de facto leader of the Gem girls, and when Alma fears she’s pregnant and won’t be able to deliver the baby, or needs general counsel, she turns to Trixie. The latter’s reinvention is just as pronounced as Alma’s, but since she’s doing it largely under a man’s supervision, it’s not as noticeable. But she’s seized control of her life, finding a way to rebuild herself as someone who will be useful to the community evolving from lawlessness to civility. And that’s what sets the women of Deadwood apart from the men and makes the show quite possibly the most feminist program on television: They’re always reinventing, rebuilding, forcing themselves through painful processes of rebirth. And they tend to look out for each other.
While most of Deadwood’s men haven’t changed remarkably since the series began (journeying mainly from conflict to compromise), the women are all noticeably different people after two full seasons. They’ve improved their situations and made better lives for themselves. If Deadwood is a metaphorical journey through America (as many have argued it is), the most American characters of all are the women, which is a truly radical notion for a Western.
Even Martha, who could have so easily become the quiet schoolmarm from westerns stretching from Stagecoach to Back to the Future III, singlehandedly takes on the task of educating the town’s children. And we see in the third season just how difficult a task like this would be. While the men of Deadwood fight, the women make peace, forming unlikely alliances that prove unusually strong (Alma and Trixie, for example). One could even make the argument that if the men of Deadwood suggest what America actually is (brutish, only willing to compromise when there’s no other option), the women represent America’s best self-image: kind, capable of reinvention and agreement with others.
The women of Deadwood are passionate, fully realized human beings. While that’s not an unusual notion for HBO (the women of The Sopranos and even Big Love are complex and complete), it’s a rare sight elsewhere on TV. Just look at at Rescue Me, in many ways a fine show (and one that’s funnier than any sitcom on the air right now). But its treatment of women is ridiculous. It can’t even be bothered to take the path of least resistance and categorize its female characters as virgins, mothers or crones. They’re all shrews, demanding, and taking, everything from their men and giving little back. One could claim this is a subjective view—that we’re seeing the women as the show’s men see them—but that argument doesn’t hold up when you consider the fate of Diane Farr’s character, who was built up as “one of the guys” in the firehouse but still eventually succumbed to shrew’s disease. Rescue Me understands a lot about the interplay between men better than almost any show on the air, but its depiction of women borders on sexist.
This gender imbalance at the script level can also be seen on House. This medical drama suffers from a general inability, or unwillingness, to offer supporting players as intriguing as its title character (Hugh Laurie). But the women, in particular, are poorly drawn. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) is just a dewy-eyed innocent who vainly waits for our hero to realize how nubile and loving she could be (ironically, Cameron is more like a Victorian heroine than any woman on Deadwood, a show that is actually set during the Victorian era). If Cameron is the aforementioned feminists’ virgin, then Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) is the crone, constantly butting up against House and making his life miserable. While these characters occasionally manage snappy rejoinders (their interplay with House is always entertaining), they aren’t as developed as they should be. Not so the women of Deadwood. They point the way forward from their 19th century frontier camp life all the way to the suffrage movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. Milch has taken stock Western characters and made them breathe.
Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of South Dakota Dark, a blog about television and popular culture.