The Society Method: A Portrait of Alma Garret Ellsworth

Among hardcore Deadwood fans, a discussion of favorite characters could go back and forth for hours.

The Society Method: A Portrait of Alma Garret Ellsworth
Photo: HBO

Among hardcore Deadwood fans, a discussion of favorite characters could go back and forth for hours. When the debate shifts to assigning a least favorite character, though, the verdict comes down in a hurry: Alma Garret Ellsworth. While the other characters’ flaws and failures get treated with empathy and seriousness, Alma’s characterization usually hews to Farnum’s harsh summation: “A haughty cunt.” True, her biography doesn’t engender a rooting interest—she marries into New York high society, comes to Deadwood ostensibly seeking adventure among the unwashed, lays around her hotel room in ball gowns doing drugs the whole time, and, when her husband dies, takes up with the married sheriff. Meanwhile, her inherited gold claim turns into an unwitting bonanza. Her hostile reception among viewers, though, may ultimately be the result of her character’s many ambiguities. With Alma (Molly Parker) what looks like one thing often turns out to be another.

Alma’s getting high again after more than a year of sobriety, and the consequences show up at first in the tiniest of ways. On the morning of the opening of her new bank in the fourth episode of Season Three, her husband, Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), coyly produces the gift of an apple. “You don’t confuse me with Mrs. Bullock?” she grins, referring to the camp’s schoolteacher. Her ill-considered attempt at playfulness knocks the proud look off of Ellsworth’s face, as it slowly dawns on Alma that she has offered another reminder that “Mrs. Bullock” is who she wishes to be.

Later at the bank, Alma handles a deposit herself from Leon (Larry Cedar), the camp’s functioning junkie she has enlisted to score for her, in an expertly played scene that offers the first substantial clues that Alma is using. When she refers to his savings as “forward looking,” Leon replies, “Oh, I’m keen-eyed. Ahead and behind.” He stares at her earnestly, as if offering deep assurance that he can be trusted not to botch their mutual transactions. All the while, Alma maintains cool indifference to his familiar tone. Trixie (Paula Malcomson), perhaps Deadwood’s shrewdest judge of intentions, watches the gamesmanship from across the bank with incipient suspicion. Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) bursts in with business of his own, and, though he need only sign his deposit, Alma asks Leon to wait while she attends to Bullock. Leon, for his part, makes a big show of waving and blowing on his deposit slip, as if the ink needs assistance to dry. Bullock leaves, and Leon looks pleased with himself, like together he and Alma fooled the sheriff. His conspiratorial buzz draws a look of contempt from Alma; they’re a junkie pair in cahoots, but she can’t see her reflection in low-class Leon.

That night, in what starts out as a Norman Rockwell portrait of domestic satisfaction, Alma gazes out the window while Ellsworth and Sofia play checkers by the soft glow of kerosene lamps. She keeps looking out the window and swallows nervously as Ellsworth recites a paean to her beauty and benevolence. When Leon appears out of the dark, skulking in the yard and signaling with his hat, Alma fashions a beatific grin for her family and softly announces, “I’ll take the air, just briefly.” Ellsworth, chin in hand and clueless, lovingly consents. As Alma exits their home, she looks back, knowing she got away with it this time.

Her addled behavior quickly becomes more pronounced. (By Alma’s own assessment, one physical manifestation of her highness is a tendency toward overtly sexual body language:in season one, she pretends to be high in front of Farnum for strategic reasons too complex to address here. When Farnum reports the meeting to Swearengen, he titters, “The dope made the widow randy.”) The next day—in Episode Five,“A Two-Headed Beast”—Alma sits sumptuously stroking a plant on her desk at the bank while the newspaperman A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) attempts to interview her for an article about the bank opening. Alma trims the plant as she delivers a rhapsodic and self-serving monologue about how deposits at her bank can be made in confidence (Merrick, distracted by her flirtatious lolling, pens a puff piece on the bank in which he describes her as “serene and comely.”). After the interview, Alma leans back in her chair, inhales as if overcome by a heavenly odor and licks her lips, obviously high as hell. The reverie ends when she catches Trixie glaring at her; Alma sits forward and busies herself at her desk, contemplating just how much Trixie has figured out.

Trixie, vexed by this development, tries to unburden herself to Sol, referring to “the bank’s founder and president…of air-headed smugness and headlong plunges unawares into the fucking abyss.” Sol, concerned primarily with his carnal needs, doesn’t take her meaning. No matter: the others will find out in short order, either from Alma’s behavior or from Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), who strongarms Leon into divulging who he’s copping for on the suspicion that it’s Lila, one of his whores whose income has bottomed out.

Deadwood’s creator, David Milch, is himself a recovering addict of many stripes, and the cast is littered with incarnations of his past: junkies, drunks, degenerate gamblers, control freaks. For most of them, their affliction is judged as merely a part of them (“What is Steve the Drunk’s surname?” Alma asks while completing a loan) and accepted as such, like bad hair or a bum knee; Doc Cochran’s whiskey habit isn’t the subject of a whispering campaign. In Alma’s case, though, her history of drug use draws reproof from all corners of town. As Deadwood’s only expatriate from upper class society, she is held to a separate standard.

So what triggers Alma’s relapse? Certainly the taste of laudanum supplied by Doc Cochran to treat the pain from her illness and subsequent abortion plays a role, but to attribute it solely to that feels too pat. Alma seems genuinely committed at that stage to staying clean, and her claim that she threw away the leftover drugs from Doc is credible; after all, making such a symbolic public gesture is the easy part. One factor might be the humiliation dished out by Hearst when she tries to partner up their gold claims, which starkly reminds Alma that the only thing elevating her from the woman who arrived in camp a junkie was a lucky strike. Another take, one that seems counterintuitive on the surface, is that she is flush from her success with the opening of the bank; her renewed confidence allows her to drop her vigilance at a moment of vulnerability. Or perhaps her true addiction is to being helpless, with a series of surrogates in the role of protector: Brom Garret, who she doesn’t love but marries to clear her family’s debts; Bullock, who stands between her and Swearengen’s play for her gold claim; and Ellsworth, the steady and capable superintendent of that claim. Now, closing in on independence with the successful opening of her bank, she’s returning to the lowest sort of helplessness at the very moment when she doesn’t need anyone.

Whatever the cause, Alma’s habit is escalating toward its plateau of the previous summer. On the night of Episode Five, she sits at her vanity and gulps laudanum (a liquid opiate she dilutes in water, the society method) with a shaky hand. After gathering herself, she moves to the bed and folds back the spread, perhaps hoping for a more graceful entry if her intentions pan out. Seeing her reflection in the mirror, she pinches her cheeks in a vain attempt to look less like a ghost. Unsatisfied, she nonetheless steels herself to do something she’s yet to attempt: engage Ellsworth romantically. This moment of premeditation is telling: she has to get higher than usual to have sex with Ellsworth, since (as his presence around town keeps reminding her) it’s Bullock she really wants. But she can’t waver now; junkie logic tells her a sexually placated husband is less likely to blanch upon discovery of her indiscretions. She listens outside the bathroom door as Ellsworth bathes, then asks, in a series of failed moves, whether he needs towels, hot water, or his back washed. Ellsworth is, in turn, startled, confused, and embarrassed by these advances coming from a woman he assumes has no interest in a sexual relationship with him. He leaps from the tub and hastily dresses to thwart the awkwardness. When he exits the bathroom, though, Alma is still there. She fixes his hair and strokes his beard, and now, face-to-face, her affection genuinely moves Ellsworth. She closes her eyes and moves in for a kiss, and when it ends Ellsworth watches her for his cue. What appears at first to be a look of blissful passion from Alma on closer inspection turns out to be plain old junkie nodding. He recoils from her second kiss, declares that he will arrange to retrieve his possessions later, and asks if she would like him to collect Sofia. Crestfallen by the sudden rebuke, Alma pulls herself together enough to hold claim to the one thing she’s done right, which is care for Sofia. When she asserts, “I’ll collect Sofia,” Ellsworth’s bitter comeback stings: “Don’t forget.”

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Barry Maupin

Barry Maupin was born and raised in Kansas City. He moved to Los Angeles in 1992, where he played bass for the Jobes and recorded two albums. He lives in Northampton, MA with his wife, Lisa.

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