The Mark of the Whore: How HBO Needs to Reexamine the Female Characters in “Deadwood”

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If you’ve got the kind the kind of thirst that can only be quenched in Deadwood, South Dakota, you’re in luck! HBO’s period drama DEADWOOD is headed back to the small screen with a long-awaited revival film. TVLine reports that HBO is aiming to kick off production on the revival next autumn. Which is awesome! When I was introduced to the show, I watched all three seasons in a week. Perhaps it was because the expletive-heavy drama spoke to me like a sort of culling song.

Deadline reports sources outside HBO say former castmates have already read the script. Previously, it was rumored that the script picks up after Deadwood burns down, and Al Swearengen escapes via barge. Historically speaking, this would occur on September 26, 1879, and 300 homes would be demolished by the flames. This provides an incredible jumping off point for characters who always seem to get the short end of the stick… in particular, the women. Hopefully, we can expect more from this revival than the initial series provided the few women who helped drive the show’s plot.

It’s not that they’re poorly formed or one note, but that they get stuck in the ideals we have come to subscribe to women, like the myth of motherhood. Something we came up with at the turn of the century to placate women who had, until that time, worked as near equals with their husbands, especially when they lived outside big cities. The idea that women were delegated as the sole bearers of “maternal instinct” is a purely contemporary notion. So it’s also eye-rollingly typical to pigeonhole these characters into the stigmatized roles of not just their time, but ours.

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Women in the wild west performed a multitude of roles outside of motherhood and prostitution. Not just because they wanted to, but because they had to take on roles they may never have intended in order to survive. Others had the passion and drive to work in a chosen field. According to the National Cowboy Museum, women of the time held down jobs like musician, politicians, prospectors, photographers, steer wrestlers (yes this was a real thing), and writers.

Alma Garret (Molly Parker) starts her journey to Deadwood a married woman, but shortly after she arrives, her husband is murdered and she inherits a land rich with gold — making her instantaneously attractive to men with bad intentions. Even Seth Bullock is weak for her, though he does not want her money. His weakness is for Alma’s typecast boring-as-hell madonna-whore complex. Of course, Alma’s a wonderful mother to the Sofia Metz, the orphan she took in… at least, when she’s not tripping over her on-again-off-again drug problem. Still, Alma gets things done. She takes all her gold and starts the first bank in Deadwood. Too bad, big creepy bully George Hearst shows up. He murders Alma’s second husband and chases her out of town.

Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) blows into town alongside sex monger, and lover Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) to help run the upscale saloon/whore house the Bella Union. Joanie’s a former working girl who knows all the tricks of the trade. Eventually, she decides to cut Cy out of her business, leaving him to run her own whore house, the Chez Amis. Even though Cy urges Joanie to spread her wings, he never forgives her for leaving him. Cy picks a fight with Francis Wolcott who ends things by stabbing several of the Chez Mis’ sex workers. This act “frees” Joanie from her life in sex work and she takes up with local alcoholic, Calamity Jane, and turns the Chez Mis into a schoolhouse. Because women characters always have to repent for who they are.

Jane Canary (Robin Weigert) is a woman with nothing and no one to live for. After her idol Wild Bill Hickock is killed, Jane starts drinking… and drinking… and drinking until she finds purpose in protecting Alma’s orphan, Sophia. In doing this, she forges a friendship with Doc Cochran, who eventually enlists Jane to help him take care of Deadwood’s ill after an epidemic of smallpox breaks out. Jane might be brave for others, but she cannot take up for herself. She hints at having an abusive father and continually finds herself in the path and pattern of abusive men. Instead of getting out of Deadwood for good, Jane falls for Joanie.

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Trixie is Al Swearengen’s number one girl at the Gem Saloon. Their relationship is abusive, but Al favors and shows affections that are supposed to make up for his complete inability to love. Trixie makes up for having sex for a living by being one of the most compassionate members of Deadwood and helps Alma detox from dope… but don’t let that fool you! Trixie’s as deadly as she is sexy. and by the end of the series, she snaps on Hearst and attempts to kill him. Eventually, she starts a relationship with Saul Star because the only natural direction for a female character is with someone else.

These are rich, interesting characters in their own right. I fell in love with these women and the obstacles they had to overcome, even though most of the time those obstacles were men. However, there’s really no reason that they had to be inept and dependant on the men around them. The fact that no one thought to have Alma actually learn how to prospect forces her character to have to be tethered to a revolving door of pointless men. There’s no denying the writing on the original show was spectacular, which is why I am so excited that there will be more to see. However, the particular climate in Hollywood calls for writers and creators to evolve. Women are so much more than beings who show up to help drive the plot of male characters.

Probably my favorite moment of the whole show was when Trixie confessed to Swearengen that she missed turning tricks. Not because Swearengen chastises her about appreciating her new life, but because she was truly being Trixie. Now, what could have happened if writers afforded her the ability to evolve into who she wanted instead of what the men in her life needed to be.

If anything, the Deadwood reboot needs to allow its female characters to finally become the only thing they ever were, strong women who aren’t sticking around to make the men more interesting. Hopefully, the revival takes this into account and doesn’t disappoint and ostracise its feminist fanbase.


Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.

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2 Comments

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  2. Talk about viewing things thru a narrow lens. Milch and team did an amazing job with all the characters 1st time around. Don’t imagine they need someone telling them how characters should be or arc this time around.. so that they can appease some flaw that isn’t in the series or contribute to a critic’s (or fan) agenda.

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