‘Deadwood,’ The Television Renaissance, And Gender; Or, Calamity Jane Is Brienne Of Tarth

I’m behind on my Deadwood watching, but rather than leave you bereft on a Thursday, I wanted to think a bit about how the show fits into a framework Amanda Marcotte lays out in a provocative, and I think largely convincing, essay arguing that the defining feature of our current golden age of television is an examination of uneasy and untenable ideas about masculinity.

There’s no question that many of the great shows have put men squarely in the center of the frame, and featured women making critical, brittle decisions around them and in relation to them. Carmela Soprano and Skyler White are fascinating tragic figures, women, and most importantly wives, who have contemplated betraying their husbands, shedding that mantle of matrimony and becoming independent, morally integrated people, but who ultimately declined to act. The most arresting image of this season of Breaking Bad, for me at least, has been the sight of Skyler flipping coins at the Four Corners to determine if she should leave her increasingly monstrous husband and, resisting her own fate, pushing the coin back to New Mexico every time. Examining how men embrace, or run from, or reform their own masculinity is a first-order question for feminists in part because it determines what women have to react to, the space left for us to form our own identities, the things we will inevitably have to deal with and resolve as we continue our quest for equality.

But Deadwood shows us a world where the men at the center of the frame — and the show has a less rigid main character than the other shows on Amanda’s list — spend a lot of time tailoring their expressions of masculinity to the presence of women, and women struggle with the opportunities to redefine themselves that, if not exactly expansive, are broader on the frontier than they were at home. I’m not done with the show, and obviously there are falls to come. But watching Alma Garrett kick her drug addiction, put off her widow’s mourning, make love to Seth Bullock, plot revenge with Whitney Ellworth, and curse E.B. Farnum, claiming the territory of masculine crudeness and dark thinking for her own, is glorious. Trixie may be my favorite female character in the age of prestige television, vulnerable and striving, cautious of liberation, aware that there is always a price to be paid and suspicious of Sol Star, a man who wants to subvert the economy of desire. And Calamity Jane is Brienne of Tarth, more wedded to conceptions of honor than anyone around her, even if she can’t live up to her astronomically high standards.

Unlike all of the other television shows that define the golden era, programs in which the rules of business and of life are fixed, sometimes constricting to the point of physical and psychic death, Deadwood is about the creation of those rules in gender, and law, and business, the moments when we succeed and fail to make our own revolutions. It’s critical that we contemplate our cages, both the ones we’ve made ourselves and the ones designated for us. But the stories about what we do or don’t do in the moments when everything could be different are just as powerful.