Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Milch, David (Creator). Deadwood. [TV series]. HBO. Season 2 began March 6, 2005. Season 1 DVD release date: February 8, 2005. $99.98, www.hbo.com.

Reviewed by Beth Haller, Towson University

HBO has shown itself to be a promising purveyor of accurate images of people with disabilities over the years. It has leant its financial support to a number of independent documentary filmmakers who have completed important works on the real lives of people with disabilities such as King Gimp (1999 Academy Award winner) and Educating Peter (1992 Academy Award winner), both of which subsequently aired on HBO.

Now its original series Deadwood brings actress Geri Jewell to its ensemble cast. Jewell, an actress with cerebral palsy, is considered a TV pioneer because of her recurring role in the 1980s show The Facts of Life. With that role, Jewell is said to be the first person with a visible disability to be a recurring character on a TV show.

Her role on Deadwood is equally groundbreaking but in a more subtle way. The series' acknowledgement that people with disabilities were part of the fabric of the 19th century, and the Old West in particular, is what makes Jewell's inclusion so significant. Disability history tells us of the numerous people with disabilities integral to the formation of the United States (Lenihan, 1976), and finally a TV series is giving recognition to that fact.

Deadwood revolves around the real gold mining camp that became Deadwood, South Dakota. Deadwood creator David Milch said he wants the show to explore a unique place in U.S. history — a pre-civilized, rough-hewn community that was not yet part of the U.S.A. and sprung out of gold greed in 1876. "In March, there was nothing," Milch explained of the development of the Deadwood community in Indian Territory (HBO, 2004). "All the whites were lurking in the hills. In June, there were 10,000 people there. . . .It was not part of America. They were an outlaw community, and they knew it."

And I believe the show's desire to capture the realness of the Old West–its degradation, filth, and the random character of life–is what reminded Milch to include a disabled character. Jewell's character, nicely named Jewel, is an integral part of the show's ensemble. Jewell said she ended up in the show after she ran into Milch at a Santa Monica pharmacy in 2002, and he recognized her and asked if she wanted to be on the series (Wolk, 2004). Jewell also works as comedienne and corporate trainer and had a recurring role on The Young and the Restless in 2004.

Jewell's character is a maid at a saloon/brothel run by Al Swearengen (Golden Globe winner Ian McShane), one of the two main villains and community bosses in Deadwood. Swearengen is verbally abusive to everyone and Jewel is no exception. But she backtalks him with no repercussions and she is very loyal to him. Her character allows the audience to see the few glimmers of "good" in Swearengen, but it is not because he treats her well or nicely. But he does employ her, and her character's loyalty to him allows the audience to believe she must see some redeeming qualities within him.

Jewel appears in most episodes of the series, but in episode 11 of Season 1, she was a central character. In the episode, Jewel asks the town doctor to design a leg brace for her to help her walk with more ease and so she will no longer annoy Swearengen with her dragging foot. The dialogue and interactions between Jewel and Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) are imbued with such realism that you feel as if you are watching a true consultation. The doctor is a burnout from all the death, pain, and disfigurement he saw in the Civil War, and he is extremely cautious about helping Jewel for fear of injuring her.

Also, she brings along a Civil War medical book that illustrates the brace she would like him to make, which brings flashbacks of the war horrors for him. He initially says "No" but reconsiders and begins working on the brace.

In another scene, Jewel offers to bring Swearengen and his guest tea, and he quizzes her about why she visited the doctor, because his spies have already revealed her visit. She quips to him, "I'm knocked up." That shuts him up for a second, then he grabs the teapot and insults her ability to pour it without spilling. It's a unique moment for a TV show — treating a person with a disability equal to anyone else, even if that means treating her badly. And her retort to him even allows her character to have a sexual identity. In the real Deadwood, 90 percent of the women were prostitutes (HB0, 2004). Jewel doesn't appear to work as a prostitute, but viewers can be sure that if a patron requested her, Swearengen would offer her up quickly.

At the end of the episode, Jewel and Doc Cochran share a sweet moment. Earlier he has fitted her with the brace and admonished her to let him know if she has even the slightest discomfort from it. He later drinks himself into stupor because of the war memories her request brought up for him. Jewel sees him in the saloon and pulls him to his feet for a dance. It is a caring gesture of thanks because he is now "disabled" and she must lend her support to him.

Even when Jewel isn't the focus of an episode, she typically interacts with Swearengen once or twice in a given show. That makes the subtle statement that I wish more TV series would make — that people with disabilities have been and will continue to be part of the fabric of all American communities.

The only warning I would give potential viewers of Deadwood is to remember that it appears on a premium channel cable so it is filled with much foul language, nudity, sexual situations, graphic violence, and even grotesqueness (dead bodies are thrown into pig troughs as feed). But in the realistic vision of the Old West that David Milch has fashioned in Deadwood, all this seems extremely appropriate.


HBO. (2004). The real deadwood. http://www.hbo.com/deadwood/behind/therealdeadwood.shtml. Retrieved March 7, 2005.

Lenihan, J. (1976). Disabled Americans: A History. Washington, D.C.: President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

Wolk, J. (2004, April 16). Hey, Cuz! Entertainment Weekly, p. 69.

Copyright (c) 2005 Beth Haller

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