I’ve spent about two or three months solid dreading the day I have to talk about Sia’s ill-gotten vanity project Music.
I’m in a less than enviable position as both a performer and writer on the autism spectrum - I get to be hyperconscious of the lack of representation both in front of and behind the camera. I’m as irritated as anyone else watching Sia and her cast stumble over themselves to convince audiences their missteps are actually a positive contribution to a wider dialogue about portrayals of people with disabilities, while still trying to sell their movie. I’m tired when I try to talk about it, and I’m tired when I say nothing, and as we march ever closer to an awards ceremony which has deigned to give Music a seat at the biggest table, those mixed frustrations are only going to be exacerbated.
But in my time off from being bitter and hurt by the existence of Music, I picked up Deadwood - and to make a long story short, I’m stunned by the fact that I found better representation in a primetime series from 2004 which used “curse words” as a major selling point.
And for better or worse, Deadwood set out to make its dialogue emulate the time period in which it was set- that being the real-world town of Deadwood, South Dakota, during the time of the Gold Rush - which means, of course, that there are a whole lotta slurs thrown into casual conversation. Where Deadwood differs from most instances of writers using gratuitously edgy language and displays of bigotry to punch up the grit of their show, however, is that the people affected by the biases of the day - sexism, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, ableism - are complex, human characters with their own agency, rather than victims to be observed and subsequently saved from oppression by Timothy Olyphant and his hat. Mr. Wu, for example, is often subject to verbal abuse at the hands of the misanthropic saloon owner Al Swearengen, who has little patience for meetings with him due to a severe language barrier - but the narrative makes a point to establish and repeatedly demonstrate that Mr. Wu, in spite of his difficulties communicating with a largely English-speaking camp, is just as much of a local power player as Al is, with all of the moral ambiguity that implies.
Likewise, rather than falling into the trap of the archetypical “inspirationally disabled” character - someone whose only real purpose is to inspire the audience or the cast surrounding them, a pure beacon of pure pureness who remains optimistic in spite of the odds - Jewel, a woman with cerebral palsy employed as cleaning lady at The Gem Saloon, is just doing her best under the circumstances, with no more of a moral high ground than anyone else has. She is never framed by the narrative as angelic or saintly; she’s as liable to get frustrated or lose her temper as often as any of the nicest folks in Deadwood. The one thing she has that no other character could have is a free license to sass misanthropic saloon owner Al Swearengen, who would 100% throw someone out the window for saying half the shit she says to him on a regular basis. Their dynamic is an early indication that Al has more of something resembling a soul than he lets on - but this is not to imply that Jewel is only ever trotted out when the writers want to push the “Al Might Be A Good Person, Actually” button. The series takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore what issues Jewel might face as a differently abled woman of her time, and how that ties into the themes of Deadwood as a whole.
For example: at the end of Deadwood’s first season, Jewel approaches Doc Cochran with a blueprint for a boot which would, hypothetically, allow her to support herself in lieu of dragging her leg behind her as she walks. Doc has clear reservations about such an experiment - he would obviously feel responsible if he were to cause her to lose the use of the leg entirely - but eventually he acquiesces and creates an adjusted version of the boot for her to try, albeit under strict instruction to inform him if it causes any manner of discomfort.
At the time Jewel comes to him with the concept, Doc is already struggling to deal with the slow deterioration of the local reverend due to a brain tumor: his inability to ease the reverend’s pain is stirring his own dark memories of his time as a Civil War medic, surrounded by mutilation and death on all sides. Even after the reverend is put out of his misery, Doc looks tired and defeated in the corner of the saloon - until Jewel approaches him and proudly announces that his boot works perfectly, with no trace of discomfort whatsoever. She pulls him up to dance with her, happily waltzing for what might be the first time in her life as the rest of the Gem’s employees watch. “Say ‘I’m as nimble as a forest creature’,” she playfully asks Doc, who responds: “I’m as nimble as a forest creature.”
In a lesser show, this would just be Doc’s moment to learn to believe in himself again, and let’s be clear that to an extent, he does - but it does not happen without Jewel, and if her agency were removed from this plotline, it would undermine the show’s central theme of people coming together out of chaos to create a community, with all of the benefits that implies. Doc built the boot, sure, but the need is Jewel’s, and the writers don’t downplay the research she did or the initiative she took to make it happen.
And Jewel does not disappear after she receives her boot, nor does she quietly slip into the background to be forever ignored by the narrative. While she doesn’t largely factor into any of season two’s twisty plotlines, she still gets as much to do as any other recurring character with the same amount of screen time she has, and gets opportunities to take action and be assertive in more relevant ways. When Al is rendered immobile on his floor by a number of kidney stones, nobody defies his orders to be left alone; not his favorite girl Trixie, not his lackies Dan or Johnny, nor Doc Cochran. Jewel, however, demands that Dan break Al’s door open and let Doc see him, which Dan does with little hesitation. It wouldn’t necessarily change anything in the narrative if that character beat were given to anyone else, but it’s stronger (and funnier) coming from Jewel because the show has already established that she can cross lines with Al which nobody else can cross, as well as her unique appreciation for Doc’s skills.
At the center of this conversation is, of course, actress Geri Jewell, who had already made a place for herself in broadcast history by being the first person with a visible disability to have a recurring role on a primetime program - the Diff’rent Strokes spin-off The Facts of Life. Jewell clearly did her research in terms of what the quality of life might have been for people with cerebral palsy at a time when there was no such label, and her performance feels organic to those experiences. Not to mention, Jewell is a fantastic performer, and more than holds her own in both dramatic and comedic scenes with heavyweights like Ian McShane and Brad Dourif. What we love about Jewel is owed to her authenticity and energy, and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jewell (let alone a neurotypical actor putting on a less than flattering gait) in her place. However, I think it’s important to note - especially given recent conversations - that the reason so much of this character is owed to her work is because Deadwood’s producer and writer David Milch deliberately chose to hand her the reins.
As Jewell relays it, when Milch cast her in the role, he pulled her aside and asked her to craft her own backstory for Jewel, who didn’t even have a name at the time. Jewell sent him just under twenty pages of character background, and Milch eagerly agreed to “98% of it”; the two exceptions being a childhood friendship with an adult Calamity Jane, which for obvious reasons would not have worked within the show’s timeline, and the name Jewell chose, which Milch asked to forego in favor of naming the character after her.
It’s rare to hear of a showrunner acknowledging their own blind spots while in the process of creating a television show: in most instances, you only see these acquiescences after the series has already gone to air and received the requisite backlash. Milch’s initiative to craft a story true to life during the Gold Rush extended to diverse experiences which were not his own, and to portray the complexity of those experiences, he chose to amplify voices which were not his own. It’s an example which not all of those in charge of creative endeavors depicting people with disabilities - let alone any marginalized community - are willing to fully take to heart to this day.
If Jewell is to be believed- and on principle, I have to trust a lesbian with cerebral palsy who titled her autobiography I’m Walking As Straight As I Can, which is the actual best title - at some point during the series’ development there were serious plans to pair up Jewel and Doc Cochran. Sure, it sits with the rest of the Deadwood plotlines which fell by the wayside on the trail to cancellation, but the fact that they considered it to the extent that they told the actors to make a point of getting familiar with one another is major enough to warrant a mention. I won’t speculate on what the narrative path to Jewel/Doc canon endgame would have actually consisted of, nor why it never made it into the show proper; I can, however, acknowledge that there are very few primetime series which feature a woman with a visible disability (a rarity in and of itself) in a mature romantic relationship. To know that this was under serious deliberation speaks to the respect the writers had for the character and the work Jewell was doing, and had it gone through it might have been a real landmark moment.
Still, even with what might have been put to one side, Jewel is a rare gift in a media landscape which habitually fails us: a disabled woman who is never infantilized nor disrespected by the writers, who is given opportunities to contribute to the narrative without needing to have her presence justified, who exists alongside the rest of the ensemble with an equal amount of depth and complexity - and an actress who was given the opportunity to speak to her own experience by people who recognized that they would not be able to appropriately do the same. Today, Sia and her team are desperate to spin Music’s exclusionary production as a positive gateway to a conversation about representation: Deadwood demonstrated years ago that there is very little reason we should still be having it.