Victorian Women on Drugs, Part 4: The Female Addicts of Deadwood

Today, Points presents the final installment of guest blogger Kristina Aikens four-part series on Victorian women and drugs. Today, Kristina looks at the constructed reality of drug use in the HBO series Deadwood.

Alma and Trixie, two of the women of Deadwood

For my last blog post, I turn from texts actually from the nineteenth century to a story created in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. HBO’s Deadwood was a successful television Western, set in a lawless gold-rush camp in the 1870s. While much of the plot revolves around male power struggles over the camp’s resources and financial opportunities as the frontier moves toward civilization, this post will focus on the show’s female characters, particularly the way Deadwood uses opium use to signal women’s attempts to escape a misogynistic society and form bonds with other women. It is striking that the three main female characters in Deadwood’s first season are all depicted as addicts: Calamity Jane is an alcoholic, while the prostitute Trixie and the Northern lady Alma Garret struggle with addiction to opium. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I will focus here on Alma and Trixie, asking what this says about the show’s depiction of femininity.**

In the commentary for the first episode of the series, creator David Milch says, regarding Alma Garret’s addiction: “When you’re raised essentially to serve someone else’s purpose sometimes you try to create an artificial environment where you can meet your own needs. I think that’s how a lot of junkies and alcoholics get started.” Though Milch suggests this description could apply to any substance abusers, male or female, his comment seems particularly resonant with the female characters on the show. Male drug addicts on the show are generally depicted one-dimensionally, being easily forgettable smalltime crooks. In contrast, drug addiction seems intimately, emotionally connected to femininity. After all, Milch’s comment follows an explanation of Alma’s background, which includes marrying her wealthy husband in order to get her father out of debt.

David Milch

Other scenes depict prostitutes getting high, presumably to escape the misery of a life of relentless submission to the violent desires of their male clients and employers. Although these prostitute characters are no more prominent to the plot than the smalltime male crooks mentioned earlier, their addiction is specifically connected to their profession in a way not implied with the male characters. Trixie stands in as representative of the other prostitutes and their addiction, and while she is never seen getting high, her past and present fit Milch’s description of being “raised essentially to serve someone else’s purpose.” Both Alma and Trixie mention that their addictions began early, around the time when they would be considered—in different ways and due to different circumstances—to be arriving at womanhood: Alma at seventeen, Trixie at twelve. 

The first time we see Alma, she is preparing her tincture of laudanum, thereby defining her in relation to her addiction. When her husband enters their hotel room, she plays along with his excitement over the gold claim he has just purchased, but we soon see her eyes glaze over and her smile turn inward. At this point in the commentary, Milch remarks, “See, she’s gettin’ off now; she doesn’t care how big a jerk he is.” In other words, it’s clear that she deals with the domestic drudgery of her marriage to a repulsive man by incessantly dosing herself with laudanum. As Alma slowly finds financial and emotional independence, explores her sexuality through an affair she initiates, cares for an orphan she adopts, and confides in other women, she ceases to use laudanum to create an artificial emotional high, as she has found other ways to meet her needs.

Alma

The connection between addiction and an oppressively gendered domestic situation is clarified even further when Alma’s addiction reappears in the third season. At this point in the series, Alma has established herself as a figure so powerfully wealthy that she opens Deadwood’s first bank. But her love affair has resulted in a pregnancy and, desperate to hold onto her renegade freedom and power, Alma enters a second unfulfilling marriage for the purpose of maintaining public respectability and the appearance of a conventional family. However, her pregnancy cannot be brought to term and shortly after a medically-induced abortion, Alma begins using laudanum again.

Alma’s renewed addiction is not depicted as a coping mechanism for the loss of her pregnancy, however. Rather, it develops as a coping mechanism for her arranged marriage. Despite the fact that her husband, Ellsworth, is a gentle man and a good father, his desire to perform traditional roles as husband, such as protector and financial decision-maker, stifles Alma and leads to her renewed addiction. For Alma, marriage represents not domestic comfort or stability, but physical and emotional oppression, an inability to act freely and independently. Her situation is exacerbated by the loss of relative freedom she had experienced upon the death of her first husband and the acquisition of her own financial independence. Eventually, Ellsworth realizes that the marriage is what has led her back to laudanum and moves out of the house. Ellsworth’s revelation recognizes the extent of Alma’s need to act independently and to escape through an “artificial environment” if that need is thwarted.

Al Swearengen (left), opium tempter.

One of the most popular tropes in proto-feminist rhetoric and nineteenth-century literature, particularly within the genre called “the sensation novel,” is the similarity between a prostitute and a lady who sells herself into marriage. On Deadwood, the lady and the prostitute are first brought together through the plot device of laudanum, when the camp’s leader, Al Swearengen, sends Trixie to make sure Alma continues using in order to soften her up for a more easily-purchased gold claim. Instead of following orders, however, Trixie, who kicked her own addiction, recognizes from Alma’s symptoms that she is attempting detox and decides to help her. By doing this, Trixie puts herself in serious danger by rebelling against and deceiving the most powerful man in the camp, whom we have already seen beat her and kill others who have double-crossed him. Indeed, when their deceit is discovered, Trixie attempts suicide by injecting the very opium she was charged to give Alma.

In addition to rebelling against Swearengen and his attempts to control both women’s bodies as well as Alma’s wealth, both women also must contend with Alma’s initial supplier: the camp doctor. Doc Cochran is the first person to recognize Alma’s addiction, as she obtains laudanum in a ladylike fashion: as a medical prescription. Although he doesn’t cut her off, he makes it clear that he disapproves of her use, while she responds with contempt. Later, when Alma suffers pain during her pregnancy, Cochran gives her laudanum despite her protests that she doesn’t wish to “wake those demons.” When she appears to have recovered, the Doc implies, again to her contempt, that she is still using the laudanum. Cochran and Alma’s contentious relationship reveals the challenges of separating medicinal and recreational use, along with the fears recovering addicts often have about pain management during medical problems. But Alma’s frustration also stems from her feeling that the doctor is judging her as unable to make her own decisions about her body. Similarly, when Trixie assists with Alma’s abortion by administering chloral, she reacts angrily when Cochran insists she turn away from the fumes, declaring that she knows her own tolerance for such drugs. Both women defy Cochran’s condescension and assert their abilities to gauge their own substance intake.

Trixie

Trixie and Alma’s relationship represents the first substantial act of female solidarity against male oppression that occurs on the show, and it sets the stage for a series of such gestures of female solidarity. In fact, the competition and backstabbing between women that we often see on television are entirely absent from Deadwood, where women invariably support each other emotionally and form both temporary and lasting bonds of resistance to their oppression. That these rebellions and relationships are shown in relation to opium is intriguing.

In the past few years, several novels set in the nineteenth century have recognized that many women took laudanum for both recreational and medical purposes: the female protagonist of Sarah Waters’s Affinity is addicted to laudanum, a minor female character in Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell is suspected of taking too much laudanum, and in Amitov Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, one character declares in the middle of a speech glorifying the medical necessity of opium, “And what would our ladies—why, our beloved Queen herself—do without laudanum?” Yet, of all these, Deadwood offers the narrative most closely aligned with actual nineteenth-century texts. Not only does the show include certain realistic details, such as a character’s relapse and the disapproval of her doctor, but it uses opium the way several actual nineteenth-century texts do: as a figurative escape from patriarchal oppression and as a catalyst for female relationships. And thinking about the relationship between realism and figuration in such representations is crucial for understanding what drug use means in our culture.

** As Calamity Jane is the only female alcoholic and drinking alcohol is a frequent public activity for men on the show, I take Jane’s alcoholism as part of her parodic performance of masculinity—an assumption the show supports by having her sober up on the occasions when her “femininity” emerges in the form of caring for children and smallpox patients. While I recognize the distinction between drug and alcohol addiction is tenuous at best, I make it because the show depicts drinking as a primarily masculine activity and opiate-taking as primarily feminine.

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3 thoughts on “Victorian Women on Drugs, Part 4: The Female Addicts of Deadwood

  1. I haven’t seen any episodes of Deadwood, but I wonder if you have any comments on the appearance of opium in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the 1971 films starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie also set in the western frontier. (Not sure if time period is same, though.) I’ll never forget that last image of Julie Christie’s character, dulling herself out on an opium couch after McCabe is killed.

    Great series of articles, Kristina. Thanks for it!

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful reading, Kristina. I think it’s interesting to note that David Milch is a well-known recovering drug and alcohol addict (gambling, too, I guess), and it’s interesting to see this portrayal of addiction alongside older ones like that of JD LaRue and Frank Furillo on *Hill St. Blues* and Andy Sipowicz in *NYPD Blue.* There’s good work to be done in thinking about masculinity and recovery in these shows and in *The West Wing* and *The Wire.* I’d also be curious to hear from other readers how female addiction and recovery in *Deadwood* compares to that on *Nurse Jackie,* the only other show I can think of off the top of my head that features it in a prominent role.

    And great comparison to *McCabe and Mrs. Miller* (Robert Altman also no stranger to drug/alcohol use/abuse!). Here’s Milch talking about Altman’s film and its influence on his thinking: http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/2006/03/mccabe-and-mr-milch/.

  3. I’m very late to responding to your comments, but I thank you so much for them; I have not seen *McCabe and Mrs. Miller* and had no idea about this at all. I will definitely watch the film and think about it! I also must admit I’ve never seen *Nurse Jackie,* though I knew about that one and have no real excuse for not seeing it. My initial curiosity (having not seen it) is how it will play with the typical tropes of femininity — she’s Nurse Jackie, after all, and therefore in a traditionally feminine role (it might be another thing altogether if she were Doctor Jackie).

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