As fits my trend of being at least a couple of years behind in all things pop culture, I am just now finishing up watching Deadwood. I hated the series at first (making fun of it when Mark watched it by coming into the room and yelling "COCKSUCKER!" at inopportune moments), but it grew on me, and frankly, now I think it's brilliant. The writing is great, the acting is phenomenal, and the show it just plain gripping. Also, surprisingly given the context, it treats its female characters better than most of the HBO shows I've watched (I'm looking at you, The Sopranos and The Wire!).
One of the things that really blows my mind about Deadwood, though, is Jewel. Jewel is the cook/maid at the Gem saloon, one of the central Deadwood locations. She is in the employee of Ian McShane's Al Swearengen, the show's most notorious character. Jewel is played by Geri Jewell, and actress/comedian with cerebral palsy.
According to an interview with Salon, Deadwood creator David Milch met Geri Jewell in a pharmacy while he was developing the show and offered her a part. He says he "thought it would be an interesting thing to have a character who was handicapped or whatever the goddamned expression is supposed to be. See how a person who was physically challenged would function in an atmosphere like this." This unsentimental attitude toward Jewel's character, and towards her handicap, permeates her appearances on the show. Al regularly yells at Jewel to "stop dragging that fucking leg!" She's referred to as "The Gimp" and "The Cripple" with regularity. There is no room, in a camp like Deadwood, for pity or special allowances.
There is no room for pity or special allowances in Jewel's treatment of herself, either. Jewel insists that she be taken seriously as a woman, not just as a character with a disability. In the same Salon article, Geri Jewell said "It's very fulfilling for me, having never been taken seriously as an actress. It's a wonderful opportunity to show what I can do besides having cerebral palsy." This gets at the heart of what is so wonderful about Jewel's character. Even when the story line centers on her mobility (as it does in episode 1.11, "Jewel's Boot Is Made For Walking"), it is Jewel's character, her stubbornness, independence, and fearlessness, that makes the story work. When Al asks Jewel why she has been visiting the doctor, she replies smartly, "I'm knocked up." In her delivery of the line, you see Geri Jewell the comedian, but you also see her Deadwood character's insistence that her prickly employer see her not as "The Gimp", but as a woman (and the only woman he spends any time around who is not a prostitute).
Thematically, Deadwood is, in part, about breaking new ground, and the spine and ruthlessness that is sometimes necessary to do so. The show takes place in a gold mining camp, and much of the political drama centers on the battle between the camp's pioneer settlers and the looming government and big business forces. Jewel's character adds a layer to this theme. Deadwood is filled with unconventional women, each breaking ground in her own way (former madam and lesbian Joanie, alcoholic and grieving gunslinger Jane, hard-edged prostitute-cum-accountant Trixie, steely cold widow Alma) and Jewel easily takes her place among them, a woman with a disability insisting on being taken seriously in her own right, outside of her relationship with her employer or her medical needs. Both the first and second seasons of the show end with Jewel dancing, insistent at the end of the first season that the camp's doctor, who has just fitted her with a brace that helps her walk without dragging her leg so much, come and dance with her. "Come on doc," she cajoles, "I'll teach you how!" Jewel insists on humor, on joy, and on being accepted in her hard world as just who she is. What more can you possibly ask of a character than that?