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Calamity Jane in Deadwood Is an Absolute Treasure

For countless reasons, HBO’s Deadwood is one of the best dramas ever made. It has the perfect blend of action, complexity, and heartbreaking moments. Creator David Milch’s brilliant and unique dialogue make Deadwood a show that sounds and feels like no other.

But really what makes Deadwood special is its characters and the relationships of those characters. It’s difficult to find a non-memorable character on this show—even minor characters who could very easily fade into the background are given chances to shine (e.g., Richardson).

However, among all the greats in Deadwood—Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), I could go on—for me the top of the class is Jane Canary, otherwise known as Calamity Jane.

Jane is played by the fantastic Robin Weigert, and I can’t say enough about her performance on Deadwood. Jane is arguably the funniest character on the show, but also one of the most tragic and compassionate. She really does it all. And while currently watching Weigert in her role as Dr. Amanda Reisman on Big Little Lies, I am amazed by the actress’s range to be able to play both roles (which are so completely different) so well.

Jane comes to the town of Deadwood with her friends Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), and is a character of extremes. As mentioned, I think she is the funniest character on Deadwood (one of the scenes that cracks me up every time is when a drunk Jane mutters to herself about someone passing her in the street: “If I had that mug on me, I believe I’d cut down gettin’ told how butt fuckin’ ugly I was by not staring at fuckin’ strangers”), but she is probably also the drunkest and most compassionate.

It is a pleasure to watch Jane glide through the different aspects of her character, sometimes all within one bit of uninterrupted dialogue. In one scene from Season 1, Jane comes across a man named Andy who has been dumped outside of town because he is infected with smallpox. Jane is drunk when she stumbles upon him, mourning the loss of her friend Bill Hickok. She offers him water and talks to him (or more “at” him because Andy is unable to respond), keeping him company. Then she quickly veers into crying about her best friend Bill, before humorously relaying the sight of a bird she has never seen before. “Should I talk about it to you too?” she asks him. In this one short scene, Jane goes from drunk to compassionate to depressed to funny and then back to compassionate.

This is one of many instances of Jane’s big heart showing through. After realizing she couldn’t be infected by smallpox, Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) suggests she help him care for the others in camp, which she does. She also cares for the young girl, Sophia, after the girl’s parents are killed, singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” to her while nursing her back to health. In a place filled with violence, racism, and death, Jane has the biggest heart of any of the characters in Deadwood.

Jane’s character presents an interesting contrast. As a woman living in the male-dominated Wild West, in which most women are portrayed as homemakers, cooks/cleaners, or sex workers, Jane dresses more like a man, drinks and swears a lot, and can handle a firearm. (In one scene early in Season 1, she remarks while leaving a saloon that “I don’t drink where I’m the only one with balls.”)

But despite having these stereotypically male traits, Jane does have the softer, at times motherly, side to her. Possessing this wide range of emotion and personality helps Jane survive in the sometimes dire environment of Deadwood. She is able to stand up for herself and not let anyone push her around. But her compassionate side also helps her gain valuable friends and trusting relationships.

Jane’s Friendships

Jane is special, and she is able to form some of the most rewarding friendships on Deadwood because of it. Despite being drunk 90 percent of the time, Jane is extremely selfless and loyal.

Right from the very first scene Jane appears in during Season 1, it’s evident how much she cares for and looks up to Bill. The group’s wagon becomes stuck in the mud in the Black Hills before reaching Deadwood, and after yelling at the rest of the group to get things moving again, she offers to help Bill in any way she can. Their friendship lasts on screen only a few episodes, as Bill is killed at the end of Episode 4 in Season 1. But Jane is able to continue to show how much she cared for him throughout the entire series, including the film, through small details like visiting his grave and using his blanket.

Jane sits next to Charlie Utter in Deadwood

After Bill’s death, Jane and Charlie Utter become closer, although their friendship is more of a love-hate one. The two rib each other quite a bit, but their true friendship shines through in many places. In Season 2, after calling Jane “Miss-Here-She-Was-Where-Has-She-Gone” because of her tendency to run away from her problems, Charlie offers Jane some help. She had been beaten up by someone but couldn’t remember who, saying, “I woke up on the dirt, in the fucking graveyard, questioning dusk or dawn…It’s getting the upper fucking hand on me, Charlie.” Charlie offers her a job working with him (which she never accepts) and then allows her to go upstairs and clean up.

Charlie is also the guiding force behind what becomes Jane’s most important relationship, with Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). “You and me got a pain-in-the-balls mutual acquaintance, Charlie Fucking Utter,” Jane tells her when they first meet. Jane and Joanie’s friendship begins because they are both dealing with loss—Jane still reeling from losing Bill and Joanie from the murder of her friend Maddie. The two slowly form a strong bond, with Jane watching over Joanie’s place in fear of more violence, and Jane even occasionally allows herself to stay there off-and-on.

In one of the sweetest moments of Season 2, while attending the wedding of Mr. Ellsworth and Mrs. Garrett (Jane is dressed up fancy and calls herself a “clam-on-a-half-shell-looking God damned fool” while looking in the mirror), Jane, Joanie, and Charlie all share a dance. And they’re actually happy for a short time. It’s moments like these that make Deadwood special.

Perhaps the crowning achievement for Robin Weigert as Jane comes in Season 3, during a conversation between her and Joanie. The two had previously kissed, and Jane is confused about what she is feeling. She relays a dream she had, drunkenly recalling bits and pieces of scenes that occurred in Season 1 of Deadwood, including masterfully throwing in snippets of singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” with Charlie. And then she recounts this from her dream to Joanie: “‘Now,’ Charlie says to me, ‘don’t you understand what I’m trying to tell you? Any evenings in your life you made mistakes—remember, where even evenings you was as most ashamed as you ever thought you could ever be are able to wind up, and don’t fucking only remember the middle of the fucking dream!'”

I can’t overstate how powerful this scene is. The idea behind the scene is simple: Jane is struggling with how to tell Joanie how much she cares for her and what their kiss meant to her. But the way it is executed is simply magic. My hat goes off to Robin Weigert for this performance.

This internal struggle of Jane and her feelings toward Joanie is something that suffered from Deadwood‘s premature cancellation. A same-sex relationship would have been a really interesting topic to cover more thoroughly in Deadwood, as I imagine most of the town’s residents would not be very understanding of it. There’s only one short scene in Season 3 where Shaughnessy scolds the two for sharing a room together overnight and Jane tells him off, but that’s pretty much the extent of it. I would have loved to see more of Jane fighting back about living her life, loving whom she wants.

Jane holds hands with Joanie Stubbs while escorting children through the streets of Deadwood

Deadwood the Film

Without receiving a proper conclusion after three seasons of Deadwood, I was beyond excited about the announcement of an HBO film that gave fans the chance to say goodbye to these characters we grew so strongly attached to. Thankfully, the movie delivered in a big way. I loved it.

And for fans of Jane, the Deadwood film was extra special.

With almost a Shakespearean prologue feel to it, Jane appears in the first scene of the movie. Drunk and riding a horse, she overlooks the town of Deadwood and says: “Ten years gone, ‘proaching that self-same hill I thought to lay me down and rise no more…Before eyes close for good and all, I’d once again see my Joanie Stubbs, show her a sign of…loving regret, from Calamity Jane to her darling. And, too, at the grave of Wild Bill.”

Wow, what a way to throw us back into the world of Deadwood. I’m so happy Milch gave us this scene.

We never got to see Jane leave Joanie sometime after Season 3, but it wasn’t surprising to learn that Jane ran away at some point, given her history. Joanie was clearly upset, and tells Jane there have been times she wished she didn’t wake up. Jane tells her, “You give me a goddamn kiss and say, ‘I promise I won’t fold, no matter how sad I get.’ Or just don’t say a word at all then.” I was glad we got this reuniting moment in the film, but again it left me sad we couldn’t have seen more from Jane and Joanie after Season 3.

After making peace with Joanie and dealing with the murder of Charlie, Jane does something I actually found a little out of character for her. After Seth Bullock arrests George Hearst for Charlie’s murder, Jane walks alongside them in the street and basically incites the town to attack Hearst. Hearst was fairly evil, though, and he was responsible for the death of Charlie, so I guess I can’t really blame Jane here.

With the fantastic opening scene and some other nice scenes throughout the movie, that probably would have been a satisfying conclusion to Jane’s story. But then she becomes the hero of the entire movie. She saves Seth Bullock’s life by shooting Harry in the back of the head before he has a chance to get the drop on Bullock.

Throughout Deadwood, Jane played mostly a complementary role. She was a friend and a caretaker, but she was also a complete badass, and I love that she was able to play the hero at the end of the film. “That was Bill come into me,” Jane says after she shoots Harry. “No, that was you,” Joanie says.

I’m not sure I’ll have a TV character tug at my heartstrings again as effectively as Robin Weigert’s portrayal of Jane Canary in Deadwood. She’s masterful, and it’s simply a beautiful performance. Not only is she my favorite Deadwood character, but Jane is one of my favorite TV characters ever. I can’t think of another character who has been able to make me laugh and then immediately feel sad seconds later the way Jane does. I’m just glad we were given this treasure of a character in Calamity Jane. She’s one of a kind.


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Written by Bryan O'Donnell

Bryan O'Donnell is a Writer and TV Editor for 25YL. In addition to TV and Twin Peaks, he loves music, baseball, reading, and playing video games. He lives in Chicago.

9 Comments

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  1. Great article! I agree completely and I started watching Big Little Lies specifically because Robin Weigert was on it (*Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman didn’t hurt, either!) but nowhere were her talents as an actress more on display than on Deadwood. Her entire demeanor, voice, gait, and body language was different and she well and truly inhabited Jane’s character just as well as she possibly could. I loved her in that role and Jane Canary is one of the best characters ever on one of the most underrated and excellent shows ever made. What could have been had we gotten more than three seasons?!

  2. With you 100%. How I would like Al to suddenly catch his breath in one huge gasp of profanity to grab on to tortured life of the evil angel with a heart of gold for several more seasons. No one has such a well played western or one at all for that matter. The color of the west has seldom seen such depth of character. Too much to hope for, dialogue in which one has to follow close, action used to underline subtly of purpose defining well plots of obscurity that more oft than not seemed happenstance. Much as life. It will be missed.

  3. Every time she appears in Big Little Lies I shout “Calamity Jane!” Great range indeed.

  4. I loved every second of Deadwood…especially Calamity Jane…Robin is a fabulous actress and made that role iconic..

  5. Nice article. I am a huge Deadwood fan and you brought out everything about Jane that a lot of people never saw before. I admire Robin for her performance in Deadwood. An award winning performance, in my opinion.

  6. Loved the article! Thank you!
    The only issue I have is the biggest heart part, since so many characters had such immensely big hearts throughout the show.
    It’s impossible to choose the biggest heart imo.

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