The fantastic thing about HBO’s Deadwood is that in its gritty world of violence and testosterone, the women have found a way of thriving and being just as complex as the men. When people think about the series they usually use “Calamity” Jane, Alma Garret, or Trixie when describing the show’s strong female characters. They forget that there are different ways of showing your strength.
The strong characters are not always the obvious ones. Sometimes they are the ones who struggle from day to day to just get up in the morning and live. They battle inner demons by putting on acts of joy to keep from being known. Some audience members would even go as far as to call them whiny.
In the world of Deadwood, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) is one of these women. Her journey from Cy Tolliver’s (Powers Boothe) right hand, to gatekeeper for a school, and eventual owner of the Bella Union—all the while battling her depression—is why she is one of my absolute favorite characters of the series.
Joanie Stubbs is what the internet generation would call a “cinnamon roll.” She is someone who is kindhearted, empathetic, and has way too many people taking advantage of her because of it.
There’s her father, who, following the death of her mother, pressured Joanie to “see to his needs.” He would then encourage her to do the same for his friends, finally using her mother’s memory to coax her into making her sisters do the very same. In the end, it was her father who sold her to Cy.
When it comes to Cy, the relationship between them is complicated. Cy is her boss, and with that comes the responsibility of keeping her and others in line. Early in Season 1 when Joanie’s depression begins to show in her work, Cy must confront her because as much as he would like to treat Joanie like a porcelain doll, his first priority is the Bella Union.
He also manipulates Joanie as a way to continue holding power over her. He guilts her into giving him a share of the Chez Ami, the brothel Joanie finally opens under her own terms, after he learns of the circumstances of her acquiring the building. When he’s stabbed by Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier) as payback for all the wrongs Cy has done to him, Joanie remains by Cy’s side to take care of him. As many times as she manages to wiggle herself free from his grasp, she repeatedly gets pulled back in.
His tactics are very similar to that of a neglectful parent or manipulative spouse preying on their loved one. Both would enact some form of either physical or mental abuse. Then the promises of it never happening again, or that they will change, are made. Sometimes a showering of gifts or a declaration of how they can’t live without you. But it’s all smoke and mirrors.
Cy may tell Joanie that he wants her to be happy, that she “brings the warmth into my life.” (Cy Tolliver, S1E8) but it’s just another way of making false promises to her that not every day is a bad day—that not every day will he belittle her and take advantage of her.
Even with his manipulations towards Joanie, the one thing he never brings up is her sexuality. It’s not hidden to him or the audience that Joanie has sexual relationships with women. Cy walks in on her giving a bath to one of the other girls and to spite him she kisses the prostitute. He never uses it as leverage towards her though, even though it’s completely in his character to do so. Perhaps just knowing Joanie likes women is enough leverage for him. He can still hold his power over her without vocalizing it, and throw digs at her from time to time to reassure her of that power.
Joanie on the other hand is constantly judging herself about it. She asks why she was made the way she was. She’s made to feel more guilty when Shaughnessy, the owner of a hotel she stays at in Season 3, continuously makes remarks towards the matter when Jane is seen leaving her room. It also doesn’t help when those feelings become obvious towards someone who is undeserving of them.
When Flora (Kristen Bell) and her brother arrive in town with plans to con Cy and Al Swearengen out of their money, Flora instantly makes Joanie her mark. It is another fine example of how Joanie’s personality gets the better of her.
Flora goes through Cy to get hired, and because Joanie is the madam of the Bella Union, it’s her job to prepare Flora. She doesn’t see Flora as just another girl, though. Her apparent innocence reminds Joanie a lot of herself and this connection makes her a sucker. She becomes protective of the girl. It’s heartbreaking when it turns out that Flora’s innocent play is all a scam, and even worse when Joanie still tries to protect Flora from the wrath of Cy.
When Cy has Flora beaten close to death and then tasks Joanie with finishing the job, it’s Cy’s way of showing tough love (and let’s face it, he’s also punishing Joanie for her insubordination and her sensitivity). He knows that if Joanie is to take over, she is going to have to learn how to handle these situations. Joanie still sees herself in Flora though, which means when she pulls the trigger to end Flora’s life, she has killed a little bit more of her own innocence.
“Maybe you, Miss Stubbs, oughtn’t to stand judge and jury, and every other job in court on your own personal case.”—Charlie Utter, S3E2
It’s no wonder, with how the men in her life have taken advantage of her, that Joanie really doesn’t understand how to form long-term, trusting friendships. It’s one thing to have a physical relationship, but it’s completely different to have someone to “pal around with.”
When Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Joanie meet for the first time, it’s random happenstance. Joanie is out looking for a building to house the Chez Ami, and Charlie is admiring his newly opened post office. It’s interesting to watch Joanie gauge why Charlie would even talk to her since she wasn’t at the Bella Union and this man shows no interest in having sex with her.
It’s because of their first meeting, with no judgment being put upon Joanie, that the two of them begin to meet up for breakfast. Their meetings are some of the most adorable scenes in the second season, but they are also so meaningful, given how Joanie is at the time (which I will go more into in a moment).
Charlie is one for having friends all over. He’s a good judge of character which is probably why he is drawn to Joanie. The magic of Charlie Utter is his inclination to look past a brash facade and see the human underneath. To the camp of Deadwood, Joanie Stubbs is really only known for being one of Cy’s girls. She dresses up in gorgeous clothes and her fancy top hat, but at the end of the day, she doesn’t have the reputation that the camp’s more respectable women (Alma the rich lady, or Martha the schoolteacher) have.
This lack of standing doesn’t bother Charlie at all. He treats her with the same respect that he would give absolutely anyone else. This opens a trust between them where Joanie, for the first time, can turn to someone wholeheartedly without feeling that what she confides will be used against her later.
Instead, Charlie sees a familiarity between Joanie’s situation of feeling down and that of his other close friend, Jane (Robin Weigert), and does the best thing anyone in his situation could possibly do—he introduces them to one another.
Before I go anywhere near what is perhaps my favorite aspect of Deadwood, I must first touch on Joanie Stubbs’ inner demons. As Charlie had pointed out from seeing it in his old pal Wild Bill Hickok, Joanie likes to try and hide her dark side. From the very moment we meet her in the Bella Union, verbally smacking down Al for thinking she couldn’t hold her own against the boys, we see that a lot of how she is around people is an act.
The longer she’s in Deadwood, the more that act becomes harder to pull off, and soon her depression is in full bloom. She blames it first on the false hope of the “new beginning” Cy had promised her when in reality it is the same setup as every other stop they have done.
Joanie needs a purpose. She needs something that is meaningful to the caring nature she already has. Running the girls for Cy serves that need, but only to a point. A brothel isn’t typically a place where any personal growth can actually occur for someone in her position. She couldn’t have a family even if she wanted to, and she’ll never be accepted by the society around her.
Owning her own brothel would open some of those doors, but as she’s seen in her friend Maddie (Alice Krige), it means that you would have to give up other parts of yourself. Maddie is cold and ruthless. She flat out tells Joanie that she’s not there because she was asked, but because of an investment that was being made by Mr. Wolcott. Maddie isn’t afraid of men. It’s many of these qualities Joanie wishes she could possess, but realizes she is far from.
After Maddie and two other Chez Ami women are murdered by Wolcott, Joanie heads into another downward spiral. She hides away in the Chez Ami and waits for him to come to kill her because she knows she wouldn’t be able to do it herself. This is Joanie’s pattern. When she once again finds herself without a purpose she spirals till she places death on the table.
There is always something that pulls her back from that dark place though. After Flora, it was the new hope that she would actually get out of the Bella Union, and after the Chez Ami, it was finding the idea of being able to take her caring nature and use it to help others. She turns the building into a safe haven and finds herself taking in those who are lost. Jane, Moses Manuel who was shot and near death, and Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn) and the school children.
Aligning herself with Martha Bullock gives Joanie another thing that she’s always wanted…being accepted by the rest of the town. She’s no longer a “whore,” but the lady who looks after the school. When she is able to join in the walking of the children, and do so proudly, that is when you know for the first time that Joanie is experiencing pure happiness.
“I saw at the voting. What I guess you knowed about Mr. Utter, all these years, and Mr. Hickok must have knowed. What he’s like in a tight [spot]—one he didn’t even need to be in. I want to be that to you. Even when we don’t get along.”—Joanie Stubbs, S3E12
One of Charlie Utter’s best features is how he sticks up for the underdog. He’s the type of person to act if he sees wrongdoing. To his friends, he is extremely loyal and protective. After the Chez Ami incident, he helps Joanie Stubbs, without reason, by taking the surviving girls out of camp. He allows her to tell him what she believes happened and, although he can’t say it to others, does what any good friend would do and beats up Wolcott. He’s the first man to be chivalrous towards Joanie and this makes her want to be more like Charlie.
Joanie wants to be able to defend those close to her. She wants to be able to take care of someone as wholeheartedly as Charlie does. It’s why when Jane was first introduced to her and they began to bond, I found myself cheering this relationship on. Jane starts off as a friend that pulls Joanie out of the darkness she’s in by giving her a new purpose.
Up until their meeting, Jane had arrived back in Deadwood once again picking up the bottle to hide her insecurities. If she is drunk then she doesn’t have to deal with not knowing what to do with herself. Charlie points her towards Joanie because Jane understands the loss of a friend. The friendship they strike is what helps Joanie realize she doesn’t want to hide any longer and what gives Jane the bravery to stop her drinking.
When Jane falls back into the bottle and Joanie finds her again, she takes her in and cares for her. Joanie knows that when Jane is sober she can be strong and smart. It’s this Jane that Joanie has begun to fall for. The drunken Jane allows Joanie to kiss her and the look of admiration on Joanie’s face proves that it is something she wants.
The problem with this is that Jane is drunk and won’t remember this happening. When Shaughnessy preaches at them the next morning, Jane is quick to rebuke any theory that he may have over what has gone on in the room. Joanie knows what happened, but she doesn’t want to push or hurt Jane and refuses to say anything. She doesn’t know if the sober Jane will have the same feelings for her as the drunk.
This leads to perhaps my most treasured scene of the series. Jane, who is on one of her sober streaks, asks to tell Joanie about a dream she’s had. The entire speech is Jane taking the scenic route of asking if the kiss that happened the previous night actually occurred, since she was drunk and only remembers parts of what may have happened. Joanie is happy to take the chance in revisiting the situation and goes in again to give Jane another kiss. There is no recoil which means Jane’s feelings are similar to Joanie’s.
This relationship was a huge factor in my loving Deadwood. I loved these two characters finding one another and slowly becoming more than just friends. I loved how they would make one another better, but at the same time, I can see how toxic it was for them. Their relationship works when one is in need of being heavily supported by the other emotionally.
They are cute and adorable, sending secret messages to one another through “secret thinking,” and making promises of seeing the world, but those moments soon find themselves being thwarted by one of their anxieties being triggered. Joanie would find some excuse to head out, usually back to the Bella Union and to Cy. Jane, meanwhile, would turn back to the bottle and go into hiding or, in the case of Deadwood: The Movie, completely leave the camp and go traveling.
Both have a concept of a relationship but don’t know how to properly be in one. There need to be goals. There needs to be growth, and there needs to be a partnership. Both of these women are looking for a mother or sister in the other, and that’s their problem. They are good as “starter romances,” but a “forever romance” will be hard to achieve if they can’t manage to break their cycle.
Deadwood saw this giant arc occur for Joanie where she began to find her own purpose and happiness outside of the struggles she faced for years. Then Deadwood: The Movie happened and she “revertigoed.” She returned “home.”
Taking on the Bella Union was something Joanie absolutely fought against in the series. Her goal was to get out and move on, and she had that. Then somewhere in the 10-year span, Cy died, and he did the only thing he could to still have that control over her—he left her the Bella Union.
She turned to sex and alcohol to hide how lost she’d become, but in doing so she also pushed those she cared about away. Her relationship with Jane is in shambles (even though this one is on Jane, who up and left), and Charlie Utter’s death is a cherry on the top for how low her life got.
Still, even with her revertigo, Joanie Stubbs remains an insightful look into how one can overcome their challenges in life to make their own path. She showcased how strength isn’t just in the physicality of a person, but in how they go about facing what is thrown at them.