Dec 132011

Hell on Wheels is fun to watch. Set aside all the discussions of quality and art and history, it’s fun to watch. The direction can be playful, like the opening shot of the band rehearsing into the camera, and at its best, there’s a whirlwind quality to the progression of events. Pride, Pomp, and Circumstance was a rapid-fire episode with excellent timing, introducing elements just where they were needed. Sometimes it feels like the cuts are all in the right place, and Sunday was one such time.

So, it’s a good plot device to have an inherently exciting contest, an artifice, sort of like a duel, designed to resolve a long-standing conflict between two peoples of different ethnicities. Why does that sound familiar? Oh right, we did it last week. Yeah, it was probably a mistake to have the boxing match and the horse/train race back-to-back, because, barring the comparison, each episode on its own was very good indeed. The Noble Savage thing is certainly the weakest part of the series, these clean, upstanding, Good Family Values Indians with their quaint ignorance of machinery. Oy vey.

Despite my inability to buy this weak Indian plot and the weak Christian Indian flirtation and all of that, the rest of the episode was terrific.

They’re certainly not dragging out the plot points. Ferguson and “that heathen” are already caught, and y’know what? Good. Let’s move this along. Week after week of sneaky forbidden romance was bound to drag; they struck while the iron was hot. Notice no Irish brothers this week? Still plenty of plot to uncover!

I also like that, yes, these episodes have themes, and structure themselves around thematic elements. It’s not subtle, but it works. Pride, Pomp and Circumstance indeed, the pomp and circumstance merely there to prop up the pride. So, we formally greet a senator, and an Indian chief, and a churchman, and a widow, but none of these greetings are sincere.

Did you notice that Bohannon called Elam “Mr. Ferguson”? And went to him as the Walking Boss of the freed slaves. Bohannon may not like treating a black man with dignity, but he knows how to get his job done. Everyone has pride: Bohannon can hold his head up because he knows he was cheated–even though he may also know he would probably have been beaten anyway. He has enough pride to recognize Ferguson’s pride, and know his opponent wouldn’t have cheated because of it. Durant, the senator, Lily, the Chief, the preacher, Ruth…they are each displaying a pride of their own. Ruth isn’t who I expected–I anticipated a traditional Angry-Daughter-How-Dare-You-Leave-Me tale, but here we see her pride–her need to believe she wasn’t abandoned–has constructed a pious and self-righteous narrative. I think that will change very soon indeed.

I’m not sure I’m fascinated by the gamesmanship between the senator and Durant–we know Colm Meany is billed second only to Anson Mount, so I don’t think he’s being brought down. The delight, I suppose, is in seeing how he escapes his fate, and I’m sure Lily plays a role, but I don’t want to find myself rooting for the son-of-a-bitch.

What were your thoughts? Is Colm Meany worth rooting for against the slimy senator and his secret deal with the Swede? Will the Swede find Harper before Bohannon does? Do you like Elam’s relationship with Eva? Discuss.


  9 Responses to “Hell on Wheels Episode 106: Pride, Pomp, and Circumstance”

  1. Thank you again for a GREAT review! BTW, to any Hell on Wheels fans out there, Anson told me that next episode, 107, is one of his favorites and he feels the best so far, AND ratings dropped dramatically last week due to the OT on Sunday Night Football. If Hell on Wheels is to be picked up for a second season, now is the time to tune in and make it count. And using your DVR doesn’t count towards ratings. If you have to, leave your TV on and tuned to AMC if you have to DVR. Here’s hoping for a great ratings turn out.

    • Liz, thanks for your “inside” contribution, it adds a little extra something! This show had a couple of rough episodes, but I’m fully on board. It isn’t getting critical love from the big names in TV writing, including friends of the Basket, but I hope fans of the show will learn to come here.

  2. “Fun to watch”.
    That’s very good. Everyone complaining that HoW isn’t “Deadwood” seems to resent that, as though we must earn our pleasure through painful study and re-study, and only then . . . To me it recalls the great, underestimated-at-the-time Westerns of the 50’s.

    Fact is, we’ve already seen more Indians in half a season of HoW than in three seasons of “Deadwood”–not counting Al’s man in the box, which is a pretty apt metaphor for a show set in South Dakota with no Indians in it. And I think that you don’t want to place too much face value in what the Indians say. When Pawnee Killer dreams of the train, they all know about trains–what matters is that he dreamt of stopping it. When the Chief notes that the Preacher abandoned his family, the preacher stands next to the son who abandoned HIS father; how much of that talk is one-upmanship? (And having had a look at Ruth, I can imagine why the Preacher left that family, who probably wanted him to set aside that extreme Christianity of his for a nice little parish in Ohio.)

    The dynamic between Bohannon and Ferguson is not hard to understand. Bohannon owned five slaves working a tobacco farm; skilled labor that requires a motivated work force. He was his own overseer and before long he learned that any kind of effective labor requires negotiation. He can whip the back off a man but it won’t get an extra five minutes of work done. Bohannon probably understands Ferguson better than most abolitionists; more important, Ferguson understands Bohannon.

    I was watching that final monologue from Durant that ended the pilot–theatrical, self-important–and wondered if someone was thinking of Mark Twain, even Melville, when they wrote it. Durant is clearly over the top, but it was an over the top age. You created yourself and your image, and the image mattered as much as the fact. Durant’s confidence–in the Melvillean sense–inspires other men to listen to him, if only for entertainment.

    I like the way that Mount can manage the transition from Clint Eastwood to John Davis Chandler seconds. He’s not playing a monolith, and often has Bohannon indicate that he’s in over his head, like after the fight: “well, that was a beatin’, and a good way of cheatin’.” Those private moments show the public front.

    • Steve, a friend of mine who is a historian tells me Durant was exactly that bombastic and over the top in real life. I’ve invited her to post but since she is teaching a heavy course-load I don’t know if she’ll take me up on it.

      • W.J. Cash in “The Mind of the South” cites the antebellum Mississippi congressman Sargeant S. Prentiss. The quote from a contemporary admirer describes a Southern gentleman who makes Rhett Butler look like Charles Hamilton. Then Cash reveals that Prentiss was a Yankee from Maine, a graduate of Bowdoin, who turned himself into a Southerner. Everyone knew it; no fraud was involved. It was a performance, and greatly admired and respected.
        That sense of performance, the consciousness of being on display and being expected to give a good show of yourself is common in 19th century literature.

  3. Anson Mount rocks in Hell on Wheels. He also stars in the indie film “Cook County” which premieres this Friday, Dec.16, in New York City and California, check it out! I’ve only heard great things about “Cook County”. Anson was in another good indie film, “Tully”, rent it – it’s very good.

    • Tully is on its way to me from Netflix as we speak. I’ll probably write a review for the Basket, as it has a Basket star.

      • Tully is one of my favorite ‘young Anson’ roles. He was somewhat fresh out of Columbia University, I believe. He is more like himself here than in other characters, or at least I see much of the same body movements and speech patterns I know of him as my little brother. I particularly love the bar scene, where he realizes the town slut has got her eye on him. Plus I love independent movies. I am very much looking forward to your review, Deborah.

        Here is a link to an article about his filming of Cook County. Good article, I think.

  4. How a deeply sensitive and beautiful romantic love story can come out of a place called Hell On Wheels is a tribute to its creators, Joe and Tony Gayton. Story DOES matter at AMC.

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