Hell on Wheels: Slaughterhouse

 Posted by on August 26, 2012 at 10:02 pm  Hell on Wheels
Aug 262012

Every new land demands blood and we relent. It is our nature. We are, after all, animals. In our arrogance, we forget this, but in the end we rise from the land, only to return.

Hell on Wheels: Slaughterhouse, Cullen Bohannon close-upThis season of Hell on Wheels is definitely playing with broad themes. Episode 2.01 was about compromise, and 2.02 about American mythology (last week I said this was the theme of the series as a whole more than of a single episode, but in context of a run of three, I’m going to say I was wrong). The appropriately-named Slaughterhouse, then, is about brutality.

The episode is bookended by slaughter; opening with the slaughter of a pig, which parallels and foreshadows the final slaughter, the final disposal of offal. That last murder is disturbing and utterly unexpected. In between, there’s plenty of brutality: The reverend brutally denouncing his daughter followed by the fight between Eddie and some toughs, the attack on the McGinnes brothers and the counter-attack by Elam and Cullen, even the tension between Cullen and the men working the line—this was a particularly confrontational episode.

One thing that strikes me is the number of rules people have to live by, the number of constraints placed on them. The town of Hell on Wheels itself is almost pure anarchy; as Lily points out, Durant is judge, jury, and executioner whenever justice isn’t simply ignored, or enforced by mob. Yet the social laws are fierce and unforgiving: Blacks, Indians, women, the Irish, prostitutes; all must know their places and be careful never to transgress. This balance, between social restriction and anarchy, is what gives Hell on Wheels its explosive power.

In fact, most of the main characters are transgressing social boundaries. This series at first seemed to be an exploration of the Western archetype of a suffering anti-hero as embodied by Cullen Bohannon, but it has become very much about people using the railroad town as their personal escape from, or exploration of, their own transgressive nature, be it Eddie leaving his Indian roots, the Reverend leaving faith, Ruth fornicating, Eva leaving an undisclosed Indian past and then leaving prostitution, Lily taking a man’s role, Elam taking a white man’s role, or the Swede flipping his social place from the top to the bottom.

The Swede seems to be taking pleasure fomenting just for the sake of seeing what shit looks like all stirred up. With all the sexual, racial, ethnic, and interpersonal tension in town, that’s not hard to do. His ally isn’t his “Nordic brethren,” it’s anyone capable of crossing the line and creating the chaos that will thwart Bohannon. He sought out the butcher, not just because he was a friend of the murdered Schmidt, but because of his ruthless skill with a blade and his bloody yet efficient outlook.

I am torn by the conversation about self-hatred. Unnecessary psychobabble or strong counterpoint to the startling actions that preceded and followed? As always, it’s a scene elevated by its visual content: The steam, the juxtaposition of the bath’s baptismal symbolism with the impure violence of the conversation, the camera angles suggesting power and powerlessness. In that context, discussing hate and self-hatred worked for me.

Hell on Wheels is really playing on the sexual tension/triangle thing: There’s Lily and Cullen triangulated by Durant, there’s Eva and Elam and Mr. Toole, and Sean smolders for Ruth, who is with Eddie. It’s all a bit much, especially since the interesting heft of the show isn’t found in its love triangles. Still, it’s fun to watch and more than a little erotic.

The relationships also matter because they, too, are transgressive. Lily in particular is striking a dangerous and unmapped path for herself (an interesting metaphor for the widow of a surveyor). She greets Cullen with what is essentially an apology for being with another man. There’s nothing particularly new or fascinating about the trope of an upper-class woman loving a lower-class man—we’ve all seen Titanic—but these are compelling characters and actors, and I enjoy the tension between them. The more dangerous tension is within Durant: He’s torn between hating Bohannon for attracting Lily, and needing his skill on the job.

Of course, despite Lily’s weak praise of Durant’s kindness, he gives no true attention to her at all; he simply possesses her. Nothing could show this more delicately than Lily’s red, tear-filled eyes as she prepares to tell Durant that she ordered the foreman’s death. It’s a hollow relationship, one in which he never sees the intensity of her body language, nor even believes her, at first, when she speaks. He doesn’t look up, and then he is angry at her for making a bad decision; he never sees her at all.

Elam is, perhaps, more consciously aware than anyone that he is transgressing the rules, and this seems his whole purpose in life. Knowing that nothing he wants will be given to him, he takes it wherever he sees an opening, and Cullen’s current weakness is a huge opening for him. (“I’m takin’ the front.”) His problem is that his ambition and his feelings don’t perfectly align. Well, a lot of us have this problem. He’s given up Eva for ambition, and enough of his own morals so that he feels the need drink away the knowledge. Now he’s selling his uneasy friendship with Cullen, although we’ll see how this plays out.

For those watching anachronisms (maybe only me?), I looked up two possibilities and found they’re both accurate. “Screwing” (used by Sean) has been slang for sex since the 1700s, and “money is no object” (also used by Sean) is also from that century.


  18 Responses to “Hell on Wheels: Slaughterhouse”

  1. Deborah,
    Week after week, show after show, you provide spot on reviews and insight. Perfectly described Lily and Durants hollow relationship and altt the relationship dynamics.
    This really is a fabulous program. I just wish Bohannon would hop in a tub for a bath and a chair for a shave and a haircut.

  2. I was thrown by Cullen’s use of the word “Dumbass” It seemed very modern although the two parts have been around for a long time I’m sure.

  3. Anachronistic or not– I totally want to see that “Congratulations, dumbass!” moment turn up as a gif somewhere. Spit out my drink on that one. That’d be the difference between me and, say, a real actor like Mount– it would have taken me a full shooting day’s worth of takes to deliver that line without breaking into guffaws. Between that and the line he delivers to the butcher– “You proved you’re a man. Now get your ass outta here before I show them otherwise”– I think the scriptwriters truly love penning dialogue for Bohannon.

    And the final scene: ursine encephalopathy, meet Ground Zero.

    Ms. Lipp’s reviews of this show are fantastic. Here and TLo are my favorite online TV recaps!

  4. If there is one word to describe Hell of Wheels, it would be the word RAW.

    Defined RAW can be defined as uncooked. HOW is definitely organic and enjoyed as you find it as the characters develop naturally and you don’t feel the situations or the characters are forced or contrived in any way. And you feel this is the way you would have responded if you were in their shoes.

    RAW also means not processed, refined or treated in any way. And that is how I see the production and the choice of the producers to go all in for authenticity and not cheap theatrics or deciding to tone down or sanitize the plot to appease weak sensibilities.

    RAW can mean something that is hurt and sore or from which pain is derived and isn’t that the plight of the characters in HOW? They all suffer in various degrees, but choose to live the best way they know how and only focus on their private pain while alone in their beds.

    RAW also indicates someone is inexperienced, lacks training or needs time to find himself or herself. Many of these folks in HOW are young, and regardless of the their times or their environment eventually improve their lot in life as they make progress in learning not what to do and then making the correct choices and moving ahead with them.

    RAW can refer to an environment that is extremely cold, harsh or damp. And HOW is definitely harsh as it is set in the post-Civil War era of the USA on the Great Plains where there was little civilization to speak of and the law of the jungle reins supreme. And the stakes are high; the railroad must be built at all costs: that is the harsh reality of that historical period.

    RAW can mean brutally realistic concerning unpleasant matters and HOW is definitely that. The Indian confrontation between Mr. Bell and Lily and the Indian in the forest in the first season was that and even more.

    RAW can mean not subtle, restrained or refined. Killing a man and chopping a man into small bits to be fed to pigs in tonight’s episode is definitely is RAW.

    RAW can mean in an original state and not yet subjected to correction or analysis. HOW is how the Great Plains looked BEFORE towns sprang up along the rail lines and pioneers moved in from the East to populate these towns and before historians and archivists had enough information or distance from the actual events to try to interpret them in a modern context and give it a spin to rehabilitate certain characters.

    RAW finally refers to one being crude and vulgar and although there is not as much cussing as you would think, the language of the characters is definitely RAW, except of course from Lily Bell who you would not expect to utilize RAW language.

    If there is one thing HOW has not done much with is to show the characters IN THE RAW. But you never know, that may be coming. In addition this is still TV and there is a code even AMC has to abide by to get their programming on air.

  5. Did Durant disagree with Lily offering a bounty for the killer of the prostitute because she was living under his roof and therefore was holding herself out as Durant sanctioning such an act or did he disagree with her on the basis that it was not good politics to antagonize one side or the other (Germans vs Irish) and that Lily’s devil’s bargain led to an unnecessary confrontation between the two groups?

    • Durant didn’t care about the prostitute, last week, he explicitly said her life had less value than a horse’s. He needed the foreman and he needs to keep a modicum of peace in an anarchic town. He also explicitly told Lily that he is threatened by her acting in strength (“men” are threatened by strong women).

  6. In any work of art, whether it be a movie, tv show, or play, I am of the opinion that if one has all the time in the world, one can nitpick to death certain anachronisms that appear to crop up from time to time in the dialogue of the characters. I really think you have to look at the extent of the anachronism and the part it plays in the entire script.

    Obviously, if someone referred to flying in an airplane or traveling across the country by car, that is an anachronism so egregious to render any Western scriptwriter a total moron but the use of certain “dirty” words that may appear out of step with the times is not something I wish to spend a lot of time focusing on.

    Instead I focus more on setting and the environment in which the plot unfolds and the action takes place and how the characters interact with each other. To that extent HOW is very realistic.

    • techno, this blog has long derived great pleasure from linguistics and linguistic anachronisms. If you don’t like that part, just pass it by. It continues to astonish me that we can spend thousands upon thousands of words discussing everything from casting to costumes to props, but if anyone dares mention language, we’re told we’re nitpickers.

  7. Thank you for noticing the language. I know you’ll continue to do so. I’m interested.

    This show has really upped its game this season. It’s good to see. I’ve had high hopes for it from the beginning, and it is somewhat beginning to deliver. I still do not buy Colm Meaney in this role, and for me, he holds the entire program back from its potential.

    • I like Colm Meany, but the character he’s playing is not the historic Durant. In fact, Durant got out of the railroad business on the heels of the Credit Mobilier scandal, whereas our fictional Durant survived the scandal.

      • I don’t think he can command the screen and make the necessary presence felt. I’m not looking for the same, but I think of how Daniel Day-Lewis or Jason Isaacs can take hold of scenes and power through the screen. To me, the Durant role feels like it demands such an actor. It would change everything about this program, and I think it would be much the better for it. I don’t know anything about the history of this character, and I don’t think accuracy or smudging is of much significance here. Meaney’s an okay actor, but he doesn’t have the energy that could really benefit this character. And to be honest, Meaney’s voice is sort of weaselly.

        • I see what you mean. You’re looking for a larger than life brute, a true leader, and Meany is not that. He’s playing a man who is sort of hiding out in Hell on Wheels; running his tiny kingdom there because the East Coast is perhaps too dangerous for him. He is desperate and the weakness shows through.

          • You got it. He’s weak, and that is about all that comes through on the program. I reckon this isn’t anything out of the ordinary for rich men of the time in powerful positions, but then again, he’s expanding the nation, building a railroad through thick and thin, and supposedly has a dainty thumb on all around it. Once again, I’m no history nut, nor do I think it all that important to be one inasmuch as this program goes. Nevertheless, I believe a big personality with strong character and huge presence would be a darn-near necessity to pull off such a stunt. And Durant is in competition with another company. It’s not as if he can spend his days painting landscapes, sipping tea, and feeding off fine silver on a hillside (though I’m sure he’s done just that).

            I got sidetracked. It is a character that I don’t necessarily perceive as weak to such great extent, yet here’s an actor that makes the character ONLY seem weak. In that way, he’s reminding me of Walt this season: one dimensional and in the wrong direction to serve the program well. I don’t need for him to be a brute. I don’t even need him to be true to the situation…just more true to it. I still want him to be human. I want him flawed. But as Durant sits right now, he isn’t human. All he is is weak and flawed. Maybe I have it wrong, and he’s intended to be one big joke with all roads leading to him being the punchline. My conclusion: poor casting.

            • Interesting. I don’t find it to be poor casting, because I do feel that Meany gives the character flesh. It seems to me you want a different character, or a different set of acting or casting choices.

              Where the history matters is that the nation building of the railroads are largely a myth. They were hotbeds of corruption, they were land grabs and money laundering schemes and dirty stock deals. The lines that were built were often meaningless in terms of the real traffic needs of the nation. They did build a nation, in part, but they also created forms of corruption and cronyism that still plague us today.

              Meany’s Durant, to me, is exactly that person.

  8. This week it felt like the Swede decided to play the God of Chaos, the Trickster, stirring trouble just for the fun of it, with carefully chosen words here and there.

    I liked the scene between Lily and Bohannon oh so much. It seems, Bohannon is not so uppity anymore when it comes to kept women, is he? Guess, train-‘look, it was nothin’ personal’-robbing does that to a man.

    And the last scene… it was a great solution by Bohannon – he gave a chance to brothers and the butcher. But despite all the blood, I almost laughed at the last moment when those two Irish hobbits went for the kill.

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