Hell on Wheels: The White Spirit

 Posted by on September 23, 2012 at 10:05 pm  Hell on Wheels
Sep 232012

The truth is, I think some people are beyond redemption.

Hell on Wheels: The White Spirit: The Swede

When Ruth said the quote above, it went straight to what Cullen Bohannon has wrestled with since almost the inception of Hell on Wheels. Cullen fears he is irredeemable, and longs for the touch of redemption. This episode stands on the cusp between those two states of being.

One of the most striking scenes this show has ever had was in the Season 1 finale, when Cullen decided, at last, that redemption might be available to him, and went to see Reverend Cole. Unfortunately for him, Reverend Cole had just beheaded someone and hidden the body, and wasn’t in the mood to preach peace. “Choose hate,” he said, leaving Cullen alone in his longing to be a better man. Within hours, he’d taken the preacher’s advice and killed an innocent man. In exact parallel to that scene, in The White Spirit, Cullen goes to the preacher’s daughter, again hoping for redemption, and hearing that it may not exist for him.

In this episode, redemption is available in the form of love, specifically, in loving a woman. To a great extent, it’s objectifying; Lily, Ruth, and Eva are objects in the subjective lives of Cullen, Sean, and Elam, each of whom chooses a better path because of the woman he loves. This is woman-as-muse, or manic pixie dream girl without the “manic,” the subject of the tale is the men. Hell, Eva didn’t even appear in the episode; the idea of her was enough.

Still, Hell on Wheels is rarely a sexist show, and while Redeeming Womanhood is a sexist trope in fiction, and Redeeming Pregnant Woman transcends “trope” like the ocean transcends a bucket of water, two of the women are also on a path of redemption. Ruth and Lily are struggling to free themselves from protective and oppressive men, and make choices more consistent with who they really are. In Lily’s case, it’s a sexual choice, but in Ruth’s case, it’s her church (preached her way; Joseph isn’t around to tell her she has to straighten up and chasten up if she wants to preach).

When Cullen went to the preacher in God of Chaos, he did so because Lily told him he could change, and again, this episode parallels that one. Lily has been, not a muse for his redemption, but an active force asking him to change, all along. This time, she lays it all out, ‘I’m asking you not to run, I’m asking you to change,’ and so does he: ‘I only stay because of you.’

I thought they’d drag out the smolder a little longer; but this show isn’t one to drag things out. So many times, I’ve thought this plot-point or that would last for several episodes or an entire season, only to be resolved the following week, or later that episode. Granted, the sexual tension between Lily and Cullen has been hanging in the air since they met in Episode 1.03, but the writers could easily have dragged this out if they were so inclined. On this show, people change in permanent ways, as evidenced by killing off a main cast member: Tom Noonan (Reverend Cole) remains in the opening credits.

The reason you hate me is that I am a constant reminder of the capacity for evil that resides within you.

The redeeming power of love is a counterbalance to the capacity for evil. The final montage of three redemptions (Lily and Cullen having hotness, Sean watching Ruth preach, Elam enjoying his plot of land) ends with the Swede, riding off into further “invigorating” evil. The dividing line is clear. Lest the show become impossibly dark (something it miraculously avoids), there’s a note of hope in the sunlight of morning for Lily and Cullen. We wonder why he’s sneaking so quietly–not to wake her, or to get away from her? But we don’t wonder too much, because the sunlight itself seems full of love and kindness, and he ends by going off to do a day’s work. Beautiful.

Every time we see Lily’s face in this episode, there’s a look in her eyes like she’s not quite tough enough. She doesn’t show steel; she doesn’t look like a woman who longs to be running a railroad. She left England and came West for freedom, not for toughness. On television, whenever we’re shown a woman bucking convention, in any genre, she’s a badass; a gun-totin’ mama. Intriguing, then, that Lily Bell is not some “woman toughening up” character, but more herself.

I confess: I watched the love scene twice. It wasn’t the hottest love scene I’ve ever seen, but there was that one moment when he pulled away from her so he could stop, and look, and then kiss her again…dayum.

Even though Eva was an invisible object this week, there was one moment that was quite lovely. In a previous episode, Eva took a picture of herself and Mr. Toole and used her thumb to cover her tattoo. Now Elam takes the same picture, and uses his thumb to cover Mr. Toole. Pictures let us imagine ourselves…as loved, as beautiful, as redeemed.

Where did the Swede go in the night, in the direction of evil? To the Sioux? We’ll soon find out. His meeting with the Sioux and his appearance as “the White Spirit” is as yet unexplained. A series of striking images like the one above, it will doubtless become a crucial plot point.


  11 Responses to “Hell on Wheels: The White Spirit”

  1. I’m glad your comments are up and running again, just so I can reiterate: “dayum!” Maybe not the hottest scene I’ve ever seen, but pretty close – and I’m talking about from right after he soaks his head and they talk about his NOT leaving. Super sexy standing there, longing, then standing some more. All the way through each one’s parting words and crooked beginning-smiles.

  2. I really loved this episode and enjoyed reading your post, Deborah. The last third of ‘The White Spirit’ was pastoral and almost elegiac in tone. It reminded me of ‘Days of Heaven’, one of my favorite movies. And for HOW, it seemed almost non-violent – what’s one headblow and a couple of ineffectual slaps? The Swede has a really hard head, right?

    I appreciated the restraint of the Lilly-Cullen love scene. It was perfect that it was tender, but tenuous. For characters that have experienced and perpetrated so much violence, that makes sense. Cullen has been a completely shut-down person in terms of affection and emotion. He was like a statue slowly thawing in this scene, the woman bringing the man to life sexually instead of the other way around as so often happens in art, both high and low. I love it that they didn’t milk this one to manipulate viewers’ emotions as Spielberg often does even in his best movies.

    This episode was about rebalancing, especially for Cullen. Instead of “choose hate”, it’s “some people (maybe) are beyond redemption”, (as you stated). Harshness gives way to an understated sweetness for Cullen, Elum and even Sean, who up to this point didn’t really seem given to it.

    I liked your phrase, ‘on the cusp’, Deborah, just right.

    The editing in the last section was wonderful. I think this show is gaining steam in terms of quality. Juxtaposing the scenes with Sean, Elum and the Swede with the Lilly-Cullen one was a nice touch. That’s the first time that Sean has seemed contemplative at all – he’s always been the schemer. It was moving to see Elum trying to create a life for Eva to come back to him in spite of the social complexities of their relationship. Although the Swede of course was riding off into the darkness as usual, the editing made me wonder if the redemption of love might eventually come his way should the series continue long enough. That would be shocking.

    I also really appreciated the scenes between Cullen and the Swede. HOW up to this point has wallowed a bit in cruelties commited by Union soldiers during the war while glossing over those of the Confederacy, although the obvious atrocities of slavery have been kept in focus.

    Cullen and the Swede, of course, are much alike in that they both suffered and became embittered and vengeful as a result of terrible wartime experiences, but I think before the scene in which the Swede described his experiences in Andersonville there hadn’t been that clear an explanation for his cruelty and cynicism. Andersonville and his wife’s leaving were just passing references before.

    It doesn’t seem like it ever entered Cullen’s mind previously that Union soldiers experienced terrible things, the equal to his own experiences, as a result of the war and at the hands of the Confederacy. Union soldiers in this show have been portrayed as cruel and racist while Cullen went to war to some degree ‘for honor’. Doc Whitehead was a good guy, seemingly. Cullen’s participation in slavery has been portrayed as less than heartfelt and that IS possible. But, there hasn’t really been a ‘counterbalance’ (also a good word for this episode that you used). Now there is. The Swede has become a more developed character. We can understand his pain and motivation better now.

    On Saturday night I watched ‘Death and the Civil War’ on PBS’s American Experience. It makes a good companion piece for Hell on Wheels. I highly recommend it to HOW viewers. DATCW (I guess that works) really creates a context for some who might not have spent much time thinking about this period in American history, and for others as well. The onslaught of death and how it changed people’s lives is probably not really appreciated by many of us. In some ways, HOW is a show about PTSD resulting from the Civil War. It’s hard to imagine the historical equivalent of 7 million deaths on our own soil for us Americans. People from other countries have experienced that in living memory, but we haven’t.

    The harshness and cruelty of that group experience along with the social constraints and the sentimentality of the time come together with the aggresiveness of western expansion to give this show a lot of power. I hope more people are discovering it.

    One last thing – I do have a question for other viewers. Does anyone understand why this episode was called ‘The White Spirit’? I thought that related to the idea of famine in Plains Indian cultures and of course to the coming of the Europeans, but only the first scene with the Swede and the Sioux seemed related to that. Anyone else have an idea about that? Maybe I’m missing something.

    • the woman bringing the man to life sexually instead of the other way around

      Exactly so! Lily is a sexually-awakened woman; we saw scenes with her husband that were lusty and playful. With Thomas she is numb, which is doubly-painful for a woman who knows better. But here we didn’t see her have any peaks of pleasure. Instead, it was again this notion of woman as a healing force, which is absolutely a sexist notion. OTOH, I think it is also Lily as she wants to be. Lily came to America for love and for freedom, and ended up with something entirely different.

      • Deborah, I thought your original post here was thought-provoking and mostly I liked what you said, but I think this is the one point that I believe we disagree on.

        I’m sure you do agree with me that all of the HOW characters live in an exceptionally sexist and racist world. We’ve probably never experienced anything like it in spite of the persistent sexism and racism that remain a part of American culture. But I just don’t view what happened between the male and female individuals in this episode to be particularly objectifying or sexist for the 3 women.

        Each couple (Lily/Cullen, Eva/Elum, Ruth/Sean) seems individual and not of a type to me. That’s one of the things I liked best about this episode. Their behavior grew out of character, and history, real and as developed previously on HOW. Love, whether real or projected, is often redemptive for both men and women.

        Maybe Sean views Ruth as an object; I’ll give you that. She’s mostly just a fantasy, at least at this stage. She’s also one of the only non-prostitutes he ever encounters and unlike his brother he doesn’t view them as potential partners. Still Sean hardly knows Ruth. She hardly knows him. If attraction makes him more generous and observant than he normally would be, it’s not necessarily love, but it may not be a bad thing. It seemed to me that she was aware of her power to use Sean for her own purposes when she turned her back on Joseph, so she doesn’t necessarily view men as more than objects herself.

        I don’t view Eva’s absence here as particularly objectifying to her character either – it’s faithful to the plotline. There’s a canyon-like gulf between the life experiences of Eva and Elum, although both are outsiders. Hers allows her to contemplate a life and a child with a black man just out of the shackles of slavery – that’s the uniqueness of her worldview. His make it extremely difficult to come around to the same conclusion, but he seems to be reaching it anyway – slooowly. Why else would he be acquiring property, and building a house next to a river in the middle of nowhere if not for the individual woman that is Eva? He wants to be the man in the picture of her life. That wasn’t one of his life goals, except for her. And they have a mutually satisfying sex life to boot.

        And, Lily and Cullen – I don’t get how he’s objectifying her any more than is normal in a brand new barely there relationship between a healthy sexually knowledgeable woman in spite of her recent traumatic experiences and a man who probably hasn’t had sex in five years and just swam through an ocean of death. We didn’t really see any peaks of pleasure from him either.

        I think from what I’ve read by HOW viewers on the AMC site that the Lily/Cullen sex was highly anticipated. Maybe a lot of people expected it to be wild and passionate. The reality for Cullen seemed to be more about relearning how to be a man with a woman again, and she seemed to understand that. That made sense to me. Maybe they’ll have wild mutually orgasmic encounters at some point in the future – who knows? If they do, that will be fun. But this encounter seemed to be about tenderness instead.

        Sorry to be verbose and overly emphatic; I guess I got carried away. Everything else that you said made sense to me.

        • My point is that positioning a woman as a muse is a sexist writing trope. I am not faulting Cullen, I am faulting the script. However, I think that Lily and Ruth transcend the trope, despite some misgivings.

          I don’t have time to give you the long, in-depth answer you deserve, but thanks for going there.

        • I saw the Lily/Cullen scene as incredibly fragile and tentative — widow and widower, both calloused, daring to let somebody in again. And the song was haunting, it’s my new fave.

  3. please tell me the name of the song and artist which plays durring one part of the white spirit episode (durring the love scene) it may be “annabelle” or “where does the spirit go” or some similar title ….but those words are in the lyrics

    • I liked this song a lot too. I found it on YouTube, ‘Annabelle’ by Gillian Welch.

      • Oops, I got it wrong. There are 2 similar songs, both by groups/artists doing songs used on HOW. It’s Annabel by the Duhks. Don’t know anything about them, though.

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