Aug 102013

301 cullen in the snow

Like all Southerners you’re doomed. And you smell.

Hell on Wheels is a marvelous show with a clean, straight-ahead narrative. It’s plain good storytelling with enormous visual appeal.

I cut my critical teeth writing about Mad Men. As a result, I tend to be looking for deeper themes whenever I write about a show. HoW doesn’t have per-episode themes in the way that Mad Men does, where each episode is almost a mini-movie.

It has over-arching themes, to be sure. Westerns are American mythology (as Clint Eastwood so brilliantly deconstructed in Unforgiven) so whenever we look at a Western we are looking at some version of the tale of America being told.In the case of HoW, the tale is, partly, one of race relations. It’s striking that I don’t know of any other Western that has addressed this issue, despite the fact that the presence of newly-freed slaves was integral to the life of the West in that period.

The complex, sometimes ugly, sometimes intimate, relationship between Elam Ferguson (Common), freed slave, and Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), former slave owner, is the heart of this show. During the course of the two-hour Season 3 premiere, Cullen refers to Elam as “my Negro friend,” complains about the ‘white man’s burden,’ rides in the “Negro car” of a train rather than abandon Elam to it, and insists to Elam that they are not and never will be equal. Elam, for his part, simply cannot accept, at any turn, that his freedom doesn’t mean he’s, y’know, free. That his pay and treatment are not equal. That he cannot ride in the same train car as whites. That he cannot be treated as other than a servant by whites. His on-going astonishment may not be realistic, but it serves a narrative purpose.

In addition, Hell on Wheels is a story about capitalism and corruption. The historical facts of the railroad industry lend themselves easily to such a story, and the character of Thomas Durant is made for the role. We see that prison, for such a powerful man, is no form of suffering at all. With money and power comes the ability to pull strings no matter where you are.

Elam’s story dovetails nicely with this, because he seems to believe that he can rise up through the capitalist system; that money and position are the only things separating black from white. He’s kind of a libertarian, not realizing that the system is gamed. More than anyone on the show, Elam believes in the American dream.

The visual language of any Western is, whether beautiful or plain, familiar. It straddles that no-man-s land between cliche and mythos, between stealing and homage. Hell on Wheels is so astonishingly beautiful that I’m inclined towards the positive bank of that river. The opening of Episode 301: Big Bad Wolf, is gorgeous and devastating. Nonetheless, if you know the visual language of the Western, you’re going to see that big fur coat and that all-consuming snow and think McCabe and Mrs. Miller. You can see vigorous borrowing all over the show. It’s hard not to see a nod to Copper‘s success in the episode’s brief visit to Five Points. Historically, though, it’s hard to avoid, and New York has been an unseen background location throughout the previous seasons.

My fiance and I watched Big Bad Wolf astonished by its beauty and impressed by the storytelling. A favorite show is back, and that’s a great feeling.

The second hour, Episode 302: Eminent Domain, has more problems, but remains terrific storytelling. Unfortunately, it relies on character cliches, and we can’t excuse them as archetypes.

The character of the reporter, Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) is too obviously a love interest for Cullen. AMC isn’t being coy about her presence, she’s listed in the main cast on their HoW website. The whole notion of a reporter, there to narrate to the audience and be astonished and awakened, is entirely trite, and dropping a love interest into Episode 2 is a bit of an insult to Lily Bell’s memory. On the other hand, I very much like HoW‘s effort to have diverse female characters. Were Hell on Wheels a movie it would pass the Bechdel Movie Test pretty regularly, and they’ve made a real effort to introduce women who are something other than a whore or someone’s wife.

I also like what they’re doing with Cullen’s sexuality this season. The upstanding hero or anti-hero who doesn’t touch women because He’s Dark and Upstanding is such a cliche, and this is exactly where Cullen Bohannon was at the beginning of the series. Still grief-stricken over the death of his wife and son, he turned down the attentions of a whore even while paying for her time. In this episode, though, we see him very familiar with a whore, and also having a little private time with the homesteader’s daughter. Good for him! Celibacy isn’t the only way to grieve.

The other cliche character was Jack, the Security Chief. He was charming and interesting right up until the moment I realized he was Strother Martin from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Then I knew he was too cute to live. Anyone that “colorful” is doomed.

Still, he did give this episode something of a theme. With the Mormon homesteader sacrificing his own son to save his ass, it was touching that Jack’s dying wish was to see Elam’s baby. Good last wish, I think. Greet Death by looking into the face of Life. And good juxtaposition: Life and death, and how we treat our children.

A lot of the Season 3 arc got laid down in Eminent Domain, whereas Big Bad Wolf mostly wrapped up Season 2. There’s Durant out of prison and actively plotting against Bohannon, while the rough working men and women of Hell on Wheels like and admire him. Power versus the People–a good American story, like I said. Meanwhile, both homesteaders and Indians are lining up as enemies, and AMC isn’t saving the return of the Swede for a surprise. This should be a great season!


  10 Responses to “Hell on Wheels Episodes 301/302: Big Bad Wolf/Eminent Domain”

  1. Can someone please tell me what Security Chief Jack said for a final phrase, after he said the baby was beautiful and before he went to black? I played it back several times and couldn’t make it out. It must have been something relevant with how Elam reacted.

    I enjoyed the opening sequence. Anything that can remind me of Jeremiah Johnson is A-OK in my book. Nice couple of episodes, but I wish they would have spent more time from him regaining his position to a fully functioning city again. Was it two days and the church already had a perfect floor and pews? BAM! and we’re back to business as usual. Also enjoyed the onion broth trick. Hadn’t heard of that one.

  2. Deborah, congrats on your wedding first of all. Thanks so much for your insightful recap – I am so excited to find out that you were doing this show. I just found out about HoW a few weeks ago. I have always admired your MM recaps. Looking forward to sharing the season with you and the other Lippsters. I enjoyed the 1st two eps and was pleasantly surprised. I had my doubts after they killed off Lily. Wow, it would be so great if you were able to interview Anson Mount at some point. Some other critics have not been kind to this show. Glad you see the poetic beauty of it.
    Keep up the great work!

  3. NAILED IT again, Deborah! And what a refreshing review to read, after doing what I promised myself I’d never do again– read the AVClub. Their take on this show has been consistently clueless, with each review giving the distinct whiff of preordained conclusions hiding behind fatuous, archly-clever writing. (Luckily– they will no longer cover the show, having decided that’s it’s apparently just not cool enough for their highfalutin’ roster. ‘Cause when you think of erudite media critiques, you think Onion offshoot!)

    The visual beauty of this show is, I really do think, unparalleled in episodic television… current, and perhaps historically. It is nearly its own parallel narrative. From the vistas that are either achingly gorgeous, or starkly threatening… to the simple choices of having the Mormon family’s house loom, or seeing Durant in his cell askew and through the bars… many theatrical releases can’t claim this much photographic poetry.

    I agree with all of your positive comments, but I also agree about the journalist. Very unnatural addition; “trite” is a pretty good summation. As well, I was wondering about the way the two other main female characters were written in this premiere; Eva and Ruth are strong, but were reduced to platitudes and stereotypical background. I do hope that each of them will be given more meaty lines and stories in the coming episodes. Their characters, and the actresses who play them, are too interesting and talented to be neglected.

    Speaking of which– I miss Joseph. I thought his story was a wonderful parallel to both Cullen and Elam’s. Where will he fit, after the cultural cataclysm? No choice will be easy, morally unambiguous, or harmless. None. It was fascinating watching this life-altering conflict present itself to those three characters– now, one of them is simply gone.

    One small thought: I wondered at the time if the young Mormon woman was not a daughter, but a young sister-wife… whose true feelings for her “stepson” were the meaning of the tears at the hanging. Yep, I still remember all that “Big Love”!

    • It turns out that the young Mormon woman is Naomi Hatch, who is supposed to be eighteen. There was an extended scene edited out, that had her coming to Bohannon in the barn. He tried rejecting her advances but physical attraction won out and the ensuing sexual encounter occurred. The actress playing Naomi is Siobhan Williams, a 23 year-old “veteran” from Canada. She’s listed in the credits for Episodes 9 and 10, so this will be interesting. The producers gave her quite a bit of exposure, so we’ll see what comes about from the “barn scene.”

      • She was 23 years old? Strange… when I found a picture on Google she does look 23, but on the show I honestly thought she was 16.

  4. On one hand, it’s great to see Cullen as full of life as he can be, since I was sure Lily’s death left him a wreckage of a man. On the other hand he’s snuggling underage girls under the roof of their father’s now?

    They did treated Lily as a means of his rebirth, dammit. Despite our discussing this, I was hoping they would do something to avoid that cliche.

    • My respect for him after watching that scene has dramatically decreased. It also didn’t help that from her appearance I got the impression that she is 15-16 years of age even though she was supposed to be 18 in the movie. Seriously, even if she is 23 years of age irl… she doesn’t look it in that show. I mean… I guess certain individuals take longer to develop? Although this seems like an extreme case, or rather because of the makeup she had on which made her look much younger.

  5. […] our two-hour season premiere, we met journalist Louise Ellison, and I thought she was too obviously a love interest for […]

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