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!