a commentary by Nalini Haynes
Hell on Wheels is a Western drama created by AMC (ye of Walking Dead and Breaking Bad fame). Recently renewed for a third season, I was inspired to watch the series after interviewing Christopher Heyerdahl; I’ve just finished watching season 1.
Wikipedia gives this synopsis of Hell on Wheels:
Hell on Wheels is an American Western television series… Set in 1865, the series centres on the settlement that accompanied the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, referred to as “Hell on Wheels” by the company men, surveyors, support workers, labourers, prostitutes, mercenaries and others who make the mobile encampment their home. It stars Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier who works as a foreman on the rail road as he tries to track down the Union soldiers who murdered his wife and young son.
Another key character in the series is Lily Bell, played by Dominique McElligott: Lily worked with her husband, Robert Bell, surveying in preparation for the rail road until Robert was murdered by a rogue band of Indians. Lily defended herself then fled on foot before being rescued. Lily experiences the expectations of and attitudes towards middle-class women of the day: portrayed as a victim by the media for pecuniary advantage, lambasted by her sister-in-law for failure to wear mourning black although the criticism was completely unreasonable, Lily was offered the role of mistress by the creepy and corrupt rail road boss Thomas Durant, played convincingly by Colm Meaney (Chief O’Brien from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space 9).
Common plays Elam Ferguson, a half-white half-African American former slave coming to terms with his past, his current role as employee of the rail road, racism in the Old West and his attitude towards women, particularly ‘his’ woman. In his intimate relationship he appears to be seeking to live out his identification with his white slave-owner father.
Joseph Black Moon (played by Eddie Spears), is an Indian who is baptised and serves the white evangelical preacher in the camp while also seeking balance between aiding the rail road while helping some Indians avoid bloodshed. Unfortunately the Indians face a choice between being hunted down or forced onto a reservation so wealthy white men can become more wealthy.
The Swede is actually Norwegian, as he keeps telling himself. Played by Norwegian Christopher Heyerdahl, teh Swede is completely convincing as a corrupt rail road official with obsessive-compulsive disorder aggravated by previous abuse, finding an outlet in seeking to control those around him. This is the first time I’ve seen Chris out of a prosthetic mask where I’ve found him unattractive; he’s not just ‘unattractive’, he’s down-right repulsive, both in looks and character. Extremely devious, the Swede’s manipulations are Machiavellian, right up to episode 10, the finale of the season.
The final character I’ll mention, but far from the last interesting character in the series, is Reverend Nathaniel Cole, played by Tom Noonan. The reverend has a paternal relationship with Joseph Black Moon although in the beginning it almost seemed patronising. Over time it’s obvious Cole really cares for Joseph as a son, which irony is revealed when Cole’s daughter shows up, homeless and destitute, and Cole wants to send her away. Cole tries to work with the Indians but Coles’ hypocrisy is repeatedly challenged on this point. Coles’ daughter defends his abandonment of her to Joseph, saying her father was ‘Called’ to work with ‘lessers’ – this becomes another ironic point. It is through these relationships that family and issues such as domestic violence, abandonment and religiosity are explored.
Cole is a very complex character whose development I watched with particular interest as he intersected so many social themes, but in the final episode I felt writers took a short-cut with his dialogue that struck a discordant note with his development to date.
In episode 9, the second-last episode of the season, Cole beheaded a man who intended to murder Joseph Black Moon for being Indian. Cole’s love for Joseph and Cole’s awareness of both the stranger’s and his own violent past precipitated Cole’s next action: grabbing a sword and beheading the man. In episode 10, Cole is preparing the body for burial, something he could (probably) get away with as the camp’s reverend with no previous suspicion of wrong-doing on his record. Bohannon comes to Cole, conflicted about whether to pursue his intended path of murdering the man he believed to have raped and murdered his own wife. Cole turns from the body of the man Cole murdered, speaking and looking like a sociopath, to tell Bohannon to follow the path of hate and yet Cole didn’t murder that stranger out of hate, he murdered the man out of love for Joseph. Cole’s speech struck me as a sloppy short-cut to help justify Bohannon’s subsequent actions, and yet this speech seemed out of character for the self-conflicted minister who tried so hard to do good in spite of his many personal failings.
Comparison with Deadwood
Hell on Wheels is a drama of remarkable strength and scope, carrying the viewer with complex characters, a well-paced plot and intelligent exploration of social issues. In my opinion, Hell on Wheels is far superior to Deadwood, another popular Western drama produced recently.
Deadwood was produced by HBO, which production team seems obsessed with featuring sex, boobs and women’s bums – in other words, it’s made for the male gaze. Like Game of Thrones, Deadwood has gratuitous exposure of women and excessive emphasis of women’s subordinate position in the narrative. In Deadwood, prostitutes frequently walk around with their breasts fully exposed even when not working. Many scenes involve a prostitute giving fellatio to her boss, Al Swearengen, well beyond the necessity for establishing his attitude toward women, with no regards for the necessities of the plot. Swearengen delivers numerous monologues while being given head.
In contrast, Hell on Wheels has few sex scenes, generally more tastefully choreographed with regards to a varied audience (not just for the male gaze). The prostitutes may have heaving bosoms bulging above the restraints of their corsets, but they do not walk around exposed in public. When shown, sex is part of the plot for Hell, not superfluous to requirements.
One of the attractions and downfalls of Deadwood are the monologues, primarily delivered by Swearengen but periodically also by other characters. Many of these monologues are delivered in a theatrical style rarely seen on television, declamation of intellectual issues delivered with machine-gun rapidity in a flat affect style, causing part or all of such dialogue to slide meaninglessly past one’s ear. There are no comparable monologues in Hell on Wheels; dialogue is delivered realistically for the situation, with emotion, pacing and pauses that provide ample opportunity for absorption of meaning.
I believe Deadwood‘s pandering to the male gaze, its focus on the darkest underbelly of human nature with a far lesser focus on ‘average’ characters, coupled with its intellectual interludes that flew over many viewers’ heads, brought about its possibly premature downfall. Hell on Wheels caters to a far more diverse audience with awareness of more than just the traditional male gaze, balancing characters, plot and intelligent sociological comment without the intellectualism that alienated a portion of Deadwood‘s audience.
Deadwood is deceased, long live Hell on Wheels.