From the vault-- Hell on Wheels
Posted on 12 March, 2019 by Administrator
A couple of episodes into the second season of Hell on Wheels, here are my thoughts:
It’s a deconstruction of the Western that works best when it escapes its genre, because, frankly, that was old hat a decade before HoWpremièred. For one thing, the wistfulness inherent to many Westerns pretty well deconstructs itself: You have to be willfully blind to not realize that, even for able-bodied WASP males, “bittersweet” is the closest thing to a happy ending, since taming the land is the main goal and the land will inevitably run out. The characters’ understanding that the process of settling the wilderness was destroying it goes all the way back to Louis L’Amour. So, too, does the realization– and weak rationalizations– of native peoples being wiped out, white women treated as not much more than accessories, and the botched efforts to reunite America’s spirit after the Civil War. There was a lot of works featuring an idealized West, but it existed against a background of more introspective, even maudlin works about the limitations of adventure, and its offerings were eclipsed in the 1960s by Sergio Leone’s grittier aesthetic.
Second, even if you get beyond the self-awareness that Western writers have always had about destruction of the wilderness, and to a lesser extent about imperialism and gender, the genre had been purposefully and thoroughly deconstructed, if not vivisected, for decades before Hell on Wheels’s première. For every Open Range, there was a Dances with Wolves (revolutionary in its age, though it hasn’t aged well). And an Unforgiven (likely the only great film in the slew of deconstructions). And a Bad Girls. And, of course, a Deadwood. The Quick and the Dead is really more about averting specific tropes than deconstructing them, but you can throw it on the pile of anti-Westerns, too. Even TNT’s adaptation of Monte Walsh addresses the decline of boomtowns and growing unemployment among former cowboys. There’s just not a lot left to say within or about the structures of the Western genre. It would be hard for a modern audience to feel comfortable with a cheerful and sanitized Old West, and the intellectual exercise of deconstruction, once performed, quickly loses its appeal.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Western setting doesn’t provide bountiful opportunities for good stories, just that “the” Western narrative has grown nigh unworkable. Approached from an angle of something other than “basically decent white people steal Injuns’ land, and we should feel sad about that but still root for the whites,” the collision of cultures, economic havoc, environmental damage, war crimes, urbanites and country folk, rapid technological change, greed, oppression, and political corruption are all as relevant as ever.
Thankfully, Hell on Wheels does explore perspectives outside the conventional Western narrative; frustratingly, it tends to walk them back. Lead Cullen Bohannon’s (usually called by his last name) revenge mission against the Union soldiers who raped and murdered his wife makes for a suspenseful, schadenfreude-laced good time when treated as the main storyline, with all the usual Western tropes played with in the background: We want him to kill the men responsible, and the risk of his killing the wrong man gives us a little thrill of horror. Yes, he has a harsh code, but not an incomprehensible one, and his balancing act– trying to enforce his code without violating it himself– is sympathetic. He’s like a male Beatrix Kiddo, only with a (spot-on) Mississippi accent and in the Old West. The relentlessly investigating Swede, with his “immoral mathematics,” and Thomas Durant, railroad boss and true magnificent bastard, form a tense yet often hilarious triangle of mutual distrust and self-interest.
This is where the show should have said, “Screw intellectualism, let’s stick with the fun part!” By which I don’t mean that they should’ve made the show less accurate: I love that the writers used the real-life name of “Hell on Wheels” to describe the concessions following the railroad, and that they understood the importance of mourning dress, and that they assign plausible prices to the camp-following prostitutes. If anything, I wouldn’t mind more historical touches: Every time I see a hooker wandering around in a corset with no chemise under it, or a woman has sex without worrying about pregnancy, my brain starts bleeding. History can be fun, if you use it right.
The problem is that the show seems to think that a) we need constant reminding that this is a WESTERN and b) we might not have gotten the memo on how everyone is Dark.™️ It makes no sense for Bohannon, an honor-driven blood-knight type, to strangle the wrong man while he begs to be allowed to prove his innocence, then to flee retribution, then to become a common train robber who hopes to flee to Mexico with the real target yet unfound. The pilot established with crystal clarity that Bohannon would do specific bad things, for specific reasons; we never saw the development that would lead him to do random bad things for random reasons. I can only assume that the nonsense in the second-season première was there because someone decided that Westerns have to have train robbers and that– horror of horrors– AMC might have a likable protagonist on its hands.
Elam Ferguson is another character who could have been flawed but appealing, which may be why they decided to grim him up. In season 1, he is, for understandable reasons, suspicious of white people in general, disappointed with the government, and still seething at the memories of his dismissive former master/natural father. While his undisguised hatred of his racist white coworkers isn’t always easy to watch and seems likely to bring down trouble on the entire black workforce at Union Pacific, it’s understandable.
Much as the show should’ve stuck with cold vengefulness as Bohannon’s main flaw, Elam’s dangerous, burning anger toward people who’ve wronged him should’ve remained his. They’re two sides of the same coin: Both unwilling to forgive, both too proud to accept less than their due. This juxtaposition works well, until Elam starts expressing his anger through rank misogyny toward impoverished white prostitutes who couldn’t have afforded slaves if they’d wanted to. His statement that he’d like to rape a white woman is partly a thought experiment to trip up Bohannon, but it’s also got an edge of truth to it. The fact that he’s part black may be a poor reason to throw him out of a brothel, but a woman, whore or not, doesn’t have to give a good reason to not have sex with a man. When Eva later establishes an affectionate relationship with him– one that could have gotten her lynched as a race traitor–, he wants her to be “mine. Only mine,” as if she were now property. Yet he refuses to commit to marriage. As soon as she rejects the offer to be his “private whore,” he begins stalking her, and manhandles her for dancing with another man at the next company party. Considering that Eva has always been poor, was at one point traded as chattel herself, is isolated from mainstream society by both her profession and the marks on her face, and obviously could not have fathered anyone, it’s impossible to see any justice in punishing her for the crimes of a wealthy man.
Oddly enough, given how poorly the typical Western handles them, the supporting female and Native American characters tend to be better written than the male leads. Lily Bell starts out afflicted with the same limp, hypocritical melancholy that’s threaded through Westerns for close to two centuries: She likes the land better “without people,” worries about whether her work will destroy the landscape, and keeps surveying anyway. Somewhere along the way, though, the silly damsel transforms into a cunning ice queen with a fanatical dedication to her “vision,” and turns into the most charismatic character to boot. Eva is somehow both the stereotypical “hooker with a heart of gold” and very much not; she’s a survivor who cares for herself as well as for others, not an unthinking sacrifice to her love interest’s ego. At first glance, Cheyenne Christian convert Joseph Blackmoon seems like a weak-minded youth who’s bought into the myth of the white savior, but, over time, we see that he’s generally interested in new ideas, and that he’s a sharp, skeptical observer of every group in the Nebraska Territory.
By the end of the first season, all of these characters have become more interesting than either Bohannon or Elam, because they still feel like people rather than representatives of whatever message the writers wanted to send that week, coded in the tropes of the Old West. Unlike most genre protagonists, Lily doesn’t view the destruction of the prairie as an inevitable result of competing civilizations; she views herself as one of the architects of one of its destruction, and knows that her guilt rests squarely on her own shoulders, not on those of humanity at large. In another show, Eva’s pluck would be make her a variation on the manic pixie dream girl; here, it just means that she keeps on trying to improve her own life. Joseph could easily have fallen far to one side of a good Indian/bad Indian divide, but instead, he’s a quietly clever character whose own ability to see reason has given him the naïve belief that everyone else shares it.
None of these perspectives is a breakdown of the Western narrative; rather, they’re twists on it, or just personal dramas that use a particular point in history as a setting. That, in my opinion, is as it should be. While the Western has outlived its welcome in our culture, there are plenty of good stories yet to be told about people in the expanding United States in the 19th centuries.