Sep 112014

Yay, the writers finally read a book about the railroad, but their addition of a few historical facts to the fantasy land that had been built in the previous two seasons simply creates a bizarro-world version of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Real men live outdoors, not in houses.

WinterThe season starts at the end of the winter, months after the end of season two. Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) had apparently spent the winter by himself in the snow, figuring out how to run the railroad, because only sissies live in towns, or even houses, during winter. He then picks up his faithful sidekick Elam Ferguson (Common) in Omaha, and goes off to New York City, where he persuades the board of the Credit Mobilier to hire him as senior engineer for the railroad, even though a senator tried to get them hire his son-in-law. Bohannon convinces the board with his plans for water cars, living cars and work schedules.

“This season we’re placing Cullen Bohannon at the center of the show, and taking him away from the revenge motive which propelled him into the series.”

Shirt offJohn Wirth had replaced John Shiban as the showrunner of Hell on Wheels after Shiban left the show following a losing argument with AMC over money at the end of Season Two. One of Wirth’s first announcements was that the storyline of Bohannon seeking revenge on the murderers of his wife and son would be abandoned. I am happy to see the end of the revenge sub-plot, which was incredibly boring, but Bohannon already was at the center of the show. However, he does get his shirt off more, which will undoubtedly please part of the audience.

The season is more historically accurate. Kind of.

Sleeping CarBohannon is taking the place of Grenville Dodge, the real chief engineer of the Union Pacific (Union Pacific), and the Casement brothers, who supervised the construction of the railroad. The sleeping and dining cars built by Bohannon were actually designed by Dan Casement.

Shortly after Bohannon becomes chief engineer, Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee), vice president of the rival Central Pacific (CP), tries to hire him away from the UP. Huntington was based in New York, so the meeting with Bohannon could have taken place, but his repeated attempts to hire Bohannon as chief engineer of the CP make no sense, since the CP already had a chief engineer, Samuel Montague. Except the show is about Bohannon. The showrunner even said so.

While meeting with Huntington, Bohannon is stunned to learn that the construction of the railroad had become a race between the two companies. The race did happen, but he should not have been surprised. Initially, the CP and UP had a fixed meeting point but Huntington wanted a race. Since the CP was still inching its way through the Sierra Nevada range while the UP was speeding along the prairies, the UP did not oppose the proposal, and the railroad bill was amended in July 1866.

Two Rode Together

SheriffWhenever there is a problem, Bohannon and Elam ride off to deal with it, even though it is usually not part of the chief engineer’s job description. 10,000 men worked for UP, and yet it’s always those two. Actually, a sheriff was brought in, even though I don’t think that the UP had a sheriff. He was one of the few interesting characters this season, but he was basically introduced to be killed.

First, they try to negotiate with an Irish gangster in New York City who charges ridiculous rates to supply workers. It would be charitable to describe this as fictional, but delusional would be more accurate. Men swarmed to work for the railroad, since it paid good wages, and the economy was struggling to recover after four years of civil war. The only time that the UP had labor problems was during the war because all able-bodied men were being conscripted into the army. The confrontation with the gangster is supposed to let the men talk tough but the entire scene seems transplanted from a bad TV movie-of-the-week.

Two Rode TogetherWhen cattle are stolen, Bohannon and Elam hunt down the rustlers. Later, the two men convince a mountain man to arrange a meeting with a Kiowa chief to obtain permission to cut down trees to get lumber for railroad ties, but they are nearly killed because the Kiowa are angry since their women and children were killed by the cavalry. Actually, thousands of men were cutting down forests but far back the line, since it took time to dry out the wood before it could be cut into ties. Also, it seems unlikely that they would have dealt with the Kiowa, since that tribe lived in the southern plains, in the same region as the Comanche and the Apache.

When cholera strikes the camp, Bohannon rides off to find water, and comes back with water and a new young son. Don’t worry, Elam is not left out, he gets to build a wind-powered water pump.Another fine mess

Every episode brings a new adventure for the two troubleshooters, but it becomes a little predictable, and I began to wonder if Elam was getting a little tired of being a sidekick to a man who attracts an astonishing amount of danger. At one point, Elam looks at Bohannon as if to say “well, this is another fine mess you have gotten me into.”

“You and I are opening the way for the greatest nation the world has ever seen.” By killing lots and lots of Native Americans.

MajorThe above quote was made by Major Augustus Bendix (Leon Ingulsrud), the commander of the nearby cavalry fort, who believes it is his mission to kill as many Indians as possible, claiming that they are all savages, regardless of whether or not they belong to hostile tribes. The bloodthirsty major with a fascination for phrenology is a bit over-the-top, but the attitude that the Indians had no right to their lands was far too common. Very few people had sympathy for the Indians, who were being pushed off their lands by the construction of the railroad and the settlers who followed it. The majority of Americans believed that it was Manifest Destiny or basically the white man’s right to expand where he wanted. Even prominent abolitionists like Horace Greely dismissed the idea that Indians had a right to their lands. General William Tecumseh Sherman, commander of the Missouri Military District, which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, met with the Indian tribes as part of a peace commission, and bluntly told them that they could not stop the railroad, so they must submit or die.

Guess who is back?

SwedeThor ‘The Swede’ Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl) is back, and he just happens to end up in a position of power among the Mormons. Following his dramatic escape from a hangman’s noose at the end of the previous season, he encounters a family of Mormons, who happen to be travelling alone to Fort Smith. Oh, the father happens to be the fort’s new bishop, but no one at the fort has ever met him, so the Swede changes his accent and assumes the bishop’s identity. After first murdering the bishop and his wife. The Swede is a great character and it was obvious that he would return but could the writers have come up with a more plausible story? It seems hard to believe that a Mormon bishop would be travelling alone with his family when thousands of Mormons were making the journey from the east to the growing settlement in Utah while the railroad was being built.

“There is a range war coming and your railroad is driving right through it.”

A range war does sound cool but nothing like that happened, because only a thousand people were living in Wyoming at the time. To be true, there was a war going on but it was between the United States and several Indian tribes, mainly the Cheyenne, Arapho and Sioux, who resented the growing numbers of people settling on their lands and the construction of the railroad. However, the Sioux had been the Big Bad during the previous season, so a new Big Bad is needed, and the writers chose the Mormons.

MaggieAt the same time, Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) is stirring up trouble while he tries to regain control of the railroad. Durant persuades Maggie Palmer (Chelah Horsdal), a rich rancher in Nebraska, to bankroll his plan to make Cheyenne, Wyoming a transportation center. While Maggie Palmer is a fiesty, interesting character, Darant’s plan is yet another of the show’s historical errors.

The UP owned the land on either side of the railroad. No one built a town and hoped to convince the UP to set up a station there, people guessed where the UP would build a station, and then raced to buy plots there, but they bought those plots from the UP. Every temporary town hoped that the railroad would transform it into a metropolis. Filled with dreams of growth, the town fathers would lay out grids for the township and sell plots. The practice was encouraged by the UP since the revenue stream was needed to help fund construction. Some of the towns did eventually become relatively large cities like Omaha in Nebraska, and Cheyenne and Laramie in Wyoming, but most quickly disappeared after a brief life as a wintering spot or a temporary construction depot for the UP.

Durant triumphant.

At one point, Durant is about to retake control of the railroad and fire Bohannon, until Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the U.S. Army, and presidential candidate, interferes. The episode is based on an actual attempt by the real Durant to restrain the power of Chief Engineer Dodge, which blew up in his face because Dodge and Grant were old war buddies. Except the writers elaborated a bit, so Bohannon is abducted by the Mormons, enabling Durant to retake control of the railroad and ensure that it moved through Cheyenne, his town.Grant

It is true that the real Durant was battling for control of the railroad in the fall of 1867, right before the construction team settled for the winter in Cheyenne, but he was fighting against Oliver Ames, president of the UP, and his brother Oakes, a congressman, not the chief engineer. Furthermore, the battle was fought in New York City where the Union Pacific held elections for the new board. After several days of arguing, Oliver Ames retained control of the board, but was forced to accept the presence of Durant and several allies on the board.Durant triumphant

However, the show is about Bohannon, so when Bohannon is abducted, Ames assigns all work on the railroad to Durant, even though the series gets it backwards. Again. The Ames brothers, not Durant, had the construction contract for the railroad.

Race relations are given more attention.

The sub-theme of Bohannon’s gradual acceptance that blacks, Elam in particular, are equal to him is interesting. Actually, all of the scenes that examine the second-class treatment of blacks are excellent. At one point, Bohannon and Elam are travelling together by train, and Bohannon joins Elam in the back of the train, rather than sit by himself in the white section. Despite his loyalty to his friend, Bohannon does not criticize the double standard. It is a pity that there were not more scenes like that, instead of pointless shootouts. The bromance between the two of them makes the show watchable, but Bohannon’s struggle to overcome his racism makes the show important.Back of the train

There is probably supposed to be a nice theme about a former Confederate cooperating with an ex-slave to build a railroad, but it has nothing to do with the real railroad, where basically all of the senior positions were filled by former Union officers. Grant even says that a northern general working with a southern soldier to build the railroad will help the country heal. It would have, but it did not happen. Like almost everything that took place this season.

Cullen Bohannon does like his whiskey.

PissWhile the writers’ repeated screwing with history drives me crazy, it is a fun show. There are nice scenes, like when a drunken Bohannon has to deal with a revenge-seeking relative of someone he killed, or his drunken dance with the reporter. Hm, he is drunk a lot. And his shock when he learns that he is going to be a father was really well-done.

The Mormons are this season’s big bad.

Even though the Mormons are basically the main villain this season, there is almost no discussion of their history or their religion. They are simply presented as a strange, unfriendly people living outside the nation, or trying to.

Mormon gangEarly in the season, a Mormon family tries to stop the railroad from crossing their land, and the confrontation proves bloody. Near the end of the season, the Mormon father seeks revenge and shows up with eight other Mormons, most of whom die like proper redshirts, but they abduct Bohannon, after killing a bunch of innocent people.

Later, when the UP runs low on food and water, many laborers agree to work for the Mormons based at Fort Smith, located near Cheyenne, who are building a spur line to Laramie. The UP workers who do go to Fort Smith are treated badly, barely fed and forced to sleep outside the fort. At one point, it becomes hard to pick the strangest departure from history, but this entire plotline is a serious contender. The Mormons did not poach the UP’s men to build a spur line to Laramie. Instead, the Mormons were eager to work for the UP since locusts had destroyed their crops several years in a row. The CP and the UP did compete for the Mormon workers, but the UP had gotten there first, and the CP sent Leland Stanford, the president of the CP, not Huntington, who was busy in New York buying equipment and raising money.

The CP was not winning the race to finish the transcontinental railroad.

HuntingtonThe one thing that Durant and Ames agree on is that the CP is winning the race to finish the railroad, even though in reality the opposite was true. In 1867, the situation looked bleak for the CP, since it had still not penetrated the summit of the Sierra Nevada. Stuck in the mountains, it was unable to collect government bonds or sell land grants, but it was spending massive amounts of money. Outside observers naturally concluded that the UP would win the race.

Also, while the image of armed Chinese guarding Huntington’s coach is eye-catching, it is yet another example of the writers’ tenuous grasp of reality. Admittedly, Chinese made up the vast majority of the CP’s labor force, but they were never given guns. In fact, the CP relied on local sheriff’s posses to ensure that negotiations with the Chinese over salary increases proceeded smoothly and avoided wasteful strikes.

Other stuff happens. Boring stuff.

BabyEva (Robin McLeavy) and Elam have a baby, but Declan Toole (Damian O’Hare), the brother of Eva’s former husband, shows up and wants his brother’s baby and wife. The actor is good but the pointless, idiotic storyline takes up half the season. An entire episode is wasted on the hunt for the baby when she is stolen. Instead of showing the strain of a mixed marriage in an era when race relations were not very liberal, Eva simply cracks under the pressure of dealing with Toole and gives the baby away. Yep, it did not make a lot of sense when I watched the scene either, although the Indian song that she sings to the baby was tear-inducing.

Sean McGinnes (Ben Esler) finally leaves the show, but he was a whiny sissy for most of the season, unlike the previous seasons where he was a devious schemer, annoying, but at least devious.

I can prove scientifically that Elam is tougher than Bohannon.

BearBohannon is about to adopt one boy, and finds out in a very delicate situation that he has fathered another child, but Elam can’t even keep one daughter, which just does not seem fair. However, Elam does get his due. The series starts with Bohannon fighting a wolf and ends with Elam fighting a bear. Bears are bigger than wolves, therefore Elam is tougher than Bohannon.

The series essentially consists of Bohannon and Elam working together to save the railroad. Wow, if Cullen Bohannon was not so tough and did not have a faithful, almost silent, black sidekick, the railroad would not have been built.

  • the war movie buff

    I loved this review. I just got done binging the third season so it was perfect timing. To tell the truth I am surprised any of it is historically accurate. I am just happy there is a Western on TV. Frankly, I am shocked it has lasted as long as it has. I have to admit I enjoy the most the buddy aspect of the Bohannon/Elam arc. I try not to think too much when I am watching it. It can be pretty silly. Bohannon is now married to a Mormon and under the Swedes thumb? Grant shows up? A killer lacrosse game? I predict the Swede gets knifed by the boy. I hope so anyway.

    • historyonfilm

      I share your love of westerns, so I am glad that you liked the review. It is not completely inaccurate, it just focuses too much on Bohannon. If the show was done right, it would basically be Deadwood, but where the town moves every couple of months. Despite the inaccuracies, I enjoy the show, especially the bromance between Bohannon and Elam, and all of the Dammit Elam moments. I am surprised that it keeps getting renewed since its ratings are not good. Speaking of westerns, I get my fix from Justified, which can just make up whatever it wants.