Jul 312015

Hell on WheelsLast season ended with Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) abducted by Mormons and brought to Fort Smith, where he was forced to marry a girl he had gotten pregnant. To make matters worse, his mortal enemy, the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), is impersonating a Mormon bishop and is in charge of Fort Smith. Elam Ferguson (Common) went looking for Bohannon but had an apparently fatal encounter with a bear. Several months later, Bohannon is a father and the railroad is stuck at Cheyenne. John Campbell (Jake Weber), the provisional governor of Wyoming Territory, arrives and immediately tries to wrest control of both Cheyenne and the Union Pacific (UP) from Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney).

Escaping from Fort Smith, Bohannon returns to the railroad to find that his position has been taken by Durant’s original choice, Martin Delaney (David Wilson Barnes), and the only job available is working for Psalms (Dohn Norwood) with the freedmen. A former slave-owner working for former slaves should have been interesting but the situation does not last long, since he quickly proves that Delaney does not know his job.

So the government is this season’s Big Bad.

I realize that a new Big Bad was required but John Campbell only became governor of the territory five years later. It would have been better to show the uncontrolled criminal element and the vigilante groups that drove them out of Cheyenne. A scene where a couple of UP workers pick up dead bodies in the street every morning is the closest the season comes to the real town.

To be fair, Campbell does have an acceptable malevolence. At one point, the governor explains to Bohannon that the negro is an inferior race but human, that’s why they fought the war. This brutal honesty is rarely expressed in TV shows or movies that deal with the American Civil War, but it is true. Most northerners did not consider blacks equal to whites, even after the war.

What is a carpetbagger?

John CampbellThe fictional President-elect Ulysses Grant had removed Campbell as head of the Union administration in Atlanta, Georgia because he had been overzealous. When Campbell offers Bohannon a job, he laughs at the idea of working for a carpetbagger, to the irritation of his wife, who does not enjoy living in a tent. I know that I harp endlessly about the show’s historical inaccuracies, but the appearance of the governor should have been an excellent opportunity for the writers to explain carpetbaggers, basically northern businessmen and Republican political appointees who travelled south after the war with carpet bags full of money and bought control of banks and railroads. Southerners would have been familiar with the term, to their regret, but northerners would have not been.

The most feminist season yet.

Bechdel TestThis season has four major female characters: Ruth Cole AKA Church Lady (Kasha Kropinski), Eva (Robin McLeavy), Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin) and Mrs. Bohannon (Mackenzie Porter); none of whom are whores, which to be honest, was not typical during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. There was an inexhaustible pool of candidates for prostitution because women had come west looking for opportunities, and found that there were not enough jobs. The frontier towns could only support a few teachers, dressmakers, waitresses and laundresses, while clerical positions were usually taken by men, which left prostitution as the only option for far too many women.

One scene stands out. Eva takes a woman, who had been held captive by the Comanche, to see Maggie Palmer (Chelah Horsdal), a powerful rancher and owner of the main hotel, and asks Palmer to employ the woman. One woman is helping out another woman by representing her to a third woman, who is in a position of power. The scene passes the Bechdel Test, which evaluates whether two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man.

Speaking of Eva, the relationship between Durant and Eva is one of my favorite parts of the show. It’s not father-daughter or even friendly, since neither one trusts other people easily. She simply brings out his decent side. Rejecting Eva’s offer of sex in exchange for the money he gave her, Durant says “You are one of the few people I like, I will pay you for that.”

Elam Ferguson

ElamThe scene almost makes up for the excrement that was Elam’s story, which existed for the sole purpose of forcing Bohannon to admit that Elam, a black man, was his friend. Nearly dead after a fight with a bear, Elam is saved by Comanche, who name him Bear-killer. Brain-damaged, Elam has no memory of his life on the railroad. Overwhelmed by PTSD, he adopts the Bear-killer identity and tries to sell several women at Cheyenne.

The episode showing Elam’s life with the Comanche was quite good, but the whole plot line seems a waste. Admittedly, it was nice to see things through the Indians’ point-of-view, even though the Comanche lived much more south, in Texas actually.

Unable to bring Elam back to sanity, Bohannon executes him, then takes over the funeral and buries him by himself. Yep, the show sure is about Bohannon.

Life is a mystery.

SnowSidney Snow (Jonathon Scarfe), a former rebel, appears, and immediately makes Bohannon his Best Friend Forever. Completely unreconstructed, he calls black people “niggers” and misses the war. He is basically what Bohannon could have become, at least I think that is what he is supposed to be. Aside from the train robbers in the second season, Sidney is the only other southerner who has appeared on the show, implying that all southerners are murderers and robbers. At least the train robbers were in theory planning to join Jo Shelby in Mexico. Actually, no one ever talks about the war, which is strange since the majority of workers on the railroad were veterans.

Do I even need to point out that almost nothing in this season is historically accurate?

SteamAside from the struggle to control the town, the other main plot line is that the railroad is stuck in front of Sherman’s Summit, and is unable to go through or over the mountain, while the CP is already through the Sierras. Fortunately, Bohannon is able to find a route on his own, even though the surveyors had failed. He even invents a steam shovel to scrape a route along the edge of the mountain. Sherman’s Summit was the highest point on the Union Pacific Railroad, but it was not a particularly difficult part of the route. The problem was invented to make Bohannon the hero. Again.

In reality, the CP seemed to be losing the race at that time. The first breakthrough in the summit of the Sierras took place in August 1867, but the CP still did not have a single stretch of track longer than twenty miles, which was needed to qualify for government bonds.

The Swede escapes death again. Yes, again.

The SwedeTrapped in Fort Smith, Bohannon had confessed his own sins in order to trick the the Swede, who is masquerading as a Mormon bishop, into admitting that he had killed the real bishop, which enabled him to finally leave the Mormons, who would hopefully execute the Swede. It is a brilliant scene that shows both actors at their best, and makes me wish that Heyerdahl was given a bigger role on Gotham.

Shocked by the Swede’s confession, Aaron Hatch (James Shanklin), Bohannon’s father-in-law, wants to hang the false bishop but needs the permission of Brigham Young’s (Gregg Henry), head of the Mormon Church. Recognizing Young’s sharp mind, the Swede does not even try to fool him. Even though the Swede admits that he had murdered the real bishop and his family, he is spared by Young because the spur line was built faster under his leadership. Young is especially pleased when the Swede says he hates Durant, although it is never explained why.

BrighamIn fact, the fictional man’s hatred of Durant is misplaced, since the real Young was a strong supporter of the railroad and an early investor in the UP. Hoping to win the race against the CP, the real Durant sent Young a telegram asking the Mormon leader to supply workers for the section in Utah. Aware that the many young men needed jobs, Young agreed immediately. The timing was excellent, since grasshoppers were eating the wheat crop, and locusts had plagued the crops three years in a row. Taking a break from reality, the screen Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee) convinces Young to supply workers for the CP, giving him a lead over the UP.

The Mormons are not given a favorable portrayal.

Mrs. BohannonViewers of the show will likely have a negative perspective of Mormons, which is unfair. There is no denying that Mormons were viewed as pagans at the time, and the polygamy was scummy, but they kept to themselves and were not especially villainous. There is one brief discussion about the religion between the Church Lady and Mrs. Bohannon, which focuses on the Mormon’s habit of multiple wives and refusal to ordain women. Actually, this is speaking to the present. Most of the opposition to the Mormons was caused by the multiple wives, not the lack of women priests, since there were few female preachers at the time.

Gossipy towns-people talk about Bohannon’s child-bride but the change in actresses makes the gossip silly. Admittedly, the original actress (Siobahn Williams) did look like a teenager, even though she was in her twenties, but she left the show for a lead role on another show, and her replacement is twenty-five, and looks like she is in her twenties.

Don’t mess with a psychotic provisional governor.

Gatling GunWhen both his marshal and deputy marshal are murdered, Campbell recruits Sidney Snow, who is in jail because he went on a hooting spree, to serve as marshal. The other criminals in jail are made deputies, and Snow is sent to arrest all of Durant’s key workers on trumped-up charges. There is a daring rescue, in particular a cool scene with a gatling gun, one of the first machine guns, and then a lot of people do stupid things, enabling Sidney to kill many people, including unintentionally Ezra Dutson, the adopted child of the Church Lady.

Nothing makes sense. Except for beer.

Church LadyAfter Sidney Snow burns down the church, he comes back to town for a shootout with Bohannon, but is shot by the Church Lady. The governor says she has to be tried in order to introduce law and order on to the frontier. Seems harsh but fair. Except, there have been a lot of killings this season. Let’s see, the governor let Snow, a convicted murderer, out of jail and gave him a badge, but he is not responsible for Snow’s actions. Durant beat a deputy marshal to death, but he is not charged. The shootout between Snow’s men and the prisoners, which produced many dead bodies, is also ignored. Mickey McGinnes’ (Phil Burke) cousin, a thug from New York City, forces the governor to hand over control of the casino and then rips out the eyeball of the deputy who had beaten Mickey. In front of the governor. No charge. So, the hanging of a preacher woman who was avenging the murder of her adopted son will introduce law and order. The whole plot-line just does not make much sense, even after I drank a lot of beer.

Bohannon and RuthHowever, the hanging is well-done, since it is shown from her perspective. And the scenes where Bohannon and Ruth talk about their dead adopted son are genuinely touching.

As I have said before, little in the show makes any sense. Aaron Hatch killed several people in Cheyenne, and lost most of his men while capturing Bohannon, but they are on good terms in season 4. Shows like this drive me to drink.

Even the violence is boring.

Slow MotionTraditionally, one of the few pluses on the show was the abundance of action. Unfortunately, even the mandatory violence has lost its charm due to the introduction of slow-motion reaction shots, which resemble bad TV shows from the eighties. I admit that I ate that stuff up at the time, but not so much now.

Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are moving on to the next town, leaving Campbell in control of Cheyenne. They look optimistic but none of the later towns ever had the opportunity to rival Cheyenne because the railroad was being built too fast by then.

Bohannon does have horrible luck with women.

Next season will examine the Central Pacific, which is a good thing, since the story of that part of the transcontinental railroad deserves telling. However, it is the most convoluted plot-line. After a smallpox epidemic at the Mormon fort, his wife disappears, so he joins the CP as a minor partner and head engineer in exchange for Huntington’s help in finding his family. The writers never actually explain how the CP could be winning the race but still need a chief engineer. But then, nothing makes sense anyway.

Despite sinking to new levels of inaccuracy, I have to give credit to John Wirth. He is the first showrunner on Hell on Wheels to actually get a renewal during the season, not two months after the season ends, presumably following torturous negotiations. I raise my glass to you, sir.

Readers interested in the construction of the transcontinental railroad can check out my timeline.