Mar 302012

On the surface, Hell on Wheels is about a Confederate veteran who is hunting the Union soldiers who had killed his wife during the American Civil War. Yawn. However, the show uses the construction of the transcontinental railroad to examine the many problems facing a recently re-united nation: the challenge of making former enemies live together in peace; the expansion of the railroad into the lands of Native Americans, who rightly feared that it meant the end of their way of life; and the need to integrate newly freed slaves into a world that was still controlled by white men. Hell on Wheels clearly has ambition but does not always achieve its goals.

The show’s inability to realize its potential is not the fault of the cast. Anson Mount as the series lead Cullen Bohannon and Dominque McElligott as Lily Bell, widow of the railroad’s surveyor and potential love interest, are attractive actors who do the best they can with the material they are given, even though their dialogue is often a little bland and predictable. Tom Noonan is genuinely interesting as a preacher, who rode with the abolitionist zealot John Brown when they slaughtered pro-slavery men during Bleeding Kansas. Despite his current career choice, he has no regrets about his past, commenting that swords are better than guns when doing the Lord’s work. When provoked, he licks his lips as if he can taste the bubbling fury that tempts him to return to simpler, more Biblical methods. Although Common, as the former slave Elam, has an astonishing intensity, I was especially impressed by his willingness to take a character who naturally has the audience’s sympathy and turn him into a more nuanced individual. Fixated on improving his personal situation, he has trouble understanding why other people expect more of him. The character of financier Doc Durant, the brains and driving spirit behind the railroad, is one of those meaty roles that give long-suffering character actors the opportunity to show what they can do. While Colm Meaney seems to relish his role, making drunken speeches that provide historical background and arranging the victims of an Indian massacre in the most gruesome positions possible to ensure the pictures will stoke up passions against the Indians and gain more governmental support for his railroad, the writers keep trying to make him too sympathetic. This symbolizes the problem with the show, the writers and directors play it too safe. I feel far too often that the actors are straining to be unleashed and given dialogue that they can rip into.

The production team has created a suitably muddy set, but there is a limit to what can be done with a community where almost everyone sleeps, eats, drinks and has sex in tents. Less understandable is the decision to devote only cursory attention to the actual process of building a railroad. There are always explosions in the distance and lengthy scenes of laborers digging to widen the path, but the extras seem to be simply swinging their tools, carefully ensuring that they do not damage the ground for the next take. The camera never pans back to show the virgin land being forcibly ripped apart to be penetrated by the powerful, thrusting locomotives. As a result, a key element is missing from the series. Yes, it shows the dirt and the filth that people lived in, but Hell on Wheels is not about the lack of hygiene in the post-Civil War period, but the building of a railway across vast areas of untamed land that had never known permanent human settlement. Why make a show about the intercontinental railroad if you are not going to present the land in its native beauty being ruthlessly conquered so that the long, hard, puffing trains could have their way with the land. The railroad ended a wilderness that had existed for thousands of years but the construction of the railroad is relegated to the background in favor of the lead character’s thirst for revenge and the admittedly entertaining machinations of Durant. No wonder the railroad is behind schedule, the main crew bosses are constantly disappearing for a day or two to kill someone or each other.

Although the show is officially about the transcontinental railroad, the main theme is racism. While Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire have had storylines about bigotry, Hell on Wheels faces post-Civil War racism head-on. There is no denying that the writers deserve praise for tackling such a painful topic, but they are still placing child-protection covers on all of the hard-edges, instead of treating the audience like adults. The show’s fundamental message is that if we all get to know each other, everyone will get along, and bigotry will no longer be a problem, except for the really nasty racist, who will have to be killed, preferably by the ethnic minority he was mistreating. The writers seem to feel that if an unrestrained racist continues to exist, it means that racism will be considered a valid viewpoint, so the show often feels like an after-school special from the 1980s. I hate myself for typing this, but can’t there be one nice racist? Just one, to show that there were many people in that era who refused to view blacks as equal but were otherwise decent, hard-working people, at least by the standards of the time. The writers’ desire to present a positive view of interracial relations is laudable but historical context needs to be emphasized in a show set in a historical period. The abolition of slavery had cost an astonishing price in blood, but racism did not disappear overnight in the northern states, never mind in the southern states.

Next season, I sincerely hope that the writers will introduce the competing Central Pacific Railroad, which originated on the west coast, and it would be a good idea to show the race between the two lines.

Post-Civil War racism, simmering hostility between Union and Confederates, conflict with Indians, and building a railroad…it’s a lot. Tossing a revenge mission, a couple of really unlikely love triangles, and father-daughter issues into the mix, well, it’s too much. I genuinely like the show, but the direction and writing are a little uneven, and the plot has few surprises. I respect the writers’ courage, I just wish they would spend more time on the railroad.

  • The railroad ended a wilderness that had existed for hundreds of thousands of years” 
    Did you forget the Ice Age glaciation about 12,000 years before? The glaciers ground the rocks to help make top soil 11 feet deep so Iowa could be so fertile.

    • historyonfilm

      Thanks for pointing that out, and it has been corrected. My knowledge of geology is not as good as I would like.