Hell on Wheels: Immoral Mathematics


Although suggested in the Hell on Wheels pilot, it is in the second episode, “Immoral Mathematics,” that we get a much clearer sense that the show’s main thematic focus will be the juxtaposition of chaos and order. The pilot definitely conveyed the chaotic nature of the setting, characters and construction of the railroad, but this second episode zoomed in a little more to provide a better sense of the affects of the war and its survivors. At this point, most characters have given some kind of confession or acknowledgement of the events they participated in during the war, which provides viewers with background information and puts most characters’ actions into a slightly clearer context. However, Cullen still remains a mystery, especially since we do not know any of the details, aside from the fact that his wife was murdered, motivating his mission to seek revenge. It appears that Cullen’s wife’s murder and hunting down the culprit who committed the crime will be a major storyline throughout the entire season.

Even though this is a post-Civil War landscape, it is still incredibly fragile and is already in jeopardy of disintegrating. By constructing this railroad the builders are bringing civilization to the “uncivilized,” supposedly bringing progress to the undeveloped, and uniting the east and the west. However, at what cost does the railroad get built? Perhaps it is each character’s confrontation with the looming collapse of order (and arguably already collapsed order) that propels him or her into situations where the only way to survive is by doing questionably moral thing. Within the theme of chaos vs. order is the theme of survival, and thus this show is also about the ever-present threat of death, destruction, and disorder. Even the sign of this nomadic tent-city says, “Population One Less Every Day.” On this immoral note, we are introduced to a second villain in this episode, known as the Swede, who is in charge of security for our first villain, Mr. Durant. The Swede’s costumes definitely aid his character. In the end of the pilot, one of the threatening men riding up to Cullen on horseback ends up being the Swede, and we can tell danger is coming right away just by the Swede’s dark apparel. In addition, these two villains seem to visually be polar opposites: the Swede has a threatening demeanor while Duran is theatrical in his over-the-top, gaudy attire.

It seems that we should ask, “was it worth it?” at the end of each episode.


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One Response to “Hell on Wheels: Immoral Mathematics”

  1. lauraoconnell Says:

    It should be argued that The Swede is the actual primary antagonist to Cullen’s protagonist character, and thus the real looming villain as opposed to Mr. Durant.

    In Poetics, Aristotle notes that popular tastes desire “the tragic effect that satisfies the moral sense. This effect is produced when the clever rogue, like Sisyphus, is outwitted, or the brave villain defeated.” With Cullen playing the role of tragic hero in direct combat with The Swede, and Durant naming Cullen as Foreman at the end of the episode, it is clear that The Swede, not Durant is the villain of the series.

    Durant is not an individual who will be defeated, nor do the audience members necessarily want him defeated. Despite his greed, and his callous toward those building his railroad, we as viewers and eventual beneficiaries of these technological developments both expect and want the railroad to be built. Our interests are not in conflict with those of Durant, however much we may disagree with his policies and demeanor. In fact, it is precisely his acknowledgement of his role as villain in the pilot’s ending monologue that takes away from Durant’s evil. Durant is not the villain in this story, although he can be considered the catalyst for destruction.

    The Swede, conversely, is a dark foreigner whose role as head of security is in direct conflict with Cullen’s story purpose of seeking revenge on those in the camp responsible for his wife’s death. His fixation on numbers, as well as his harrowing past as a Prisoner of War, depicts The Swede as a mentally instable character capable of unspeakable things. It is inevitable that Cullen and The Swede will physically clash many times throughout the series and at this point, The Swede is the ultimate enemy.

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