Race on Wheels


The second episode of Hell on Wheels was more refined than the previous episode as it was able to explore each character in more depth. This is evidenced by the character known as “the Swede,” a large imposing figure who is head of security in the lawless West. The irony of “the Swede” is that he is of Norwegian decent. Even though he is a recipient of a racial misnomer, he still uses race as a factor when he tries to figure out who murdered Daniel Johnson. He speculates that the murder was committed by “one of the Nee-groes” and “the Swede” takes delight in the possibility that if an African American is guilty or is even presumed guilty, that he would be able to hang him. “The Swede” is an interesting character in that he is greatly affected by race while also using race and its prejudices in his own judgments.

Race is used as a compass to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains which has been an underlying precept in the Western genre. Hell on Wheels continues this tradition through the relationship between the Native Americans and the White men. In Hell on Wheels, some of the Native Americans are depicted as savages, and villains, who ruthlessly attack a settlement, killing everyone in sight. Furthermore, they are hunting for Lily Bell, who they warn will be defiled and murdered if caught. Standing in their way is Joseph Black Moon, an Indian, who now has adopted Jesus Christ and the white man’s culture. He cautions his brothers that if they harm a white woman, there will be repercussions, to which they reply that even though Moon appears different, he still remains an Indian and will be treated as such.

It appears that race will remain a large factor as Hell on Wheels continues. The relationship between the Whites and the “savage” Indians is a common theme in Westerns and it appears that Hell on Wheels is building up to a confrontation between the two cultures. Furthermore, the show continues to address the relationship and racial tensions between Whites and African Americans during the post-Civil War period. This is exemplified when Cullen, who is accused of Johnson’s murder, points out that he could report Elam, a recently freed African American, as the murderer and he would be believed without evidence because he is white and Elam is black.


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