Third Time’s Not Quite The Charm

After last week’s class discussions, I watched episode three of Hell on Wheels with a new eye, attempting to be overtly discerning and analytical as opposed to serving as a more story driven viewer. With that mindset, focusing more closely on the sounds, cinematography, and overall composition, I was slightly amazed at how manipulative the creative elements appeared to be. It was both ballsy and effective to tell an entire story in the teaser without dialogue, and underscoring proved to be just as much a character as any of the flashbacks getting offed on screen. Yet, the music was distinctly non-diegetic, even having instrumentation (like electric guitars) that couldn’t have existed in Cullen’s time. They were for the audience’s emotional sake as opposed to an honest relationship with the story being accompanied, and that took me out of it. This was furthered by the final seconds prior to the opening credits, when the music faded out, only to be replaced by diegetic wind and breathing.
It’s fairly clear that Hell on Wheels‘ creators aren’t too concerned with diegesis. We hear strings when the characters are sad, the music surges when Cullen rides off into the wilderness towards the end of the episode, stylized in classic Western fashion as a great hero, and so on. It would seem that the only time diegesis was directly explored was the Reverend’s voiceover, which became diegetic upon seeing his delivery in the funeral / sermon. However, Durant is a much stronger orator, putting the meek sermon to shame. He may still talk to himself (err, the audience) unnecessarily or read telegrams out loud for no apparent reason, but the man has speaking chops. When paired in a scene with Joseph the Cheyenne (oops, I mean Christian) and his robotic monotone, that becomes all the more apparent. Is this directing style, I wonder, or lack thereof?
To me, the best part of this episode was when Lily’s wound was addressed, with the final remnants of the embedded arrow removed. A flask is introduced, and instead of it being utilized for her comfort or to cauterize the wound, it’s there for Cullen to drink. And drink. And drink. Three episodes in, Hell on Wheels doesn’t truly work for me, but it works best in instances like that, where it doesn’t appear to take itself too seriously.

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One Response to “Third Time’s Not Quite The Charm”

  1. yvonne Says:

    I agree, the creative/visual elements definitely stuck out much more when I was watching this episode with them in mind. I began to notice how the music heightens in drama when Cullen goes through his various flashbacks at the start of the episode; how it starts to rain during a tense encounter between Cullen and Jonathan; and how the overall muckiness of scenery lends a sense of foreboding to the coming episodes. But it’s interesting when you say that the music was being manipulated “for the audience’s emotional sake as opposed to an honest relationship with the story,” and that anachronistic detail like the electric guitars took you out of experiencing the show fully. I was reminded of last week’s discussion on Mad Men, a show that is meticulous in its detail on the 1950s-60s period, in both its visual and sound elements. At one point we arrived on this deduction, that this almost fetishistic attention to detail, along with the way the characters interact with each other, and the soap opera-like trajectory of each episode, don’t really serve to portray the period as it really was at the time, but a way we, from a contemporary perspective, choose to remember it. I feel as though a similar thing is at work with ‘Hell on Wheels,” and I’m not so bothered by the blatant emotional manipulation at work. The Western is a genre that has always employed obvious visual and musical elements to cue who the good/bad guys are, to heighten the dramatic moments, etc and I don’t think ‘Hell on Wheels’ is doing it in an inauthentic way by using non-period music.

    But I must agree with you again to say that all this may work in a way that isn’t fully compelling in relation to the show. But I think the lackluster response to ‘Hell on Wheels’ has more to do with its tired narrative elements rather than an anachronistic use of music. I admit, it is presumptuous to say only three episodes in, but it still feels like a story we’ve seen before, or have come to expect with the Western genre.

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