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.