Author Archive

Hell On Wheels: A New Birth of Freedom

November 27, 2011

It is naturally going to be a tough act for AMC to follow when introducing a new show, Hell On Wheels, to its already incredibly successful lineup with shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. The juxtaposition of Breaking Bad and Man Men with Hell On Wheels seems to bring the shortcomings of Hell On Wheels into the limelight, especially when compared to the rich aesthetic, cinematic and narrative styles that move the stories forward and develop characters in AMC’s other shows. Therefore, I would argue that Hell On Wheels is not achieving the same level of success and intrigue that would keep viewers coming back for more, unlike those loyal followers of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Perhaps Hell On Wheels still just needs more time, but I am afraid that I’ve already lost most of my patience for this show…

After our class discussions last week I approached episode three with the intent of focusing in on all things visual. Yet, even as I watched for visual hints of plot, narrative, and character development, I still felt that Hell On Wheels fell short. Although parts of this episode were especially beautiful, moving, and really transported the viewer into a sense of what the conditions of daily life in the 1860s would be, most of the dialogue got in the way. The dialogue seemed to do lots of telling and leave no opportunity for showing, which in my opinion took all potential power and intellectual stimulation away from the audience. The repetition of images, such as mud, dirt, and filth, I found to be a positive visual aspect that kept setting the scene and time period, however instances of repetitive dialogue, most notably with characters Elam, Cullen, and Durant, took away the audience’s credibility and replaced it with an overtly spoon-fed version. The opening scene with Cullen searching through Johnson’s things and coming across the photo of all the men involved in his wife’s murder was aesthetically pleasing at times, but overall seemed too overdone, too slow, and repetitive as if to make sure in cause the audience missed the first five opportunities to understand the plot we were given another five more chances to catch it…and all before the opening credits. The “western genre” involves drama, mystery, morality, and intensity, but Hell On Wheels is not providing many of the expectations I have (and want) of the genre; instead, it is fulfilling many gruesome stereotypes, especially when it comes to Native Americans, and does not allow for much prediction because it is all laid out for us.

Hell on Wheels: Immoral Mathematics

November 15, 2011

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.

Hell on Wheels: Pilot

November 8, 2011

Although this is humiliating, I am going to go out and say it: I almost had to shut my computer halfway through watching the Hell on Wheels pilot because it was difficult for me to sit through all of the gore and brutality. Clearly I have a low tolerance for violence, but the cinematic style of using intimate, close-up shots of bloody killings and altercations were too much for me. I am probably the only viewer of the Hell on Wheels pilot that felt this way; so despite my embarrassment, I thought I should offer up my differing opinion in contrast to those who thought the pilot was actually too slow, boring, predictable or anticlimactic.
Anyway, moving beyond my wimpy watching abilities, something I took away from the first episode was a feeling of inconsistency, contradiction and unevenness. Perhaps given the subject matter and the show’s tagline “the nation was an open wound,” inconsistency was to some extent part of the point the producers were trying to make. Regardless, I think one of the main ways this uneven feeling was projected was in the visuals, most notably in the partial adaptation of traditional costume practices and the cinematography with the washed out, grayed color that was more intense in some scenes and less in others. The classic Hollywood Western costume trope is to have the good guys in white cowboy hats and the bag guys in black cowboy hats. This white versus black hat juxtaposition is intended to symbolize the two sides of morality: the heroes versus the villains. Cullen Bohannon is always dressed in all black, which includes a black cowboy hat. However, even though Cullen is a gunslinger who sports an iconic black cowboy hat, his character is more complex then his ensemble indicates. He is on a mission to seek revenge for the murder of his wife, which seems manly and “justified” enough, we learn that he freed his slaves one year before the war, and his seemingly unimpressive mumbling-style of speech all make him less of the villain archetype his costume suggests he should be. (This uncertainty of character is even more applicable considering the first impression we are given of Cullen is his gruesome murder at very close range of a Northern soldier in a church confessional.)
In my opinion, although this pilot contains most of the hallmarks attributed to the classic Western genre, such as gunslingers, battle, “working girls,” American Indians, grit and wide open panoramic views, by giving Cullen a somewhat modern sensibility a contradiction arises. Thus, the authenticity and consistency of the show’s premise and Cullen’s character are questionable. All of these consistencies, along with the multiple storylines that were slowly integrated into the plot and then abruptly cut short in choppy ways, explain part of this first episode’s problem.
I think the ending of the pilot speaks the most volume: the “zebra speech” with the splices of vast open land, Lily Bell wandering alone covered in blood, the destruction of life and land, and the railroad workers edited into Thomas Durant’s speech serve as a recap and hint of what is to come. This was too forced and fake. His words were powerful, symbolic and conveyed too much for the audience as if the audience couldn’t figure these things out on its own. When things are given away to the audience this easily, and most of these “gifts” were already apparent through visual cues, narrative and character development, it makes the audience less interested and less engaged. Yes, I understand the importance and job of a pilot to anchor the show and provide enough information across to make viewers tune in next week, but I think this could have been accomplished in a less overt way. Instead of spelling out the actions and motivations of the characters, it would have been better to close the episode with more mystery and an aura of unpredictability. I always think the sign of a good show or movie is one that keeps you thinking after you have turned off the TV or left the theater because you have had some visceral reaction or it spoke to you. The only visceral reaction I got here was disgust from my inability to stomach the gore. If I go by this standard of evaluation then Hell on Wheels was not too successful. However, I don’t want to judge it too quickly, and despite my uncontrollable need to cover my eyes more often than I would have liked, I am curious as to how the producers will move the show forward in a compelling and gripping way…