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Hell on Wheels 103

November 22, 2011

Throughout its run, Hell on Wheels has always been visually stunning. The special effects are more consistent feature films rather than cable television. Additionally, the set pieces often appear to be shot on location rather than a Hollywood set. This makes Hell on Wheels aesthetically pleasing and separates it from most television programs.

One of the more visually, emotional scenes occurs when a fellow worker confronts Elem and accuses him of wanting to be white. The camera follows a line of black workers as they shovel dirt from the ground. The diegetic sound of some 100 workers digging into the earth provides an added authenticity to the scene. With each passing dig, the viewer can see the escalating frustrations of the workers. Finally, tensions reach a boiling point when a worker puts down his tools and refuses to continue. Elem quickly confronts the man in a face-to-face stare down. In the background, an explosion occurs, followed by a large cloud of black smoke. This visual serves as a representation of the explosive anger that both men feel and epitomizes the potential for damage that might ensue.  Here, the use of special effects adds another layer of richness to the story and helps establish the emotions of the scene.

Though Hell on Wheels remains a visual stunning program, the non-diegetic sound fails to add value to the program. As another blogger has stated, the soundtrack often feels like its playacting towards the audience’s emotions rather than to  “an honest relationship with the story being accompanied.” I agree that the result can take the viewer out of the story and often feels like the show is trying too hard to generate emotions for it audience by using a soundtrack. Thus, I believe, that if the show could introduce a more realistic sound from the era, the result could be a stronger reaction to what is depicted in the scene.

Race on Wheels

November 15, 2011

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.

Hell On Wheels – “Pilot”

November 8, 2011

AMC’s Western drama Hell on Wheels made its much-publicized debut on Sunday. Similar to most Westerns, Hell on Wheels centers on Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, and his quest for revenge. Bohannon is a former slave owner, who released his slaves before the war.  Furthermore, he is a former Confederate soldier determined to avenge the murder of his wife.  This visually stunning program appears to have the ingredients for success but is lacking in execution.

The show’s failure in execution is best exemplified in its opening scene. Hell on Wheels begins with an anonymous man, who enters a church to confess his sins. He describes how he regrets his actions during the Civil War saying, “we opened a dark door and the devil stepped in.” However, when questioned about the specifics of his actions, the man is unable to describe his sins. The conversation quickly changes pace when the “priest” asks the man what he knows about Meridian. The “priest” then slides open the confession window and it is revealed that he is none other than Cullen Bohannon. Cullen quickly shoots the man, killing him. As people quickly scramble out of the church, Cullen kicks open the confession booth door and examines his kill. As he makes his way out of the church, Cullen catches a glimpse of a statue of Jesus on the cross. Cullen remains unfazed by this visual as if to say that the only higher power hr believes in is the gun on his hip. Cullen then opens the church doors and walks into a pool of white light, symbolizing that he is now on a righteous path. It is clear that creators Joe Gayton and Tony Gayton were trying to write an emotionally potent scene that offers a strong dichotomy between church behavior and classic Western manners. This is clearly a very ambitious scene but the end results feels forced and contrived.

Despite the opening scene, Hell on Wheels does have some compelling moments. Colm Meaney does a good job playing the corrupt railroad entrepreneur Thomas “Doc” Durant. His penchant for grand speeches provides the show with its most entertaining moments including a speech about how history will view him as a villain. This moment demonstrates that the show does have potential for success. Therefore, I plan on giving Hell on Wheels a little more time to effectively find its voice.