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Third Time’s Not Quite The Charm

November 21, 2011
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.

Episode Two: Finally, “Story Matters Here”

November 14, 2011

While Hell on Wheels still feels like a far cry from brilliance, I give its writers and the powers that be at AMC their due — episode two was leagues more cohesive and coherent than the pilot. Its forty four minutes or so were understandably exposition heavy, but for all intents and purposes, the episode was dominated by a new antagonist: The Swede. Durant was reestablished as a driven cut-throat businessman, manipulating the press and even getting his own hands dirty through his disrespect of the dead. Yet, as epitomized by his decision to ultimately hire Cullen as his new foreman, everything he does can be justified by his understanding of right and wrong. You may not like him or agree with his methods, but he deserves some degree of respect for being willing to adapt with higher interests in mind. By contrast, The Swede is just a yes-man: a mercenary who seems all too pleased to work out the problems from his own past on stand-ins at present. As someone who actually interacts with the commoners and residents of Hell on Wheels, it would appear as though Cullen has finally met his match. Both men are murderers, but Cullen is glamorized, even amusingly returning for his hat as he escapes from his makeshift prison cell. Ultimately, both men now report directly to Durant, so it will be interesting to see how egos (and pistols) collide in the coming episodes.

The episode also introduced new elements of subplot, as the B and C stories were expanded through flashback, and through the eyes of Lily. I’m not sure that I like the message being sent to viewers that wild Native Americans are savages while their domesticated and reformed counterparts (or brothers) are good. Apparently, a past history of scalping doesn’t make you a bad person. Yet, the cat and mouse game introduced could have some compelling elements, especially as the brothers are pitted against one another. While it’s unlikely that they’ll ever reach the epic level seen between LOST‘s Jacob and Esau, the potential still exists for a rich conflict. Maybe a self-sacrifice for the sake of Lily, or a gradual change of heart for one of the brothers? Time will tell. Speaking of time (and LOST), we now bear witness to flashbacks. I wonder, will we gradually get pieces of the puzzle, ultimately leading up to Cullen’s memory of Meridian? This story still has its flaws, but it finally feels like a semblance of a story.

“Beat” It.

November 8, 2011

Hell on Wheels Should Lose Its Training Wheels

November 7, 2011
As I slowly, painstakingly made my way through the pilot of Hell on Wheels, questions kept popping into my head. Why was I watching this, when my 44 minutes could have gone toward preparing my colloquium, starting my final paper for Theorizing Popular Culture, or let’s be real here, watching something of substance like Dexter? Without ever having seen a single minute of Deadwood, I longed for it. I know this space isn’t intended for critical value judgements, but my experience, Hell on Wheels was awful (and not even in a good way). The pilot wasn’t like a car crash or something that could grow to become a guilty pleasure. It was just cliche, boring, insignificant, and instantly forgettable.

The opening titles are reminiscent of “viewer discretion advised” warnings for other shows, accompanied by ominous music. Even if only subconsciously, we’re told to expect the level of quality and intensity that usually accompanies those shows. With desaturated color and soft focus, it’s clearly not shot in a realistic fashion. Our protagonist is introduced by assassinating a man in a church confessional, in the eyes of God, seen leaving from behind as though he’s going into the light. This is clearly going to be a series of exaggerated tales, both in content and style.

Skipping ahead to the final moments of the episode, we find Thomas Durant alone in a train car, talking to himself about his role in life (and, seemingly, the show’s plot). What’s a drama without a villain, he asks, and isn’t his goal of building the railroad a drama unto itself? Lions, like him, are rewarded for their ferocity, but “what of the poor zebra?” Lesser creatures need to be sacrificed for the greater good, since while history is “written by and for” the zebra, it’s driven by the lions. In the future, he concedes that he’ll be remembered as a “malefactor who only operated out of greed for personal gain,” but without him, the expansion of America wouldn’t have occurred to the same degree. Without anyone else on camera to listen, any indication that Durant was mentally unstable, or any actual justification for these words being iterated verbally, this monologue came across as a clear address to the audience. Durant’s position wasn’t threatened, and there’s no impetuous for his grand realizations. It’s as if AMC’s powers that be decided that viewers weren’t intelligent enough to figure it out for themselves, so the entire series and the players’ roles within it needed to be spelled out for us. For a network whose crown jewel is Mad Men, which clearly appeals to the sophisticates and those who want to ascend to that class, such an approach is confusing. I certainly have little desire to keep watching, but we’ll see how many other viewers share that opinion.