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The Future of Hell on Wheels

December 1, 2011

Now that we’re getting into the real meat of Hell on Wheels, (and moving on to other topics,) I find myself wondering exactly where the story can go beyond this first season. Naturally, a lot will change between now and the season finale, but there are still questions that should be addressed if we assume the length of some arcs.

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Promotional material for the show highlights only Cullen and Elam. Both have guns, both are dressed in a similar manner. A partnership for the two seems very likely, and barring other contractual obligations or conflicts, I would be very surprised if either left the show after this first season. That said, we can recognize the difference between the two in the current narrative, so the show must resolve how these two end up in “equal standing.”

The action itself will drift away from Hell on Wheels, simply because the railroad has a destination to be built to, and Cullen has a piece of his vengeance to attend to in the setting. Both of these are shaping up to be season-long arcs, concluded in the finale, because to take any longer would almost necessarily stretch these two goals to be second season arcs. Cullen killing his target and somehow sticking with Hell on Wheels (assuming the railroad isn’t finished) would be a piece of narrative acrobatics, knowing as we do that Cullen’s target is a man of some prominence within the railroad town.

The advertising and title suggest to me that after this season, Cullen and Elam will become “hell on wheels” (well, horses,) as Cullen’s quest takes them away from the railroad and on to more varied locales. Then again, my theory is sunk by the rest of the ensemble cast: they can’t all travel wherever Cullen goes, and I don’t think a show like this can maintain scattered POV.

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Hell on Wheels, “Immoral Mathematics”

November 17, 2011

Something that has differentiated Hell on Wheels from similar ensemble dramas has been a lack of clearly antagonistic relationships. Cullen has made friends with almost every character he’s met, regardless of what we know about their motives (see: Durant.) In fact, at this point his only out-and-out enemy at Hell on Wheels is The Swede, and his threat was just neutralized. It may be that the Native Americans represent an ever-present atmospheric danger, but I’m writing only on person-to-person connections.

I was curious what about Cullen’s escape from the boxcar had to do with the flashback he experienced; I would expect more than just a general memory of his wife on the porch to give him the drive necessary to escape, and I’d even hope that the memory itself somehow tied into his actions at the time. Unfortunately, I can’t draw a conclusion with the few episodes we’ve watched so far.

Hell on Wheels, “Pilot”

November 10, 2011

Launching into Hell on Wheels, I wasn’t especially excited. I like the idea of a railroad town as a high-concept plot device, and even though I’ve only really delved into Mad Men when it comes to AMC, I’m aware of their track record. Hell on Wheels has got guns, whores, and the exploration of an antebellum South’s race culture—what’s not to like?

Well, the same problem that plagues every pilot: set-up. We get tastes of the arcs we’ll be uncovering throughout the season (“Meridian,” and whatever that urgent telegram of Durant’s was about,) but every beat almost necessarily falls flat. I’m used to this by now with pilots, but it made me consider what the differences between the pilot for a railroad western and a somewhat more down-to-earth show like Mad Men could be.
In Hell on Wheels, we can tell from the outset that the seasonal arcs are going to carry and motivate our main characters. Bohannon’s got his revenge to seek. Durant wants money but there’s something other than government teat-sucking going on with him. I’m actually a little disappointed that Elam didn’t get any hints toward what his goal is here, because he better not just be a tag-along partner for Bohannon. Point is, we know that these people have secrets (and I’d bet that each other character will have their time to shine in turn) and those secrets are also why we watch.

A show like Mad Men, with its relatively simple pitch of “Jon Hamm works at an ad agency in the 60s,” takes the pilot in a different direction; one that I wonder whether or not would succeed with the recent glut of period piece shows. Instead of setting up mysteries, they show us a now-foreign world where an ensemble cast simply interacts with each other. Sure, everyone has their own brand of crazy, (or stolen identity,) but it’s not guiding them anywhere in the pilot. Instead, we get the little puzzle of the Lucky Strike campaign and, through that, a glimpse of why Draper is the legend everyone’s heard of.

The great thing is that Mad Men’s pilot isn’t exactly the most compelling piece of TV either. It’s a pilot: one with a clearly different method of story-telling from Hell on Wheels, but a still-developing-an-emotional-connection-to-these-characters pilot all the same.

PS Signing up for my account, I spaced on the nature of this blog and registered my typical username. This is Brian.