Author Archive

Characterization of Hell on Wheels

November 24, 2011

This episode of Hell on wheels cleverly plays with themes of identity, especially when examined with traditional Western characters in mind. What is a savage? What is a heathen? What is this idea of the fair-haired maiden of the West?

Thomas Durant’s solitude and loneliness re-defines the role of the powerful capitalist in this episode of Hell on Wheels. We are finally witnesses to a different side of Durant, a more human character with an emotional past. His wife rejected his ambitious dream of going West, and stayed behind in New York while her husband seeks to satiate his hunger for progress. Later in the episode, he walks the settlers’ camp alone, then attends the Irish brothers’ makeshift picture show, again without company. What does this say about the villain?  He’s changed as I’ve grown sympathetic to someone whose ideals are so twisted.

Joseph Blackman, the “saved” savage denies his past role of a member of his tribe, the band of his brother. In the scene, while cutting his hair he looks into the cracked mirror, a symbol his jagged sense of self. Even as a baptized Christian and “civilized” rescuer of Lily Bell, the fair-haired maiden of the West, he is subject to endless scorn and prejudice from the white settlers.

Again, Hell on Wheels plays with the idea of stereotypical characters and identity in the “old West”.

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Mr. Swede and his black hat

November 15, 2011

Finally, Hell on Wheels has redeemed itself. But, only a little bit.

The character of Mr. Thomas Durant has really exploded into this heartless showman, who, with unwavering avarice, will do anything to get his way (and his money). Durant represents the imperialist ideals of manifest destiny. He is the only character who wears a white hat, which in the tradition of Hollywood Westerns signifies the “good guy”. Even though, he is so clearly the villain. This is a testament to the white supremacist traditions of past Western films. Creepy Mr. Swede, the Norwegian is another allusion to traditional Hollywood westerns as clearly embodies the villain in the black hat (and black cloak). Cullen’s hat is also black signifying his role as the anti-hero. Cullen is the self-proclaimed rebellious Rebel, who is not your traditional, heroic Western cowboy (even though he so totally is). In the escape scene, when Cullen seeks temporary refuge in the pastor’s tent (unbeknownst to him) he defiantly tells the priest, “I ain’t no St. Peter”. Here, his identity as the misunderstood anti-hero is expressed.

Durant’s diatribe about the fair-haired maiden of the West, representing civilization is another allusion to Classic Western themes, which I think was really clever. In this episode of Hell and Wheels the writers are explicitly making connections with past representations of the American West, which I think makes the themes of the show more visible and easier to navigate. With the pilot episode, I really didn’t care about the characters and their development (I still don’t care that much, actually), but with the release of the second I feel more inclined to follow the the uneasy, unspoken alliance between Cullen and Elam. The scene in which Elam, the black former slave releasing Cullen’s shackles, was somewhat evocative and a nice symbolic touch.

 

Hell on Wheels, a slave to genre

November 7, 2011

Hell on Wheels exemplifies that bored, washed-out Western period piece, the kind that audiences have been force-fed for decades. It’s easily identifiable as a Western, what with the twanging bluegrass, the Stetsons, week-old scruff, and mumbled dialogue. Our hero, Cullen Bohannon, is the predictable brooding loner, a gunslinger cut right from the days of John Wayne and The Yellow Rose of Texas, but he’s far too contrived to be as cool and elusive as Shane or Jake Spoon from Lonesome Dove. In contrast with Hell on Wheels, what made True Grit such a great modernized, twisted Western was the unpredictable school-age heroine who was tough as hell, but also this really kind, gentle young kid. Yet, due to the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit still retained the soul of the Western. Hell on Wheels is practically the opposite, a soulless slave to genre that carelessly recycles the overused plot line of the valiant cowboy and his fight against the savage, bloodthirsty “Indians”. It is absolutely a “genre” piece, but practically nothing more than that.

Additionally, in terms of story line, the emphasis on the imperialist battle against the savage brutality of the “Indians” (ugh) is embarrassingly racist, as well as dated and completely boring. Evidence of Hell on Wheels’ attachment to genre makes itself present once again. Yes, I know that much violence in the Western territories/states rose from tension with the Native tribes (to put it lightly) BUT that doesn’t mean 21st century television needs to continue perpetuating the theme of the “other” as the villain. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman! (I should probably be referring to Lonesome Dove first, but…) Now, that’s a show that completely pushed the envelope in terms of representing the Western genre. The problem with Hell on Wheels is that it determinedly clings to the ancient formula of the Western genre. The Western genre of the 1940’s and ’50’s, where red-blooded, white Americans defeated the barbaric Injuns and always win. To put it simply, I’m bored of careless attempts at recreating and revitalizing Westerns.

There are a few attempts at experimenting with the Western genre, like the modern rock music Jon mentioned previously and Thomas Durant speaking to the camera. These are legitimate techniques, but they seem to come from something uninspired. They’re also not particularly revolutionary on their own, so that really diminished my interest. It’s still very possible, though, that Hell on Wheels can redeem itself and do something completely unexpected with the Western genre.