Archive for the ‘Hell on Wheels 2011’ Category

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.


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.


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: A New Birth of Freedom

November 22, 2011

With each new episode of Hell on Wheels, I find myself captivated by the teaser and sucked in by the opening credits, only to become incredibly disappointed by the remainder of the episode. This was more evident than ever in the third episode, “A New Birth of Freedom”. The teaser, focused solely on Cullen Bohannon and orchestrated without a single real line of dialogue, features our protagonist rummaging through the belongings of the deceased foreman whom he has replaced and discovering a photograph of the men responsible for the death of his wife. Although the likelihood of finding a photo identifying each of the men is hardly believable, the atmosphere and structure of the sequence more than make up for this highly implausible coincidence. Hell on Wheels looks so much better during any scene that unfolds in the dark, and the flickering light and shadows inside the tent, combined with the gray hued flashbacks, created an atmosphere that for the first time actually intrigued me and drew me in to the story. Bohannon focuses on the name Sgt. Harper as bits of his thousand piece revenge puzzle begin to fall into place, and the darkness of the sequence and the quick cuts between the murders Bohannon has committed and the names on the picture made this teaser feel like the kind of gritty, brooding western that I want this show so badly to be.

However, after the music and smoke and fire landscapes of the opening credits faded away, once again Hell on Wheels lost me. The show is shot gorgeously and the art direction is flawless, but the actual content of the plot leaves so much to be desired.  The last shots of the episode, where Lily and Bohannon are shown on horseback in a wide panoramic view of the horizon, was evocative of old John Ford westerns like Stagecoach, and it’s scenes like this that continue to give me false hope in the show. There was another scene this week which particularly stood out in terms of cinematography. When Bohannon comes across Joseph tending to Lily Bell, he takes a moment to remove the remainder of the arrow from her wound, drinking continuously from his flask as he does so (also: how about cleaning the wound with that flask instead, Bohannon?). The scene is shot in a more interesting way than the rest of the episode, with the camera angled throughout the sequence to show Lily’s feverish perspective. I’m far more engaged with the camerawork and the landscapes and the period details than with anything the writers have presented (Colm Meaney’s perfectly bombastic Shakespearean speeches notwithstanding), and if the plot was able to bring something more interesting to the table, I would have been sold on Hell on Wheels weeks ago.

Hell on Wheels Episode 3

November 22, 2011

I can’t quite figure out why, but I definitely don’t agree with most of my classmates that Hell on Wheels is complete garbage. Perhaps it’s the business-focused side of my brain at work, but I find that this show is exactly what middle-America needs. AMC is not trying to impress the 18-24 age range of highly intellectual students that go to New York University. Instead, they are probably targeting 35+ adults, mostly males, and ones that don’t want to watch a show with a complicated plot when they come home after a long day of work. Still, I feel that Hell on Wheels will continue to improve as the season progresses, and while I don’t personally find it enjoyable, I think Hell on Wheels has beautiful cinematography and does a wonderful job at recreating the past.

What I do find very interesting in terms of the visual aspects of Hell on Wheels are the costumes and wardrobe – I find that not only is the show great at researching the clothing that people wore during the time period that the railroad was built, but I also appreciate the symbolism that goes along with the wardrobe of the characters. For example, our main character Cullen is always donning his pistol. This pistol, we find out in the first episode, is a standard issued revolver of the Southern army and is a much larger firearm than any of the weapons used by other workers on the railroad. This revolver represents Cullen’s past, and perhaps the only thing that will allow him to move on from it will be avenging the death of his wife. On the other hand, Elam, the slave, always dresses in a suit and dress hat despite the fact that he’s working in the dirt. His character dresses this way because he is trying to move on from the pre-Civil War era, and would like to be respected the way a white man is.

These representations are going to play larger roles, in my opinion, as the show continues. I feel that the show has a great setup for only having three episodes thus far – all of the characters have motivations, and have very complex relationships. This is a good formula for a show, we must simply wait to see what it has in store for us.

alec cuccia – episode 3

November 22, 2011

The narrative of Hell On Wheels continues to be overtly simplistic and rather boring, even into its third episode. The show continually tries to tap into its era’s ingrained bigotry and racism, yet it all constantly falls flat. Aren’t we, as a society, past the level of story telling of Native Americans = bad, white people = good? They are so many ways Hell On Wheels can portray its era’s racism without being racist itself. Where are the perspectives of the Native Americans? They are simply trying to protect their home from genocide. Wouldn’t that be an interesting take on Hell On Wheel’s railroad? Why is the only “good” Native American an unabashed simpleton? And moving on from the show’s poor treatment of Native Americans, the protagonist of the show seems to be magic. When he looks through the dead man’s belongings he happens to find a picture of everyone who killed his wife and their names? Who would write their friends’ names on a picture? That makes no sense. And why would the dead man be carrying around so many mementos of that time he raped and brutally murdered a woman? You can’t even make the claim that it was so evil he couldn’t let himself part with any of these things because he himself says in the pilot that he did so many many bad things and is kinda over them all already. Opps. And how come the main protagonist can just get on a horse and ride and fall right into a plot point? If the blonde girl was that easy to find, how come no one else found her before the protagonist did? Why did he shoot those three guys who came to find her after he did if he had no intentions of picking up the bounty? Why did she trust the protagonist and not the three guys? Ughhhh my head hurts now.

Visually, the show is very striking. A lot of money has obviously been thrown its way to make sure of this fact. The show’s reliance on visceral imagery, like blood, gore, death, disease, and dirt all help to paint a picture of a bleak, depressing place. Obviously, some of these visual characteristics come part and parcel with the nature of what the show’s trying to depict. The mud and dirt of the town Hell on Wheels makes sense, as it’s a hell hole pop-up town with no actual amenities what so ever. The blood is not a necessity of a rail road town, however, and thus it is the blood that is the most visually striking component of this visually striking show. For whatever reason the show’s colors are dulled. I think this is supposed to make it feel “old timey”? But even so, the red of blood stills manages to stand out. Blood is the most color that gets added to this show. When you see it you immediately know something’s wrong.

Hell on Wheels and the Visual

November 22, 2011

From a visual stand point I have mixed emotions about Hell on Wheels. The sets are amazing and it’s apparent that a lot of money has gone into this show.However, for me, the most memorable and impressive (for lack of a better term) visual aspects is the gore. In all of my post so far I have mentioned the gore and I am starting to feel like a broken record but for all three episodes Hell on Wheels has heavily employed a lot of carnage. It would be one thing if this carnage was serving a purpose but as far as I can tell it is just blood for blood’s sake. I personally feel that Hell on Wheels should take a number out Breaking Bad’s book. Breaking Bad is no stranger to the grotesque. (I won’t go into to detail to avoid spoilers but If you know the show I think you’ll know what I’m referring to.)However, Breaking Bad uses gore sparingly and with a point. At the rate Hell on Wheels is going, it seems as the only goal in mind is to desensitize the audience. After the first three show I anticipate the gore to the point where it is boring. If they were using the carnage to illustrate how difficult life in the west could be that would be one matter but as it stands I definitely think they are overdoing it.

Hell on Wheels 01.03 | Image

November 21, 2011

As Daniel pointed out, the teaser sequence stood out from the rest of the episode in terms of the way it managed to used mimetic image material (although, one might be able to argue for video montage to be cast as a form of diegetic narration) to add a huge scope of content to the story that we see unfolding. The further desaturated, hazy cast given to this series of shots intermittently dispersed between Cullen looking at this photograph immediately give the distinct impression of thought. However, while most “flashback” sequences take on a sepia hue, here, we see a cyan-bluish cast over the thoughts. While we know the first execution has taken place, it might be a ploy by the cinematographers at foreshadowing what is to come. Conversely, if we are to assume that these are indeed memories, it’s a very curious story-telling devise. This isn’t Don Draper having a flashback to his childhood to help us understand his current character. These would be full plot elements, potentially fitting for an entire season, or at least an arc, that the writers are imagistically throwing out.

I was also struck by the way that characters were developed hugely through image in this episode. For example, Reverend Cole, towards the end of the episode, says much more during the funeral by the mere turning of his back to the audience while Durant cries for war to the workers. It not only reads as a dismissal by cole of the whole lot to whom he preaches, but also a more symbolic turning of the back of god on the entire town, an imagistic foreshadowing that things will only get worse.

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.

Hell On Wheels- Ep 2

November 20, 2011

While Hell On Wheels continues to move at a relatively slow pace, the second episode was significantly more interesting than the first. “Immortal Mathematics” spent more time emphasizing the protagonist- antagonist relationship between Bohannon and the newly introduce character The Swede or Mr. Swede or whatever they call him. Which I found to be quite cliche; to introduce a typical foreign villain who had been a prisoner of war, done despicable things in his past that changed him and the rest of his life, and an inexplicably creepy face. And of course, The Swede does all the dirty work for his boss Durant. With this main plot slowly developing, the episode briefly touches upon the rest of the subplots in the show.

These subplots also unfold themselves in a predictable manner- the rogue Native American who has found God has been excluded from his people but also doesn’t fit in with the other white folk. But of course, he will be the one to save poor stereotypical damsel in distress Lilly Bell from being executed by his own people. Perhaps we can see a forbidden love of friendship beginning to form here, one that I can only see going terribly wrong but somehow finding itself to a happy ending in the conclusion. Might I also add that the portrayal of the Native Americans is so unfortunately stereotypical I could almost say it borderlines offensive. Its an unfortunately stereotypical and predictable narrative, but maybe this could be explained by the inflexible genre. Even though this episode developed the plots and subplots better than the pilot, the directions the show is taking is simply not doing it for me.

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.