Although this is humiliating, I am going to go out and say it: I almost had to shut my computer halfway through watching the Hell on Wheels pilot because it was difficult for me to sit through all of the gore and brutality. Clearly I have a low tolerance for violence, but the cinematic style of using intimate, close-up shots of bloody killings and altercations were too much for me. I am probably the only viewer of the Hell on Wheels pilot that felt this way; so despite my embarrassment, I thought I should offer up my differing opinion in contrast to those who thought the pilot was actually too slow, boring, predictable or anticlimactic.
Anyway, moving beyond my wimpy watching abilities, something I took away from the first episode was a feeling of inconsistency, contradiction and unevenness. Perhaps given the subject matter and the show’s tagline “the nation was an open wound,” inconsistency was to some extent part of the point the producers were trying to make. Regardless, I think one of the main ways this uneven feeling was projected was in the visuals, most notably in the partial adaptation of traditional costume practices and the cinematography with the washed out, grayed color that was more intense in some scenes and less in others. The classic Hollywood Western costume trope is to have the good guys in white cowboy hats and the bag guys in black cowboy hats. This white versus black hat juxtaposition is intended to symbolize the two sides of morality: the heroes versus the villains. Cullen Bohannon is always dressed in all black, which includes a black cowboy hat. However, even though Cullen is a gunslinger who sports an iconic black cowboy hat, his character is more complex then his ensemble indicates. He is on a mission to seek revenge for the murder of his wife, which seems manly and “justified” enough, we learn that he freed his slaves one year before the war, and his seemingly unimpressive mumbling-style of speech all make him less of the villain archetype his costume suggests he should be. (This uncertainty of character is even more applicable considering the first impression we are given of Cullen is his gruesome murder at very close range of a Northern soldier in a church confessional.)
In my opinion, although this pilot contains most of the hallmarks attributed to the classic Western genre, such as gunslingers, battle, “working girls,” American Indians, grit and wide open panoramic views, by giving Cullen a somewhat modern sensibility a contradiction arises. Thus, the authenticity and consistency of the show’s premise and Cullen’s character are questionable. All of these consistencies, along with the multiple storylines that were slowly integrated into the plot and then abruptly cut short in choppy ways, explain part of this first episode’s problem.
I think the ending of the pilot speaks the most volume: the “zebra speech” with the splices of vast open land, Lily Bell wandering alone covered in blood, the destruction of life and land, and the railroad workers edited into Thomas Durant’s speech serve as a recap and hint of what is to come. This was too forced and fake. His words were powerful, symbolic and conveyed too much for the audience as if the audience couldn’t figure these things out on its own. When things are given away to the audience this easily, and most of these “gifts” were already apparent through visual cues, narrative and character development, it makes the audience less interested and less engaged. Yes, I understand the importance and job of a pilot to anchor the show and provide enough information across to make viewers tune in next week, but I think this could have been accomplished in a less overt way. Instead of spelling out the actions and motivations of the characters, it would have been better to close the episode with more mystery and an aura of unpredictability. I always think the sign of a good show or movie is one that keeps you thinking after you have turned off the TV or left the theater because you have had some visceral reaction or it spoke to you. The only visceral reaction I got here was disgust from my inability to stomach the gore. If I go by this standard of evaluation then Hell on Wheels was not too successful. However, I don’t want to judge it too quickly, and despite my uncontrollable need to cover my eyes more often than I would have liked, I am curious as to how the producers will move the show forward in a compelling and gripping way…