Posts Tagged ‘Hell on Wheels 2011’

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.

Hell on Wheels 103

November 22, 2011

Throughout its run, Hell on Wheels has always been visually stunning. The special effects are more consistent feature films rather than cable television. Additionally, the set pieces often appear to be shot on location rather than a Hollywood set. This makes Hell on Wheels aesthetically pleasing and separates it from most television programs.

One of the more visually, emotional scenes occurs when a fellow worker confronts Elem and accuses him of wanting to be white. The camera follows a line of black workers as they shovel dirt from the ground. The diegetic sound of some 100 workers digging into the earth provides an added authenticity to the scene. With each passing dig, the viewer can see the escalating frustrations of the workers. Finally, tensions reach a boiling point when a worker puts down his tools and refuses to continue. Elem quickly confronts the man in a face-to-face stare down. In the background, an explosion occurs, followed by a large cloud of black smoke. This visual serves as a representation of the explosive anger that both men feel and epitomizes the potential for damage that might ensue.  Here, the use of special effects adds another layer of richness to the story and helps establish the emotions of the scene.

Though Hell on Wheels remains a visual stunning program, the non-diegetic sound fails to add value to the program. As another blogger has stated, the soundtrack often feels like its playacting towards the audience’s emotions rather than to  “an honest relationship with the story being accompanied.” I agree that the result can take the viewer out of the story and often feels like the show is trying too hard to generate emotions for it audience by using a soundtrack. Thus, I believe, that if the show could introduce a more realistic sound from the era, the result could be a stronger reaction to what is depicted in the scene.

Alec Cuccia – Hell on Wheels 1.2

November 16, 2011

The narrative of the second episode of Hell on Wheels was much better than the first. It was more cohesive, though that partially could be just because all the characters were in closer proximity to each other than in the first episode where they had to physically come together in the town Hell on Wheels. Even still, I don’t particularly care about any of these characters. Their motivations are opaque at most and bland at the least. The protagonist is on a simple revenge mission. I’ve seen this before! He doesn’t pull me in in the way a main character should. O’Brien from Star Trek is greedy. Again, that’s almost all he is. Common is angry, and for good reason, but so what? What else is there? The only character that I felt was really well flesh out was the Swede. He was scary and funny and obviously very smart. All of the tension in this episode came from him when it should have come from his interactions with the main character.

I also want to comment on a few plot holes. How did the good Native American know where the white girl was? How did he know where the bad Native Americans were? How did he know about the killings at all? He was at the killing site at the end of the pilot, and yet by that time the only person who could have known about the killings was O’Brien from Star Trek, as O’Brien from Star Trek hadn’t reached Hell on Wheels yet to tell anyone else. Also, how did the protagonist know about O’Brien from Star Trek’s need to lay a certain amount of track before the federal government pays him? The protagonist says “Everybody knows…” but that doesn’t sound like common knowledge to me. Hell, if the federal government knew the practices that O’Brien from Star Trek was doing to get the amount of track he needs (at a cost to the government), wouldn’t the government step in and put a stop to everything? I don’t know. It’s silly. And what, exactly, is the importance of the white girl lost in the wilderness? She has maps or something, OK, but so what?  Oh and how silly is it that at the end of the episode the protagonist finds his wife’s stitching in the pocket of the man he killed last episode? OK yeah, that’s believeable…

When it comes down to it, Hell on Wheels is an show that desperately wants to be interesting and taken seriously but isn’t quite there yet. The characters are bland and uninteresting (I can’t even remember their names!), the plot is vague and full of small holes, and the dialogue is painfully bad. And yet, it is interesting enough to make me want to watch it again. Maybe to just see if they can salvage what they have.

Race on Wheels

November 15, 2011

The second episode of Hell on Wheels was more refined than the previous episode as it was able to explore each character in more depth. This is evidenced by the character known as “the Swede,” a large imposing figure who is head of security in the lawless West. The irony of “the Swede” is that he is of Norwegian decent. Even though he is a recipient of a racial misnomer, he still uses race as a factor when he tries to figure out who murdered Daniel Johnson. He speculates that the murder was committed by “one of the Nee-groes” and “the Swede” takes delight in the possibility that if an African American is guilty or is even presumed guilty, that he would be able to hang him. “The Swede” is an interesting character in that he is greatly affected by race while also using race and its prejudices in his own judgments.

Race is used as a compass to decide who are the heroes and who are the villains which has been an underlying precept in the Western genre. Hell on Wheels continues this tradition through the relationship between the Native Americans and the White men. In Hell on Wheels, some of the Native Americans are depicted as savages, and villains, who ruthlessly attack a settlement, killing everyone in sight. Furthermore, they are hunting for Lily Bell, who they warn will be defiled and murdered if caught. Standing in their way is Joseph Black Moon, an Indian, who now has adopted Jesus Christ and the white man’s culture. He cautions his brothers that if they harm a white woman, there will be repercussions, to which they reply that even though Moon appears different, he still remains an Indian and will be treated as such.

It appears that race will remain a large factor as Hell on Wheels continues. The relationship between the Whites and the “savage” Indians is a common theme in Westerns and it appears that Hell on Wheels is building up to a confrontation between the two cultures. Furthermore, the show continues to address the relationship and racial tensions between Whites and African Americans during the post-Civil War period. This is exemplified when Cullen, who is accused of Johnson’s murder, points out that he could report Elam, a recently freed African American, as the murderer and he would be believed without evidence because he is white and Elam is black.

Pilot – Alec Cuccia

November 8, 2011

I made the disastrous decision to read a few reviews of the Hell on Wheels pilot before I went and actually watched the show. Mostly all the reviews told me the same things: the plot was derivative, the acting was spotty, and the whole thing was just generally boring. Well, now that I’ve seen the show, I agree with all of it. The Hell on Wheels pilot bored me. If I didn’t have to watch it for class I wouldn’t have watched it all. I love Westerns, but I have a very low threshold for bad Westerns. That’s not to say that Hell on Wheels was Bad (with a capitol B), it just wasn’t good. It was muddled. It tried to weave together many different plot lines that seem wholly independent. The best shows can pull this off in a way that makes the viewer care about how and why the plot lines need to be entertwined, but I found myself asking, again and again throughout the pilot, why? Why should I care? Why does any of this matter? It was a question I couldn’t answer.

This isn’t to say the production values on the show were any short of amazing. Hell on Wheels did an excellent job in drawing me into the period in which it’s set. Maybe It’s just because 1860’s America wasn’t that long ago, but it all seemed very real to me. The set pieces, the characters all seemed like they could be quite possible. I’m unsure as to why AMC decided to mute the colors on the show so heavily though. It adds very little. The show isn’t a flashback… Were colors simply less bright 150 years ago? It’s a silly decision that screams to me that the show is trying to take itself too seriously in ways that add nothing but superficiality.

A comment on the last scene of the pilot. I don’t remember his name (not a good thing), but when O’Brien from Star Trek started pontificating about zebras to no one in particular, I felt that Hell on Wheels had jumped the shark. Which is an awful feeling to have about a show’s first episode. This is not a crazy man we’re talking about here, just a greedy one. He didn’t have a crazy soliloquy into nothingness, he had a one sided argument with two empty chairs. He was trying to convince the chairs of what he was saying. Why would he do this? What was the point of this soliloquy other than allowing O’Brien from Star Trek to rave on and on for five minutes? And what was the point of inter cutting random scenes of the other characters into the raving? What O’Brien from Star Trek was saying had nothing to do with the other characters. It was just… weird. I honestly don’t understand the point of it all beyond the show jumping up and down screaming “look at me! I have interesting things to say! Look look!” No thank you.

Hell on Wheels: Pilot

November 8, 2011

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…

Hell On Wheels – “Pilot”

November 8, 2011

AMC’s Western drama Hell on Wheels made its much-publicized debut on Sunday. Similar to most Westerns, Hell on Wheels centers on Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, and his quest for revenge. Bohannon is a former slave owner, who released his slaves before the war.  Furthermore, he is a former Confederate soldier determined to avenge the murder of his wife.  This visually stunning program appears to have the ingredients for success but is lacking in execution.

The show’s failure in execution is best exemplified in its opening scene. Hell on Wheels begins with an anonymous man, who enters a church to confess his sins. He describes how he regrets his actions during the Civil War saying, “we opened a dark door and the devil stepped in.” However, when questioned about the specifics of his actions, the man is unable to describe his sins. The conversation quickly changes pace when the “priest” asks the man what he knows about Meridian. The “priest” then slides open the confession window and it is revealed that he is none other than Cullen Bohannon. Cullen quickly shoots the man, killing him. As people quickly scramble out of the church, Cullen kicks open the confession booth door and examines his kill. As he makes his way out of the church, Cullen catches a glimpse of a statue of Jesus on the cross. Cullen remains unfazed by this visual as if to say that the only higher power hr believes in is the gun on his hip. Cullen then opens the church doors and walks into a pool of white light, symbolizing that he is now on a righteous path. It is clear that creators Joe Gayton and Tony Gayton were trying to write an emotionally potent scene that offers a strong dichotomy between church behavior and classic Western manners. This is clearly a very ambitious scene but the end results feels forced and contrived.

Despite the opening scene, Hell on Wheels does have some compelling moments. Colm Meaney does a good job playing the corrupt railroad entrepreneur Thomas “Doc” Durant. His penchant for grand speeches provides the show with its most entertaining moments including a speech about how history will view him as a villain. This moment demonstrates that the show does have potential for success. Therefore, I plan on giving Hell on Wheels a little more time to effectively find its voice.

Hell on Wheels – Hell on Wheels: Episode 101 – AMC

November 7, 2011

Hell on Wheels – Hell on Wheels: Episode 101 – AMC.

HELL ON WHEELS — Pilot Responses

November 7, 2011

You can post your response to the Hell on Wheels pilot by commenting on one of these issues (about all of which I have strong feelings that I shan’t be revealing, at least until class tomorrow).

Your posting this week (or any week) can be a reply to one of your classmates.

Please use as many tags as seem sensible to you and place your post or reply in the “Hell on Wheels 2011” category.

  • Comment on the spectacle—the sound, cinematography, costumes, sets
  • How did it create a sense of “period”?
  • Did it feel like a proper beginning to you?
  • Does it create the impression of a “genre” show?  How?
  •  Can one judge a television show on the basis of the pilot–think of that question in relation to the problem of
  •  Did it feel/sound/look like other television shows or films you’ve seen?
  • Analyze one of these scenes:
  1. the scalping of Mr. Bell and Lily Bell’s escape
  2. any conversation between Elam (Common) and Colin (Anson Mount)
  3. the final “zebra” monologue