Posts Tagged ‘The Swede’

Hell on Wheels: Immoral Mathematics

November 15, 2011

Although suggested in the Hell on Wheels pilot, it is in the second episode, “Immoral Mathematics,” that we get a much clearer sense that the show’s main thematic focus will be the juxtaposition of chaos and order. The pilot definitely conveyed the chaotic nature of the setting, characters and construction of the railroad, but this second episode zoomed in a little more to provide a better sense of the affects of the war and its survivors. At this point, most characters have given some kind of confession or acknowledgement of the events they participated in during the war, which provides viewers with background information and puts most characters’ actions into a slightly clearer context. However, Cullen still remains a mystery, especially since we do not know any of the details, aside from the fact that his wife was murdered, motivating his mission to seek revenge. It appears that Cullen’s wife’s murder and hunting down the culprit who committed the crime will be a major storyline throughout the entire season.

Even though this is a post-Civil War landscape, it is still incredibly fragile and is already in jeopardy of disintegrating. By constructing this railroad the builders are bringing civilization to the “uncivilized,” supposedly bringing progress to the undeveloped, and uniting the east and the west. However, at what cost does the railroad get built? Perhaps it is each character’s confrontation with the looming collapse of order (and arguably already collapsed order) that propels him or her into situations where the only way to survive is by doing questionably moral thing. Within the theme of chaos vs. order is the theme of survival, and thus this show is also about the ever-present threat of death, destruction, and disorder. Even the sign of this nomadic tent-city says, “Population One Less Every Day.” On this immoral note, we are introduced to a second villain in this episode, known as the Swede, who is in charge of security for our first villain, Mr. Durant. The Swede’s costumes definitely aid his character. In the end of the pilot, one of the threatening men riding up to Cullen on horseback ends up being the Swede, and we can tell danger is coming right away just by the Swede’s dark apparel. In addition, these two villains seem to visually be polar opposites: the Swede has a threatening demeanor while Duran is theatrical in his over-the-top, gaudy attire.

It seems that we should ask, “was it worth it?” at the end of each episode.

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Hell on Wheels: Immoral Mathematics

November 15, 2011

I try not to set too much stock in the pilot episode of a television series – plenty of great shows have recovered from underwhelming pilots, and I was initially hopeful that Hell on Wheels might be able to do the same.  Unfortunately, after this week’s episode, it’s become increasingly clear that Hell on Wheels is a show that is shot, art directed, and staged beautifully, but the ultimate execution of story and characters is the essential part of a successful show, and Hell on Wheels is not executing as well as it should.

My complaints about the pilot episode largely had to do with the lack of original, motivated characters on the show, with the writers generally favoring the usual archetypes, such as the bitter former slave and the tough gunslinger seeking revenge. However, this week the show introduced a new character, whose speech to Cullen Bohannon provided the title of the episode: they call him The Swede. Appearing to be a giant Swedish-accented hybrid of Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, the Swede sees something suspicious in Bohannan as they discuss the murder of the one-handed foreman. When Bohannon is ordered to hang, the Swede delivers a monologue about his former life as a bookkeeper intrigued me; the idea of a villain as a former bookkeeper appealed to me, and though his metaphor of controlling numbers versus people and making things add up was a little heavy handed, the speech itself was the most engaging part of the episode. With the addition of this unexpected backstory, it appeared to me that the Swede might actually be the truly original character that this show is looking for, but by the end of the episode it seemed that he may simply just fulfill the typical role of supervillain, whom Bohannon will presumably clash with multiple times over the course of the season.

Because the Swede makes for such an imposing presence on screen, I found the character arc for Lily, last seen wandering in Native American territory, impossibly dull. This week, we watched her meander through the woods, fall asleep next to a log, and later suture her own wounds, which though a demonstration of how plucky and brave she’s surely going to become only made me think about how much I miss Lost. My greatest frustrated annoyance this week, however, came from the Native Americans searching for her, who deliver their lines about missing the taste of blood in clearly enunciated, and perfectly unaccented English, even when talking among themselves – period details, AMC! Subtitles are your friends.

Episode Two: Finally, “Story Matters Here”

November 14, 2011

While Hell on Wheels still feels like a far cry from brilliance, I give its writers and the powers that be at AMC their due — episode two was leagues more cohesive and coherent than the pilot. Its forty four minutes or so were understandably exposition heavy, but for all intents and purposes, the episode was dominated by a new antagonist: The Swede. Durant was reestablished as a driven cut-throat businessman, manipulating the press and even getting his own hands dirty through his disrespect of the dead. Yet, as epitomized by his decision to ultimately hire Cullen as his new foreman, everything he does can be justified by his understanding of right and wrong. You may not like him or agree with his methods, but he deserves some degree of respect for being willing to adapt with higher interests in mind. By contrast, The Swede is just a yes-man: a mercenary who seems all too pleased to work out the problems from his own past on stand-ins at present. As someone who actually interacts with the commoners and residents of Hell on Wheels, it would appear as though Cullen has finally met his match. Both men are murderers, but Cullen is glamorized, even amusingly returning for his hat as he escapes from his makeshift prison cell. Ultimately, both men now report directly to Durant, so it will be interesting to see how egos (and pistols) collide in the coming episodes.

The episode also introduced new elements of subplot, as the B and C stories were expanded through flashback, and through the eyes of Lily. I’m not sure that I like the message being sent to viewers that wild Native Americans are savages while their domesticated and reformed counterparts (or brothers) are good. Apparently, a past history of scalping doesn’t make you a bad person. Yet, the cat and mouse game introduced could have some compelling elements, especially as the brothers are pitted against one another. While it’s unlikely that they’ll ever reach the epic level seen between LOST‘s Jacob and Esau, the potential still exists for a rich conflict. Maybe a self-sacrifice for the sake of Lily, or a gradual change of heart for one of the brothers? Time will tell. Speaking of time (and LOST), we now bear witness to flashbacks. I wonder, will we gradually get pieces of the puzzle, ultimately leading up to Cullen’s memory of Meridian? This story still has its flaws, but it finally feels like a semblance of a story.