Hell on Wheels: 2012 Season Finale

Well, give Hell on Wheels credit for pulling out all the stops for the two-hour season finale, finishing at long last the railway bridge, delivering on the long awaited attack from the Sioux, and taking out a major character or two (or three or more). I do wish the series had done more with the Sioux, who end up being conventional western villains. With the Cheyenne in Season One, we at least got to know several of the Cheyenne characters, Joseph Black Moon, certainly, but also his father and brother. The Sioux remained a distant threat, doing mysterious things with the Swede that are never quite explained, and not really emerging as full human individuals the way the Cheyenne characters did in season one.

The Hell on Wheels camp became the very picture of its namesake, engulfed in flame during the attack, and, in one of the finest moments of the series, we saw the demonic looking “Mr. Swede” enjoying a solitary waltz through its burning streets. And, by the way, if you want to avoid spoilers, you should stop reading here and not go on to the next paragraph.

Lily Bell seems most decidedly dead, killed by the Swede, who killed her primarily, it seems, for the pleasure of making Bohannan unhappy. Bohannon attempts to execute the Swede by hanging him from the completed bridge (which was saved from destruction during the attack), but before he can secure the rope, the Swede leaps off the bridge into the water below. In the real world, the fall would have killed him, but this being television, and the Swede being just too good as a Loki-like villain to kill off, I suspect that he may return. Mr. and Mrs. Durant seem to be on their way to prison for their fraudulant book-keeping, and the season ends with the government representatives asking Bohannan to take over as the head of the railway enterprise, and, well, what else has he got to do? The way the season ended, it seems like the Durants may be on their way out of the series. Joseph Black Moon may also be on the way out, as he has renounced Christianity and plans to return to his people. Elam survives, as does the newly widowed Eva (Mr. Toole committing suicide), and the McGinnis brothers survived the attack (if only Sean can get over his broken heart).

Although I was never that fond of Lily Bell as a character, I liked her scenes with Mrs. Durant. In a series that has not been as good at developing women characters as male ones, Virginia Madsen’s Hannah Durant was a welcome addition to the cast. Given her husband’s ill health, I was hoping he might die and leave her in charge. As a foil to Lily (and vice versa), I could see the two women developing a relationship that paralleled the Elam/Bohannon dynamic. Alas, that’s not to be, as the Fair-Haired Maiden of the West is no more.

Hell on Wheels Update

Well, things have certainly been moving along on AMC’s Hell on Wheels heading into the season finale. It took nearly two seasons, a foiled robbery, and a wounded Durant being put on a train to Chicago for live-saving surgery, but Bohannan and Lily Belle finally spent the night together. The Swede, when not wandering the camp in his Davy-Crockett-style raccoon skin camp has been seen joining the Sioux in their sweat lodge (and has been secretly passing them stolen guns). The Swede also shaves his head, which makes him even more visually striking, especially when blood (as when Bohannan pops him in the head with one of the stolen rifles) is splattered all over his pale skin.  The “white spirit” indeed. He has also become a quite cheerful Nordic saboteur, using a Norwegian penny to jam up an engine that causes an accident at the bridge.

The most surprising development may be the arrival of Mrs. Hannah Durant, who accompanies her recuperating husband back to Hell on Wheels. “My husband is making some changes,” she tells Lily Bell, and then shuts the door on her, and that’s just the first of many doors she shuts on Lily, including the door of her own train car—which she kicks Lily out of and takes possession for her own quarters.

Bohannan lets Lily stay in his place, and goes off to bunk with Elam in his unfinished house. Elam tries to quit the railroad, but Durant tells him, “You die in my employee or you walk back through Indian Territory,” as he rips up the deed that McGinnis sold Elam. And then Durant makes Elam an offer.  As Elam tells Bohannan, “He wanted me to do something you ain’t going to like at all.” I guess we will find out exactly what that is during Sunday’s two-hour season finale.

Hell on Wheels: Durant, Nebraska

If the first couple of episodes are any indication, season two of Hell on Wheels is going to have a lot going for it. These were two of the best episodes of the series, thus far, well-paced, with plenty of action, and a lot of character interaction that builds on what we know previously about a variety of characters. Mr. Durant finds himself in dire straits; the Nebraska town he established (and modestly named after himself) is attacked by a Sioux war party and burned to the ground. The Sioux, it seems, may give him more trouble in season two than the Cheyenne did in season one. At this point, the Sioux remain at a distance as a potentially dangerous threat. We know, at least, that they have a motive—Durant plans to ignore his previous engineer’s advice to avoid building the railway through Sioux sacred grounds. Hopefully, the series will develop individual Sioux characters as the season progresses.

Bohannon has been captured in the midst of a train robbery and taken to a federal prison, where he awaits execution.  Fortunately for him, the Sioux attack makes Durant realize that he really needs Bohannon back on his payroll. Neither man is particularly happy about that, but Durant arranges to get Bohannon released from prison. “Sometimes,” Durant tells him, “you have to make a bargain with the devil.” “Which one of us,” Bohannon comments, “is the devil in the bargain.” That seems like it might be a developing theme for this season. Which one, indeed, is the devil in the bargain? That’s a hard question to answer.

That also seems to play out in the relationship between Bohannon and Elam. The two characters certainly mirror one another in multiple ways, as suggested when they finally encounter one another again at the Hell on Wheels camp. They just stand and look at one another, their stances and responses doubling one another. Which one is the devil in that relationship? Certainly, Elam takes up the cause of justice in the camp, tracking down the man who killed a prostitute in the earlier episode, but his motives are hardly pure. He accepts cash from Lily to do so, but, more to the point, he only agrees to “punish” the man when Lily reveals that Eva is the one who directed her toward him. Yes, with Durant burned down, Eva is back in the Hell on Wheels camp. At the end of last season, Elam made his own bargain with the devil, choosing to take Durant’s job offer rather than marrying Eva and settling down. As he looks longingly at the now married Eva throughout the episode (and he kills for her, or, at her direction), maybe he’s wondering about whether or not he got the better end of the bargain after all. And with her respectable family life in an actual town now ended since the town is no longer there, perhaps Eva is having some doubts of her own.

Mr. Gundersen (no longer “The Swede,” really, as he is no longer the  much-feared overseer of the camp) is also a character who is developing in interesting ways. Driving around a wagon loaded with waste (and the stray dead body or two), if he is not someone who has made his own bargain with the devil, he certainly looks like the guy that can ferry you across the River Styx. A scene between Gundersen and Rev Cole, in which Gundersen stands in front of a roaring fire as the two talk enthusiastically about the end of the world, certainly suggests Gundersen’s affiliation with hell. His costuming this season is fantastic. Wearing a coonskin cap and tattered black clothing, he looks like a combination of a Norwegian Davy Crockett and the world’s seediest undertaker.

Joseph Black Moon has perhaps made his own bargain with the devil, choosing his faith over his people, only to have his faith challenged by the man he placed it in—Rev. Cole, who continues to drink and drink and drink.

Lily Bell seems to have found her way into Durant’s bed, to which I can only say two things: Yuk! and Huh? I’m not quite sure how that happened, especially given her obvious disgust for him. I may have missed something at the end of the last season, but I didn’t see this development coming. The show continues to have trouble with developing female characters. Lily seems to do things because it’s convenient to the plot that she does so. I’m not sure where we’re heading here, but, of all the various bargains with the various devils, Lily may have made the worst deal of all.

Hell on Wheels: New Season

For a fan of westerns, there’s no better beginning to a new season of a western series than a train robbery—a classic convention of the genre since at least 1903. So, when Hell on Wheels, season two, started immediately with robbing one of Durant’s trains of a payroll delivery, well, I was on board from the start.

Some time has passed between the end of season one and season two’s “Viva La Mexico.” It’s not too much of a surprise to discover that one of the hooded train robbers is Bohannon. His latest dream to escape from the hell of his war memories is to join a colony of ex-confederates in Mexico. He ends up getting in a pointless bar fight when two former union soldiers make snarky comments about the former confederates (Bohannon’s fellow train robbers) singing southern fighting songs. The goal of the train robbers, or at least of Bohannon, is to bankroll the colony with Durant’s payroll. Maybe once he’s in Mexico he can stop re-fighting the Civil War.

A number of the characters have moved on further down the line from when we last saw them. Durant, Nebraska, where the moving town of Hell on Wheels was located at the end of season one, is now 60 miles to the east of the western edge of the railroad building. Hell on Wheels itself is looking a bit more permanent, with actual wooden structures being built—perhaps because the lack of payroll has led to a definite slowing of the progress of the railroad’s advance. The Swede (he’s from Norway), Mr. Gundersen, has survived his tar and feathering. His hair has even grown back, he tells Durant. However, he’s no longer in charge of camp security. And that’s part of why the camp has descended further into chaos, although Gundersen himself contributed a fair bit to that chaos last season with his extortion and protection rackets (which lead to his being tarred and feathered and ridden out of Hell on Wheels on a rail). For want of a better term, he is now the camp’s Waste Collector, whether that waste is in the form of the contents of chamber pots, trash, or dead bodies.

Lily Bell convinces him (pays him) to see to the proper burial of a prostitute who is murdered, which leads to a darkly comic scene at the graveyard, with the alcoholic Rev. Cole providing the sermon, and the Swede contributing a comically inappropriate prayer. The scene is also a pastiche of the grave robbing scene in the classic horror film Frankenstein (dir. by James Whale), comically inverted (never has a burial seemed so much like grave robbery) here, although filmed in Whale’s style—wide angle lenses, off-kilter camera, and gravestones and crosses pointing in all directions, with the cherry on the cake, so to speak, the Swede’s hat balanced awkwardly, dangling from one of the crosses.

Elam has sort of taken his place with Durant, although Durant will not put him fully in charge of policing the camp. This does lead to Elam being on a train during a robbery, and a mutual recognition between Elam and Bohannon. Bohannon manages to get all the robbers off the train without anyone being killed. This does not endear him to his fellows. His friend, the doctor tells him to get on his horse and ride away because “This is not going to end well.” Bohannon’s world-weary reply: “It seldom does.”

We end with a cliffhanger: captured in the robbery attempt, Bohannon is set for execution. If Hell on Wheels wants to continue its run of classic western motifs, then, surely, a prison break is on the way in episode two.

Two Guys Walk into A Bar . . . .

Like F/X’s Justified, AMC’s The Walking Dead is a contemporary western set in the East—mostly in Georgia (although the graphic novel on which the series is based has moved from Georgia to other locations). As noted in an earlier blog post on Hell on Wheels (another AMC series), what The Walking Dead shares with a more traditional western is an interest in observing humanity in a “state of nature,” in returning to a time before the institution of the laws of civilization in order to examine what is essential about human nature outside of the influence of society.  The frontier setting of the western provides a “state of nature” environment where that investigation can take place. Different westerns suggest different philosophical positions as to what human existence would be like in a state of nature. In The Walking Dead, a cataclysmic event (the virus that turns people into zombies) has reduced humanity to a “state of nature,” and the driving philosophical concept is Hobbesian—that in a state of nature every person is out for himself, and that without the order of government (or another type of authority), we are in a state of continual warfare. In this state of nature, it is kill or be killed (or, in Walking Dead terms, kill or be eaten).

Although the primary threat in the series up to now has been the walking dead and their voracious appetite, we are seeing more indication that the truly dangerous threat is other survivors (and this is definitely the direction that the graphic novel series takes). Zombies don’t seem to think, don’t move very fast, and seemingly have no instinct for self-preservation. That last one is what makes humans particularly dangerous. In a kill or be killed environment, what will—and what won’t—humans do in order to survive?

Like Justified, The Walking Dead is often playfully conscious of its roots in the western, and there are references throughout the series to western motifs (the sheriff rides into town on a horse when his car runs out of gas, a rider falls off his horse when it’s frightened by a snake, etc.).  In the most recent episode “Nebraska,” the story takes up where the last episode before the mid-season hiatus ended—with the zombies corralled in Hershel’s barn (he hopes a cure will be found and that eventually his zombified family members will be returned to normal) let loose by Shane (note western reference) and slaughtered as they emerge. After this, Hershel, who has been on the wagon for 30 years, leaves the farm where they are all taking refuge and goes to the nearby deserted town where he finds a bar and starts drinking.

And here begins one of the longest “western” scenes in the series, an extended sequence inside of an empty bar that looks like it could be used as a set for a traditional western without too much modification. At one point, we see a poster advertising a “wild west show” on a wall. The series’ protagonist, former lawman Rick Grimes, arrives to bring Hershel back to the farm.  While they are at the bar, two guys walk in, and what follows is not a joke. The conversation between the two groups of survivors becomes increasingly tense as Tony and Dave (the two guys) press Rick to take them back to the farm. Rick is reluctant to do so, in part because, inviting two guys you don’t know to your safe haven in the midst of the zombie apocalypse is simply not a good idea.

Spoilers follow:

Guns are drawn, and the conversation continues. At one point, Dave jumps across to the other side of the bar (to get a bottle of the “good stuff”) and sets his gun on top of the bar. At a certain point in the conversation, Dave goes for the gun, and Rick demonstrates that he has the quick draw skills of a western lawman by pulling his gun from its holster, and shooting and killing first Dave, then Tony (who also has a gun). This is first western showdown shootout of the series. Zombies, as a rule, don’t carry guns, and so drawing your gun quickly is not a particularly useful talent when dealing with the walking dead. But, the living, on the other hand. . . .

I think this is the first time in the television series that Rick has killed a living human. In the graphic novel series, we’ve seen Rick grapple with this issue several different times, and the rightness or wrongness of his action (killing a living human) is often ambivalently presented. In “Nebraska,” the situation in which Rick’s shooting takes place suggests little ambivalence. Watching this scene, I could almost hear Raylan Givens’ voice in the background saying, “He pulled first, and I shot him. It was justified.” We’ve seen similar scenes in westerns hundreds of times, and the genre context tells us that Rick did what he had to do. I’m not sure that the report of what he has done will be received that way when he returns back to the farm, so I guess we’ll see how that plays out. In the graphic novel, Rick’s actions are more questioned and are presented in ways that are more ambivalent than in the television series—which thus far has used the character of Shane instead to explore the edgier terrain of how far one can (and cannot) go in terms of violence and still be acceptable.

Hell on Wheels: Season Finale

In the episode “God of Chaos,” Hell on Wheels comes to the end of its first season. AMC is getting viewers in a western mood by airing Unforgiven as a lead in to the episode. When we last left Cullen Bohannan, Durant had just revealed to him that the Swede had sent word to federal marshals that he had evidence linking Bohannan to several murders. The title of the episode comes from a comment that the Swede makes to Bohannan, referring to the Norse trickster God Loki, “the god of chaos,” as the Swede calls him

Spoilers follow, so read with caution!

The episode begins with a flashback of Bohannan discovering his wife’s body. In the present, the Hell on Wheels camp is still celebrating reaching the 40 mile marker—with Durant inviting the camp’s sex workers to the evening’s party so they can tend to his invited guests. The Swede has located the man Bohannan is searching for—the last of the soldiers who murdered his wife—and hopes to convince him to testify against Bohannan. Lily Bell, who in the last episode was revealed to have surveying expertise, is revealed in this episode to be unable to hammer a nail. The series can’t seem to decide what do with this character. Is she a plucky girl with practical skills? Or a civilized lady who is a fish out of water in the Hell on Wheels camp? If Lily has the engineering skills to replace her husband as surveyor, surely she should have somewhere along the line learned how to use a hammer.

Bohannan goes to Rev. Cole to seek advice on how to leave the dark path he’s on. That Rev. Cole is holding in his arms the severed head of the man he killed while conversing with Bohannan suggests that he’s perhaps not the best person at the moment to offer such advice. “Choose hate,” he offers, “It’s so much easier.”

Durant asks Mr. Gundersen (aka, the Swede) if he ever had his heart broken, and the Swede responds that his wife left him: “My heart was not ripped out, but she did stain my cuckoo clock.”  At least that’s what I think he said.

Elam seems to be letting his new position with Durant go to his head. He has a new suit of clothes and quickly finds ways to offend almost every one of his friends at the camp, including Eva.

The Swede should have considered his own warning about the God of Chaos. Trickster Gods are notoriously fickle and unpredictable in their allegiances. At the moment that “Mr. Swede” (aka the Swede, aka Mr. Gundersen) thinks he has control of the situation with Bohannan, his heavy-handed protection racket in the camp comes back to bite him—as he is tarred and feathered by the people from whom he has been extorting money. We see the feathered-covered “Mr. Swede” running away from the mob in the background as Bohannan searches the camp for the sergeant. I kept expecting that we would see the feathered Swede running through the midst of the celebratory dance (chaos, indeed), but that didn’t happen.

Bohannan’s hunt is beautifully filmed. We see Bohannan moving against backgrounds of carefully arranged laundry on lines, glowing fire pots that send up clouds of sparks, exploding firecrackers, and finally the smoke, steam, and lights of a train moving through the darkness. Bohannan catches and kills his man—only to discover that he is innocent. A paper he is clutching reveals that he was discharged before the murder of Bohannan’s wife took place.

And the season ends with a sequence of shots: the Swede discovering a wanted poster with Bohannan’s name on it, Bohannan on horseback riding (destination unknown), and Elam, still unafraid of getting his hands dirty on Durant’s behalf, practicing his marksmanship.

Hell on Wheels Keeps on Rolling

As we come toward the end of season one of Hell on Wheels, it looks like the series will roll on for at least another season—a second season was recently announced. Averaging over 3 million viewers per episode, Hell on Wheels is coming in as AMC’s second-most watched show after The Walking Dead (which precedes Hell on Wheels on Sunday nights).

The two series are quite similar, with both taking place in a society that has just experienced a catastrophe (the zombie apocalypse, the Civil War) and which is still in many ways feeling the effects of that Event (which is more of an ongoing catastrophe in The Walking Dead than it is in Hell on Wheels). And, in both series, the primary source of conflict comes as much from within the groups of survivors as from the outside.  Can’t we all get along? Well, no, not really, suggest both these series. We may occasionally work together, temporarily uniting against the threat of zombies, or momentarily joining together to lay down a few miles of railroad track, but we spend more time fighting with each other than we doing working toward unified goals.

In the most recent episodes of Hell on Wheels, the railway’s incursions into Indian Territory have created another Civil War involving a fight of brother against brother.  Not only is one group of humans in conflict with another (recently unified Americans and the Cheyenne), but each group is riven by its own conflicts. The figurative brother-against-brother fight of the Civil War is played out again in the make up of the search party that combines former confederate Bohannon and former slave Elam with bloodthirsty union soldiers. The stated goal is to have Joseph Black Moon lead them to his people where he will negotiate with them. The cavalry is pretty much intent on having Joseph lead them to the encampment (which consists mostly of women and children) in order to slaughter them. Joseph, Elam, and Bohannon, are almost immediately in conflict with the soldiers. The only thing that prevents an open battle against one another is an attack by a Cheyenne raiding party.

The brother-against-brother scenario of the Civil War is played out literally in the conflict between the christian Joseph and his unassimilated brother, Pawnee Killer. Early in the episode “Timshel,” one brother kills the other.

Spoilers follow if you haven’t seen “Timshel.”

“Timshel,” a Hebrew word meaning something like “thou mayest,” is circulating in popular culture in part through John Steinback’s East of Eden, but primarily at the moment through the Mumford and Sons song of the same name. Their version of  “Timshel” plays over the opening battle scene.  The lyrics of the song seem ironic in this context:

And you are not alone in this
As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand
Hold your hand

The brothers in Hell on Wheels certainly aren’t holding hands. The sense of the episode suggests East of Eden as an immediate context for episode, as the novel takes the biblical story of Cain and Abel as its allegorical starting point.

Joseph’s choice, to side with his Christian fellows (even though they are a decidedly un-Christian lot in their actions and behaviors) against his brother, is one that doesn’t seem to have a clear right or wrong to it. Lots of characters in this episode seem to be making choices, but, unlike Joseph, those choices seem to be less ambivalent choices between good and evil.

The McGinnis Brothers have returned from Chicago, and they have chosen to abandon their sentimental evocation of the homeland as the subject for their magic lantern show. Instead, they advertise a show of  “soiled doves” and “forbidden fruit.” In the choice between good and evil, or between good and tawdry, they choose the path that will make them more money.

Elam chooses to scalp the Cheyenne killed in the attack so he can collect bounty—an action which Bohannon refuses to do. Elam catches the eye of Durant by doing so, as Durant is looking for a man who is “willing to get his hands dirty.” Elam has his own version of “forbidden fruit” to tempt him.

All in all, I found “Timshel” to be a disappointing episode. Unfortunately, like its sister show The Walking Dead Hell on Wheels has a tendency to emphasize surprise over character consistency. Only Bohannon and Joseph in this episode act in ways completely consistent with their characters’ development thus far. On the one hand, it makes a kind of sense that Elam, recently emancipated from slavery, would have some identity troubles as he tries to figure out how to be a free man in a society that still doesn’t acknowledge his full humanity. However, up to this point, Elam has been with Bohannon as a character who still retains at least a small amount of ethical behavior. Here, he suddenly and unexpectedly turns toward the dark side. Elam wants the respect that he deserves, and he may be willing to get his hands dirty to insure that respect, but greed has not been a primary motivating factor.

Also, in this episode, we discover that Lily Bell has taken over her husband’s surveying duties. No doubt Lily has proved herself as courageous and capable, but this is the first indication that she has any training whatsoever as a surveyor. Yet, there she is, pluckily plotting the path of the railway.

The Swede in the last couple of episodes has swung wildly back and forth between the kind of cold rationality with which he was first introduced and absolute madness—as he savagely beats, in “Timshel,” a madame who owes him money. Is The Swede a clear-thinking plotter and schemer, or is he crazed to the point of uncontrollable violent behavior?

In the final scene of the episode, Rev. Cole pulls the sword from the scabbard of the Lieutenant and decapitates him. This is  very surprising, but, like many of this episode’s surprising moments, it’s surprising in large part because it seems so wildly inconsistent with what has been established thus far about the character. The only explanation for such surprise is that the character has gone suddenly mad (which seems to be the case with Cole, whose tendency toward drink recurs), and that seems to be happening way too often in this series.

The other surprising thing that happens in this episode is that there is actually railroad building taking place. After what seems like weeks when our characters have been off doing everything else but working on the railroad, Bohannon gives an inspiring toast, and the next day everyone is suddenly working together to reach the 40 mile target.  How such unity of purpose suddenly congealed is rather mystifying.

As a whole, I’ve enjoyed Hell on Wheels, and I hope that, as the series continues, the writers will place less emphasis on surprising developments and instead let the drama and the surprise develop naturally rather than forcing it.

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