There’s a new western starting up on AMC (the network that gives us Breaking Bad). Hell on Wheels is set in the 1860s and follows the building of the transcontinental railway. The title Hell on Wheels is not, as one might suspect, a reference to a runaway locomotive, but to the tent city that follows along with the Union Pacific Railway as it’s being built, with the tracks and the tents simultaneously moving westward.
The “nation is an open wound,” a title informs us at the beginning of the premiere. Railroad builder Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), in a money-raising stump speech, offers the transcontinental railroad as a stitch in time for the nation’s wounds: “The nation that nearly tore itself apart by north and south will be joined together by east and west.” Although, as the episode reveals, Durant is more interested in lining his own pockets than healing the nation. He insists on building more curves in the railroad because he’s being paid (“from the government teat,” he observes, in a Swearengenian turn of phrase) by the mile , and building in a straight line is costing him money.
The episode begins well with Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), disguised as a priest, shooting a man in a confession booth. Bohannon is the central character, a former confederate soldier seeking vengeance on the Union soldiers who murdered his wife (one of whom wanders into the wrong confession booth). “You got to let go of the past,” he tells former slave Elam Ferguson (Common), who responds, “Have you let it go?” Neither man has let go of the past, or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that the past refuses to let go of either man. Because he’s a former slaveowner (although he was convinced by his wife of the evils of slavery and set them all free before the war started), Bohannon is put in charge as walking boss of the black workers. And, because he is black, Ferguson is given the lowest paying and hardest job on the railroad.
Although the Civil War is over, it seems very much present in the episode, as the characters respond throughout in ways determined by their pre-Civil War experiences. Blasting associated with building the rail line occurs throughout the episode, and, especially early in the episode, we feel like we are on a battlefield, with explosions continually in the background—the only difference, everyone in the foreground continues with their tasks (such as a baptism) without paying any attention to the blasts.
Council Bluffs, Iowa, is the current leading edge of the railway line, and it’s that leading edge of building the railroad that establishes the frontier in Hell on Wheels. There’s no danger that Hell on Wheels (the encampment) will evolve into a civilized town, because it is continually moving forward into yet another frontier situation. The frontier is also defined by the presence of Native Americans, as the railway encroaches on Indian Territory (which results in an attack by Cheyenne Indians at one point). The Civil War may have ended, but there are other wars to be fought.
Hell on Wheels is a post-Deadwood western, and we see its influence everywhere (not the least in the Swearengen-like character Thomas Durant). There’s also plenty of blood, mud, and dirt-covered people. In the make-up tent, I imagine there must be a very large barrel labeled “FAKE DIRT, APPLY LIBERALLY”). The violence is also fairly graphic. So far, however, this is not Deadwood in terms of quality (but, really, the first episode is too early judge), although it is interesting and entertaining. There’s also a not unappealing cheesiness at times (e.g., actor Ted Levine’s out-of-control beard, and Colm Meaney doesn’t just chew the scenery but makes sure he gives a full 32 bites to every piece).
Hell on Wheels follows AMC’s Walking Dead in their Sunday evening schedule, and the two shows are well paired.
In the anthology The Philosophy of the Western, several of the contributors observe that the setting of the western returns humanity to a “state of nature,” to a time before the institution of the laws of civilization, and the western therefore often functions as a way of examining what is essential about human nature outside of the influence of society. 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, 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).
This seems to be the philosophical framework for Hell on Wheels as well. The cataclysmic event here is the Civil War, but it is an event that has turned one human against another just as completely as a zombie apocalypse. In Hell on Wheels, we are in the early stages of the recovery from that cataclysm, but the veneer of civilization seems a thin one. Although the war may have ended, we still see its effects, especially in the actions of Bohannon, which are driven by vengeance for atrocities that occurred during the war. In the Hell on Wheels camp, kill or be killed remains the order of the day, whether those deaths are caused by others outside the camp (the Indian raid) or whether the violence comes from within the camp. Not only is the role of government weakened because we are on the frontier, but the series suggests that the war itself has so weakened the government as to make it ineffective. (Ferguson refers to the Emancipation Proclamation as so much toilet paper, as it has had no effect on his everyday existence, which remains much the same, he feels, as when he was enslaved.) In the absence of government control, in step the capitalists to fill the gap. And Durant, who sees himself as a “lion” slaughtering the “zebras” around him certainly views society in terms of kill or be killed, and he is intent on being the one who does the killing.
Of course, this is just the first episode of the series, so we will see how it develops, whether as in Deadwood we see “order out of the mud” or whether we remain closer to a predatory kill or be killed state of nature as we seem to be doing in Walking Dead.
For more on the Indian attack in this episode, see “Indians in Prime Time” at Indian Country Today.