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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