Hell on Wheels: AMC’s newest drama entry

14 Nov

Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannan

I suppose I should begin this by saying: I don’t like shows that have to do with the Civil War or history of the Civil War. I find them mind-numbingly dull most of the time.  In fact, I’m really not a huge history buff at all.  I guess that is because after being forced to take an historiography class (for anyone that hasn’t had to go through an advanced degree program in liberal arts, historiography is the study of history, actually the history of how history is written).  Through this course, you get to examine how history is written, why it is written, whose point of view it is written in, whose voice is left out, and finally asking yourself, what does that mean?  Is any history really true or is it merely those individual’s opinions who managed to get their voices heard?  That is why primary research (finding documents such as birth certificates, hospital and military records, police reports, government studies and correspondence, telegrams, etc.) is so important to support any one historian’s theories;  however, if you think about it, anything can be falsified and although all of history isn’t a big lie, I would be glad to argue that a large part of history is written with a slanted perspective depending on who the author of any given subject is.  That is why I am honestly not a fan of watching historical shows on television.  That and honestly, war bores the shit out of me.  It is such a man’s game.  Although, I will admit to learning how to play Call of Duty and immensely enjoying blowing people’s heads off, I just feel like there are many instances in history that if testosterone would have been in a more limited supply maybe cooler heads would have prevailed.  Who knows.  I just don’t get excited thinking about battle movements.

What does all of this talk have to do with AMC’s newest show Hell on Wheels?  Well, in my mind, everything.  We follow a former confederate solider, Cullen Bohannan (what the hell kind of name is that?  I spent the entire episode not knowing what his name was until I was forced to look it up), on a journey of vengeance for his wife’s murder.  I am not quite clear if this took place during the war or right after it, but I’m assuming it happened while Cullen was fighting.  And by the end of the pilot, it seems fairly clear that his wife was gang raped and murdered by a group of Union soldiers.  So, here I am, realizing that I get to listen to history whether I like it or not.  And the problem is, that it doesn’t feel organic.  I feel like I’m getting my history shoved down my throat by AMC original programming.

I would argue a better way to show us history, is to create a character living in a specific time and not forcing us to listen to bits and pieces of what went on like school reports to give the viewer background.  Either make it happen organically, or forget it.  For example, I thought I was going to HATE the HBO show Carnivale.  Because I hate the circus.  Don’t ask me why.  It’s irrational.  It’s just that everything seems so seedy in the circus I find it depressing.  However, I ended up loving this show and was greatly disappointed when HBO cancelled it:  still a stupid decision HBO people.  Shame on you!  What I loved about this show is that the writers expertly wove in everything you needed to know about the Depression through the characters and the narrative.  Never once in my viewing of that show did I ever feel like the writers took a time out from the action to explain something that had gone on in the Depression that we needed to understand to get the story.

In Hell on Wheels, the way it is set up, they cannot help but do this jerky narrative technique.  At least they could give us flashbacks to learn about the Civil War.  Oh would that be too expensive?   You should have thought about that in the first place AMC.  Furthermore, the writers are using terms to show they have learned the lingo from that time (case in point, calling a knife an Arkansas toothpick), and while they think it is coming off as clever, I’m thinking, ok you guys, anybody can do a little research and learn this crap.  Stop trying to be clever and start telling a story I can follow.  And when I say that, I mean this backstory about what happened in the past that is informing the present.  Again, showing it is so much better than talking about it.  You learn that, literally, in Screenwriting 101.  The mantra “Show it” is shoved down your throat so much that if you can’t learn that basic idea, then I’m concerned about your overall ability to learn then convey ideas in an entertaining way.

In this pilot episode, I believe the principles of writing for television and film have been violated just like the wife of Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount, who by the way, does do a good job).  I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many cliches in a television show since the 1980s.  Case in point, Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) who is responsible for financing the building of the Union Pacific railroad line might be the biggest cliche I’ve seen since… honestly, I can’t come up with a bigger cliche right now.  It’s not that the character isn’t well-acted, it’s that the character as it is written is one that we’ve seen a million times before.  Ruthless business man who will lie, cheat, steal and physically harm anyone who gets in the way of his growing empire of wealth.  Great.  I get it, but give his character a bit more depth.  Give him something.  Even a personality quirk that at least makes him interesting to watch.

And… the way the Indians are portrayed is no better than watching a 1930s western.  Or The Searchers.   I realize this is a drama for television but come on, there are two sides to every story.  And I just happen to be driving across the country when I saw this pilot and here I am driving through Oklahoma and entering so many reservation territories and I was struck by the way the attack on the railroad workers camp was shown.  It is definitely a brutally violent heartless attack and you automatically are forced to identify with the white man unless you are some sociopath who enjoys scalping people because let me just say, I sure as hell did not enjoy watching someone scalped alive.  But yes, I get it.  That shit happened.  But I also thought about it as I was driving along I-40 and thought, if it were me and I had been an Indian and all these assholes just showed up on my land and decided to take it, wouldn’t I be just as violent and brutal?  And my answer was yes.  That is how they lived and that is how they were going to respond.  And were the white people so stupid that they would not have employed far more guards, etc. with guns at these camps, realizing the danger they were in?  If all those idiot men could engage in great battle movements, didn’t they have the common sense to realize they needed some preventive measures?

I haven’t even touched on the politics between the “irony” that Cullen is a former slave owner and he’s put in charge of a crew of former slaves working on the railroad.  But he is an enlightened slave owner.  He gave his slaves their freedom a year before the Civil War broke out and paid them wages, and did not have sex with any of the women.  I was ready for Cullen to say that he also listened to “All Things Considered” and “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on NPR because obviously Cullen is just a good guy.  He fought in the Civil War because of pride and honor.  That did a lot of good for his wife.  So, now we must watch, if we choose to, Cullen go on his rampage because he choose the country and ideals over the woman he loved.  A noble choice?  I say that is a masculine choice that causes all this shit to happen in the first place.  And I just wasted an hour of my time watching a guy feel sorry for himself.  He got paid to do that.  Nobody paid me a cent to sit through that.  I suppose I will watch one more episode to see if this gets any better or just sucks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: