Thursday, November 10, 2011
Hell on Wheels Ep 1: Pilot
Well, you last saw us blogging together on Person of Interest, which we grew tired of after about three or four weeks (I think both of us are still watching it, but it’s still not dynamic enough to be blogging on) but once again I’m joining forces with the lovely and talented Chris Doran, and this time we’re going to discuss Hell on Wheels. Chris and I have been discussing AMC shows for a long time; I think we watch all of them: Mad Men, The Walking Dead (which I blog on with Josh Winstead), The Killing (and boy, do we have our opinions on THAT one). Did you watch Breaking Bad and Rubicon too, Chris? My husband watched Rubicon but I didn’t, and I think Breaking Bad is the best of the bunch.
But this week a new show started, a different look at the frontier building than that previous Wild West show, Deadwood. It’s just as grimy and gory and lawless as the world of Al Swearengen, but like The Wire did with the drug trade, I felt it showed a lot of different angles to what it took to build the railroad (and how many lives were lost along the way). We’ve got menial workers, architects, magnates, evil bosses, and the lone gunslinger in the midst of it all, trying to find revenge for his dark past. While I think there were parts that felt a little forced, I really liked this debut. Unlike so many premieres (on both network and cable), this gave just enough of the main plot to situate us in the time and place without getting too bogged down in exposition. What were your initial thoughts, Chris?
Chris: Oh. My. I’ve been the subject of a few adjectives in my day, but I’d have to say that “lovely” is a first! Must be because the Internet subtracts a few pounds…
Now, what was the question? Ah, yes! AMC, how I love thee. Let me count the ways. Oh, wait – Nikki already did. My love for Mad Men knows no bounds, I was one of the seventeen mesmerized souls who watched Rubicon faithfully, The Walking Dead does the seemingly impossible on a weekly basis and Breaking Bad is destined to be spoken of as one of the most powerful, game-changing dramas in the history of television. And The Killing was … ah … they certainly … well … *cough* … how often do you get to see such a spectacular belly flop on TV? Impressive indeed.
And now, AMC returns to their roots, with a Western that echoes their early success with the original mini-series Broken Trail but smartly plays upon the “revisionist” Westerns that have graced screens big and small in the surrounding years. Despite the comparisons that Hell On Wheels seems to invite at times (from its theme music right on down to its closing soliloquy), I cannot honestly compare this show to Deadwood. Not only was that show was one of my favorites of all-time, it was one of the very few productions for television that could truly be called “Shakespearean” in its depth, complexity and richness of language. Nobody, not even the plays that were written after Shakespeare, should be measured by that yardstick. Hell On Wheels will be, and should be, evaluated on its own merits.
There is a reason why Westerns may always have a place in American consciousness in particular, and capture the imagination of many other cultures as well. The archetypal characters they sketch, and the morality plays that they present, are as close to mythology as this culture has ever produced. For me, this is made more resonant by the fact that this myth-making was going on while the history was still playing out. The Ancient Greeks evaluated every aspect of their lives in light of their gods, and Americans of the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries have been seeing themselves in the Gunslinger, the Lawman, the Land Baron and the Resilient Woman ever since the first stories from the Frontier filtered back to the hinterlands and cities. Endless variations on these characters are so familiar, so comfortably worn and yet so compelling that they turn up in every other setting, from inner cities (Dirty Harry, Die Hard) to outer space (Star Wars, Firefly).
So, how do our newest versions fare? Quite well, I think. Anson Mount gives us his best Man With … well, not No Name but actually a humdinger of one: Cullen Bohannon. (Full Disclosure: I am a bit of a name freak. I enjoy scanning credits for interesting names and will forever value the sport of baseball for its nomenclature. I admit it; they had me at “Cullen Bohannon”.) Wonderful actors such as Ted Levine and Tom Noonan (look, dueling serial killers from the Hannibal Lecter Charm School!) give us thumbnail sketches of characters whose backstories may be inferred from other films. Colm Meaney, whose versatility can been seen in low comedy and high drama, has the toughest assignment; trying to flesh out his character with the proper venality and villainy while trying not to chew the scenery with his dialogue. His performance in the pilot episode strikes a few discordant notes but I feel that there is ample room for this character to grow on me, and the audience.
All in all, I’m a great deal more optimistic that you and I could be talking about this show for a TAD longer than … what was that other one? Person of Some But Not Particularly Compelling Interest? What stood out to you about this first installment of Hell On Wheels, Nik?
Nikki: And… I really have nothing more to say. Chris covered it all, thanks, Chris! I need you to co-blog with me more often. It would certainly save my wrists a lot of strain. ;)
But seriously, when Ted Levine was on the screen, it took about a minute before I said, “Oh my god, that voice… is that Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs? And from that point on I was really creeped out by him. (Not as creeped out as I am by American Horror Story, but that’s another blog…)
A few things stood out to me in this first episode, mostly in that it seemed to really be positioning itself in opposition to the overly politically correctness of TV at the moment. For one, the “Indians” were the bad guys, which we haven’t seen in a long time. Modern history tells us that the settlers invaded their lands, monetized it, pushed them off into small areas, ran roughshod over their territory and belief systems, and even (as we saw in this episode), took some of them and “saved” them by Christianizing them. In this episode, we see the natives fight back in a way they often did, but which often isn’t depicted that often anymore (unless they show them being provoked in a terrible way right before hand, and then it seems justified). As modern viewers, WE know they were provoked and had been for years by that point, but what happened in that scene was shocking. And realistic.
However, it’s that same daring to push the envelope of political correctness that I found irritating at times, because it was like they were purposely trying to make us go, “oooh” at home. “Hey, let’s let everyone at home know this is THE BAD GUY because he makes racist remarks!” So Ted Levine’s character asks Bohannon if he can handle “niggers” and Colm Meaney’s character is looking at a map and just throws the word “Chink” in there. It actually had no bearing on the sentence before or after it, nor did they discuss bringing in Asians to work on the railroad. He just said, “Hm… might be a good job for the CHINKS.” And I found that really annoying. If you’re going to push the envelope, do it in a convincing way, and don’t use it as shorthand to let us know This Guy Is Evil.
But that’s a pretty small nitpick, because as I said in my opening, I felt they really fleshed out these characters – shorthand notwithstanding – and made me care about them from the outset, which is a very difficult thing for a pilot to achieve.
Chris: Very good points, Nikki. I agree that parts of this episode felt very much like a work in progress, as the writers and showrunners sought to lay out the period elements, introduce the characters quickly, set the tone and explain both the over-arching plot (revenge, redemption, greed, rapacious development, survival of the fittest) and episodic storyline (Man on a Mission, government support for railroad building, freed slaves struggling to make their way in the post-Civil-War era and people of various types seeking their fortune over the horizon). This is a lot to juggle when you’re also trying to pull in viewers and hold them for this hour of television and many more to come. I would always rather see ambition go through its growing pains than be fed the same ol’, same ol’ in almost any medium.
The useful thing about the Western tropes that were on display in the premiere is how relevant and timely they are in today’s world. Let’s see: man dealing with personal tragedy struggling to come to terms with his irretrievably broken world? Check. Citizens of all stripes trying to understand the New World Order in the wake of national trauma? Check. And, desire for a decent life and upward mobility causing people to clash with one another while capitalism churns their lives out like sausage? Sadly, check. Over-reaching on my part to read too much into a primetime drama on cable television? Quite possibly, check. Sorry ‘bout that!
For all its flaws, there’s a lot to like in Hell On Wheels. Little details such as the type of weaponry Bohannon uses and what it tells the discerning eye about him. The “Magic Lantern Show” put on by the Irish immigrant brothers and the power that photographic images could have on people so far from the people and places of importance to them. The contrast to be drawn between the fully detailed railroad car that serves as “Doc” Durant’s office and sleeping quarters and the rude canvas and plank abodes for Bohannon and others. Bits of information about the massive undertaking that was the Transcontinental Railroad and the way in which its construction irrevocably altered the lives of its labor force and the land it crossed, and the conflict it engendered with Native Americans and settlers all along its path. For the facts on this era, I highly recommend Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. For a glimpse of the mythic and mundane characters who were swept along in its wake, I hope we’ll have Hell On Wheels to drop in on Sunday nights for some time to come. See you next week, Nik!
Nikki: Excellent points, Chris, and I too really enjoyed the “Irishman’s Movie Night” scene. It really brought home how terrible it must be to be away from home, and how tough these people were. They had the courage to leave their homes and build a new land, and they were willing to eschew property, food, steady income, and most of all, personal hygiene, to accomplish that. While I felt like Colm Meaney’s Big Speech at the end was a tad overwrought, I still backed up the PVR and watched it more than once just to really take in the grandeur of it. Meaney delivered the speech like he was performing on stage, and I felt like the artifice was intentional, almost like a narration of what we just saw and what we were about to see. I enjoyed that moment a lot.
Other things to note:
• The prescience of the line, “I fear this cough will be the death of me.”
• I really enjoyed the use of anachronistic music in the very beginning, as we first saw the settlement where they were working on the railroad. It was totally not of its time, and yet worked beautifully.
I’m definitely looking forward to next week’s! And maybe we can get in some more potshots at The Killing.