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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hell On Wheels: “Derailed”

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The last time we saw Cullen Bohannon and his faithful but surly African-American sidekick Common, the two of them were hightailing it out of the territory, after Bohannon rescued Common from a lynch mob. At the end of the episode, they shot the members of the posse that had been dispatched to do away with them. It seemed implicit in all this that the two men were now fugitives and that their story and whatever was going on at the train construction camp would have to unfold independently of one another for awhile. Tonight's episode begins with a spectacular sequence in which Big Chief Wes Studhi's prodigal son, Pawnee Killer—Wes couldn't have just named him "Stable, Well-Mannered Accountant" and be done with it?—and those loyal to him derail a train. This leads to the following exchange between Reconstruction-era America's favorite comedy team, Doc Durant and the Swede:

Swede: "Mr. Bohannon killed one of our men in the saloon while he was attempting to hang a Negro."

Durant: "You were hanging a Negro in the saloon?"

Swede: "He was caught with a white woman."

Durant: "A white woman? You mean one of the whores?"

Swede: "Yes, sir."

Durant: "You were going to hang a Negro for screwing a whore!?"

Swede: "It seemed appropriate."

Durant: "These freed slaves work twice as hard for half the pay. Have any of them defected?"

Swede: "Only the one we were hanging."

There is only one correct way for this scene to proceed from that point, and it would be for Durant to fall to the ground and, while holding onto his hat with both hands, spin in circles while going, "Whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo!" This is what happens instead: Bohannon, with Common in tow, rides up out of nowhere, gets the drop on the Swede, dismounts, and takes a whip to the fallen, seven-foot-tall son of a bitch. Durant is all, Yo, Bohannon, my man, just the fellow I was looking for. You want to track down some Indians who derailed my train? "I didn't sign on to be an Indian fighter," Bohannon says, but Durant reminds him of how he hired his under-qualified ass to run his operation for him because Bohannon shoveled all that shit about how building a railroad is like fighting a war, which is something he is qualified to do. It kind of leaves the brother without an out.


Hell On Wheels sometimes seems deranged. That's what I liked best about it. Here's what I find increasingly intolerable about it: it is conventional, in the laziest, safest, least interesting way imaginable, even as it keeps congratulating itself on its daring and edgy ballsiness. It thinks it's tough and fresh because the dead bodies that turn up in the course of the story are made up to look as grotesque as they can on a basic-cable budget, but in a TV series, courage and innovation are defined by how hard you're willing to make it for yourself in order to keep faith with narrative logic and constantly raising the stakes. When Tony Soprano took time away from exploring college campuses with his daughter to throttle a man to death on-camera, it got people talking, because they knew that they weren't just watching a crime show.

This doesn't have to be about transcending genre, either; it can be a matter of respecting the genre you're working in and trying to do it right, even daring to bring something new to it. When Stephen J. Cannell and his associates decided, when they were planning the famous first story arc of Wiseguy, to make the relationship between the undercover-federal agent hero and the gangster he was targeting the emotional core of the show, they knew that they'd have to decide between wrapping that story line up after a certain number of episodes and risk not being able to sustain viewer interest with a whole new plot line, or else have the show turn into a joke by making the bad guy as impervious to figuring out what was going on under his nose as the characters on Gilligan's Island were incapable of getting off the island. Hell On Wheels tries to look and talk tough, like a show by David Chase or (on his better days) Stephen J. Cannell, but when Bohannon, having burned his bridges to ash, comes dancing back home and settles everything  with a quick and easy beating of the supposedly formidable chief villain, you know that it's a Sherwood Schwartz show at heart.


I've read that the character of Bohannon lacks "charisma", but Anson Mount is doing as honorable a job with the role as I can imagine anyone short of the young Brando doing, and I'll bet that he's everything the show's creators ever wanted. I've also read that Bohannon is an "antihero", and that's just stupid. What's not heroic about him? He has a tragic past eating away at him, and he drinks a lot, but those qualities just make him dark and dashing, and they're dwarfed by the number of strenuous acts of physical courage he's performed and his failure, thus far, to kill anyone the world wouldn't obviously be much better off without. (He's about as much an anti-hero as the hero of the movie The Salton Sea—written by Hell On Wheels co-creator Tony Gayton—who was introduced to the audience as strung-out junkie loser and who was gradually revealed to only be pretending, so that he could get close enough to the scariest people alive to catch the man who'd murdered his wife.) As for the former-slave-holding-Confederate thing—please. Hollywood has been romanticizing fought-for-the-South guys since Birth of a Nation, using the idea that there's something noble about having killed people for a doomed cause on behalf of a dying society to not only ennoble them but depict them as heroic underdogs.

Bohannon's most obvious screen ancestors include Josey Wales, who also lost his family to evil Yankee scum and was hounded by them after the war. Before he was played by Clint Eastwood, the character of Josey Wales was created by the novelist Forrest Carter, who had previously been known as "Asa Earl Carter", a violent, white supremacist activist who wrote pro-segregationsit speeches for George Wallace, and whose pulp writing was soaked in both blood lust and morbid self-pity. Hell On Wheels trumps Josey Wales' back story by having Bohannon out to avenge the murders not only of his family but a slave he'd freed after she'd raised him, and who died trying to protect his son. The show doesn't hit rock bottom in its special pleading for its hero until Bohannon, Common, and Joseph Black Moon, who's Pawnee Killer's brother, set out to bring the renegades to justice, under the leadership of a lieutenant who fought with the Union Army at Antietam, where he picked up a Confederate sword that he carries around as a trophy. The lieutenant, seeing them marching side by side, sneers that they're "an Injun, a nigger, and a greyback. We got ourselves a rainbow, boys!"


Deadwood had sympathetic characters who threw the word "nigger" around, on the theory that we'd understand that people in that time and place might have done it without intending an insult. Everyone who uses that word on Hell On Wheels does intend an insult, which is fine, except that the show goes out of its way to lump Bohannon in with the insulted. It insists on the superior dignity of those on the bottom of society, then works extra hard to shoehorn its quick-drawing hero in there, on the theory that there's nobody more long-suffering and sinned against than a good-looking white Southern man who can kick the ass of anybody who looks at him cross-eyed. It's not bad enough that American politics have been rendered infantile and idiotic by the trend among the privileged and well-off to feel unaccountably sorry for themselves; now even our Westerns can't keep their hands off the crying towels. This goddamn show should be called H-E-Double-Hockey Sticks On Wheels.

Not that Bohannon feels sorry for himself; that would spoil everything. But the show feels sorry for him, and he holds up his end by feeling sorry even for the people he's killed, at least the ones he killed in war. He was at Antietam—sorry, "Sharpsburg"—too, and as he and the lieutenant trade war stories, his tone is as regretful and haunted as the Yankee's is gleeful and gloating. "Don't get me wrong, they was some brave men," he says of the Union fallen, before accusing the lieutenant of being a coward who only came across after the Confederates had exhausted themselves and their resources on hundreds of lives' worth of cannon fodder. Not long afterwards, the lieutenant is confirming every bad thought anyone has had about him—and nothing about him would inspire a good thought—by killing an Indian boy in cold blood. He'll get his. The characters on Hell On Wheels who you're meant to hate don't last long, and the ones you're meant to like don't stay down for long, either. The ones you might be meant to have mixed-to-indifferent feelings about are few and far between.


Stray observations:

  • I chuckled when Common told Bohannon that he had to go visit his favorite whore before he could accompany him on the scouting mission, and Bohannon muttered, "Don't stay too long just to impress me."
  • When Common enters his girlfriend-for-pay's bedroom, she hollers, "Get out of my crib!" Boy, if you had a nickel for every time you've heard that one, huh, Common?
  • Reverend Tom Noonan has taken to drink. His daughter tells him that her mother used to say that booze was his "one true love," adding, "After you left, she was always afraid you'd come back, but never stopped praying you would." Boy, if you had a nickel for every time you've heard that one, huh, Tom?
  • When Bohannon and company set out on their mission to bring down Pawnee Killer, the soundtrack goes full-on Sergio Leone. We're getting past simple bad TV into outright blasphemy here.