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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Televangelist: 'Hell on Wheels,' Season 1 Ep. 4

I dont need this gun, I could slay you with my beautiful eyes!
  • I don't need this gun, I could slay you with my beautiful eyes!

When last night's episode began with a horse death, I momentarily thought "isn't killing animals HBO's signature move?" It's a feeling I've been conditioned to have after watching "Game of Thrones," which has a pretty high onscreen animal death rate. Drawing comparisons between "Hell on Wheels" and HBO's "Deadwood" is inevitable and has been mentioned, but there are certain elements that just don't quite match up. Last night I started thinking why, and came upon the notion that maybe my expectations of certain elements are not met simply because of the change in venue. That of course lead to: what would "Hell on Wheels" be like as an HBO show?

As far as the two main censor offenders (sex and violence) go: the levels of violence and gore are pretty much on par with what I would have expected from HBO - Lily sewing up her own wound, the scalping of the surveying troupe, men getting their ears blown off, etc. As to the other one, viewers usually joke about HBO's sometimes gratuitous sex and nudity ("because you're paying for it!"), and I can easily imagine where it might have been inserted into this story. The most obvious would be the "missing" scene between Elam and the tattooed whore Eva. We see them buttoning up and sharing a tender moment, but nothing else. There are a few chest shots in the bath house, but they remain fairly chaste and nothing more revealing that what you might see out and about these days. It was actually a comment that came from one of my viewing partners Martha, who, speaking of Durant, said, "does he not get any whore time?" There is the missing piece! There (again, so far) hasn't been a cutaway scene of Durant pontificating from his bed to a naked woman of the night, or having a quick romp in the tea room, or being orally pleasured as he looks at his maps. These are scenes that I have would naturally expect from the show if it was airing on HBO. And are those the moments that are making me so aware that this is not on a pay channel? The odd mores of censorship are likely to blame: a quick bit of research on my part has determined that sexual content is apparently a worse offense than violence. According (more or less) to the FCC, sex you pay for. Violence you get for free.

Anyway, this tangent may be nullified after next week since Common and Anson Mount both go shirtless for some bare knuckle boxing. Someone fetch me my smelling salts!

Now on to the actual episode, "Jamais Je Ne T'outblierai," which thanks to my rudimentary French (and confirmation from Google Translate) means "I will never forget you." All of our scattered players from the pilot have stories that are weaving together in what I expected with become a rich narrative patchwork. Lily is involved in some kind of love square with Durant (the rich man on whom she may exact some kind of revenge in her husband's name), Cullen (another strong but broken soul), and Joseph Black Moon (a really nice guy with great teeth), while Cullen is in his own square with Durant (his employer), the Swede (who is both fascinated with him and reviled by him) and Elam (his wary ally). I would throw Reverend Cole in there, too, but their relationship has yet to be defined. The Reverend did get some deeper tones added to his personality this week though that I appreciate. I mentioned in an earlier review that I hoped Reverend Cole would not turn out to be a one-dimensional character whose sole purpose would be to mock faith, a trope too many shows fall into. Instead we see that he is a mirror to Joseph Black Moon, a former killer who has been redeemed through grace. But whereas the Reverend and Joseph's violent past can stay firmly there, Cullen's violence is his present and future. Losing track of Harper keeps him in the camp but strips away his purpose. Without his wife, his home or his revenge, what is left? It's a question he obviously has not answered, given his binge drinking and (next week) fighting. Cullen's story remains the heart of the show, and his forthcoming interactions with the other characters will be a subtle treat as he searches for himself (which, incidentally, reminds me of the anti-hero of another AMC show … "Mad Men's" Don Draper).

Let us not forget to mention that hint of romance in the air: I loved the scene between Eva and Elam. Elam is also navigating a new world, and one that has not embraced him much more than the old. "I'm already a cut-rate whore," Eva says. "If I started sleeping with the coloreds, I'd starve."Reverend Cole, too, speaks out to Lily on behalf of a racial minority, the Pawnee. Their argument had echoes of other ancient, unsolvable conflicts, with the "well they started it" and "I'm only protecting myself" back and forths, with little progress either way. Again, the stories of the freed slaves and the struggles of the Native Americans is something I think "Hell on Wheels" handles well, with due consideration and reverence, and I'm glad it doesn't shy away or trade political correctness for historical accuracy. In fact, it has given much more time to these stories than "Deadwood" did the Chinese, who were acknowledged but rarely engaged in any meaningful way.

The only thing that still drags are the Irish. Their peep show lasted barely one peep, what was the point? There's no drama, no stakes and no real interest. They are also the only two characters who are almost entirely removed from the rest of the story. Though they've interacted with Durant and the Swede, minimally, they don't seem to have much to do with the larger plot. I'm holding out hope that they prove their worth soon!

Overall I felt that though "Jamais Je Ne T'outblierai" set up a few romantic intrigues for the future and showed the changing vision of Cullen's future (from revenge to whatever is next), it felt like a plateau. But a fourth episode in a ten episode arc would be about building blocks rather than action. I'm hoping that it's laying the groundwork for as narratively a complex series as "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad." AMC may not be HBO, but it is producing some of our era's best television.

Musings and Miscellanea:

— With the Swede doing naked housework and Cullen and Elam shirtless in next week's episode, maybe I was wrong about this whole sexual content thing!

— Does The Swede remind anyone else of Lurch?

— "Three blankets and a horse. That was all I was worth to him" - Eva

— Mr Bolan: "He shot off my ear!" The Swede: "Too bad it wasn't your tongue."

— I'll admit, I have no idea what was going on with the knife and $5 scene in the bar except that Cullen is a badass. That's probably all it was meant to convey, but still!

— "You got a brick in your hat, boss man?" - Elam, giving a great visual for a hangover.

— In that montage near the end of the episode, why was the McGinnes brother crying? I won't ask why the Swede was naked. I'm not sure I want to know!

— Cullen further fulfilling his Wild West Hero archetype: he paid for only a kiss from the whore (as if he needs to PAY for that?) and helped Mr. Bolan from the gunpowder fiasco, even through all their trials.

— This is in the 1860s, and Lily (with a super posh accent) said she met her husband after seeing him give a lecture. I find it doubtful she would have been allowed to attend that at that time. How she eventually met him (in any proper form) I can't fathom, but they must have eloped. My Victorian knowledge is side-eyeing some of these small details, but I could easily be proved wrong!

— "She's slept with monkeys! Horses! All manner of creatures!" - re: Eva

— One thing I really love about "Hell on Wheels" is the banter even in the most serious of moments, particularly in Cullen's scenes. It's subtle, but Anson Mounts delivery nails it.

— Where did Lily suddenly get all of those clothes from?

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