Monday, January 9, 2012

The Televangelist: 'Hell On Wheels,' Season 1, Ep. 9

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 12:42 PM

Putting your 2012 racism to shame
  • AMC
  • Putting your 2012 racism to shame

Last week, the writers of "Hell On Wheels" really honed in on racial equality and gender issues. This week we find out that was only a primer of things to come. Not only did Elam and Eva suddenly set up as the King and Queen of Racial Harmony, being bowed to by a former foe who made a pilgrimage to them in order to cleanse his soul of his formally wayward racist and misogynistic ways - by way of a medical miracle, no less! - but Elam later held court in the bar with Bohannon, shocking everyone who, despite their shock, remained silent. Elsewhere in the camp, Ruth waited up night after night, praying for Joseph to return and make love to her, apparently. Return he did, and she comforted him in a very Biblical way.

Perhaps historically or statistically these scenes are true; my knowledge is limited to far more corseted materials on the subject I suppose, but let me go out on a limb here and throw this out for comparison. In the year 2012, the ABC show "The Bachelor" has 25 women compete for a man's affections. The show has been running for a very long time, and has spawned its offshoot of "The Bachelorette." Not a single one of these Bachelors or Bachelorettes have ever been any color other than white. Their harems of eligible men and women are always - if not exclusively white, as in the current season - overwhelmingly white. If, by some mistake, a man or woman of color makes it on to the show, they are eliminated pretty swiftly. As I commented to a friend who brought this up last week, "well, a 'woman of color' on 'The Bachelor' is essentially someone of mixed Irish and Italian descent." The point is, apparently networks believe that many Americans are not comfortable enough with interracial relationships to portray them on TV. So the idea that the 1860s were more progressive towards race relations than 2012 is a strange stance to take.

The thing is, just like most viewers, I was happy to see Elam declare his affections for Eva and later have the courage to enter the bar and have Bohannon pour him a drink and ask him to sit down, and for the seemingly repressed Ruth to unleash her inner vixen and seduce Joseph in his tent, but is it not also incredibly distracting? Much like the Lily storyline (she's a surveyor now? She is the only person that Durant can find to do the survey for the Union Pacific railroad? Really?), the cheeky (or in Lily's case, utterly ridiculous) modern look at historical times is confusing. It flies in the face of what we know of the time period, but maybe the writers of "Hell On Wheels" want to say, "look, you didn't know about these things because these things weren't talked about, written about, recorded, because they were so frowned upon." But it also feels a great deal like revisionist history which, frankly, might have been an interesting way for the show to go - to show an alternate history where somewhere in the Wild West the most base of men were able to sustain some kind of racial harmony that the rest of the country, in the real timeline, would not even begin to touch for another century. But that's not what "Hell On Wheels" claims to be, and it goes back to my point last week that I'm not sure "Hell On Wheels" knows what kind of show it is at all.

The other moments of "Timshel" were, however, some of the best characterizations we've gotten so far. Elam struggles at first to scalp the slain Pawnee, but decides if blood is going to be shed, at least it's not his people's for once. Particularly interesting were Joseph's interactions with his father, and a few notes on their family and the fact that Joseph may have truly been plotting against those he was with, and contemplating a return to the tribe. That is, of course, all in the past now. He has chosen his side, just as Elam has and the Reverend Cole appears to have done in the end. The episode's title, "Timshel," is roughly translated from Hebrew to mean the choice between good and evil (and happens to be the name of the song by Mumford and Sons and plays to open the episode). And while some of the characters chose obvious paths, others have murkier motivations. Durant tells Bohannon that the Federal Marshals will be after him thanks to the Swede, information Bohannon is not sure is a favor from Durant or not. Durant is obviously a little jealous of Lily's attentions to Bohannon, but Bohannon is his best foreman. Though apparently when it comes to job replacement, he finds it easier to get rid of a great foreman than Lily, the pretend surveyor who looks pleased as pie to be sitting in a bar ordering champagne just like a real man.

With one episode left to go and a second season secured, I'm not sure how much will get tied up to end this run of ten episodes for "Hell On Wheels." I just hope that the break gives the show some time to become more organized than the chaotic encampment it portrays.

Musings and Miscellanea:

— The McGinnes brothers are back doing almost nothing advance the plot or add anything to the show except possibly getting rid of The Swede which Durant seems just as likely to do on his own. I was confused over the peep show though since they have real live whores right across the slop from them, but then I considered that though the whores on the show are all pretty good looking, the ones in the real Hell on Wheels would have likely been a frightful sight. The nude slides at least give the men a glimpse of some lookers doing naughty things, I suppose.

— Where did all of those soldiers suddenly come from during the battle scene? The important thing is, of course, that only the ones whose faces we saw last week all survived ...

— Elam becoming Durant's henchman is an interesting direction for him, especially as Bohannon makes clear that he is no gun for hire, and he will not take scalps. Choosing sides!

— I don't know, nor want to discuss, what was up with the bad guy who game back with a hole in his neck.

— Was that moment after the 40 miles of rail was completed the first time we've ever seen Bohannon genuinely smile?

— Seriously, a beheading???

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