For my post on the Hell on Wheels pilot, please click here.
For my post on S1 Episode 2, please click here.
For my post on S1 Episodes 3 and 4, please click here.
Hell on Wheels is a Politically Correct train wreck. The show so badly wants to tell you that our past is ugly, that it can't stop doing so to actually tell a story.
Every conversation between Cullen and Elam is nothing more than Elam setting Cullen up to whole-heartedly profess his newly found 'Yankeeism.' It doesn't advance any plot, it's just another chance for us to see the former slave get another one up on the former Confederate. When Elam cuts the chains off Cullen's hands in the second or third episode, not only is Elam standing over Cullen symbolically, he has Cullen admit that it is natural for someone wearing chains to try to escape them. Another example: mid-season Joseph, Cullen, and Elam ride out on horses side-by-side together and someone remarks, more or less, 'Look at that! An African-American, a Native American, and someone with European ancestry riding off into the sunset together as equals!' The action in the show is constantly paused for interactions like this.
Perhaps the worst example of all: Not only does Elam shoot and kill the Irish racist who tried to hang him in the saloon so the audience can once again see Elam triumph, the Irish racist comes back from the dead (from a Fight Club-esque head wound no less) to then profess the error in his ways and beg Elam for forgiveness! In a way, that is a great metaphor for what the writers are doing--bringing the dead back to life to beg for forgiveness from a modern audience who would rather forget that their ancestors ever acted in such a way.
Ultimately, all this show has are straw men professing anachronistic modern stances on 19th-century issues. In the meantime, the plot grinds like a stripped screw. If you're still reading, I'm going to ramble a bit on some of the historical themes it misrepresents. The thing is, you can't rewrite the past, and misrepresenting it does a disservice to those that don't fully understand the ugly chapters of U.S. history that this show so clearly wants you to know it condemns.
Hell on Wheels' portrayal of the Civil War era is, I think, the standard operational understanding of most people in the United States today: a passing, one-dimensional 'good v. evil' understanding of the Civil War that was supposedly a one-issue war about ending slavery. The circular reasoning tends to go like this: Slavery ended with the Civil War, therefore the Civil War was about ending slavery. Since slavery was bad, and the South defended slavery, the South/Southerners were evil and the North/Northerners were good.
"[R]evisionists... insist that the major cause of the Civil War was the moral issue of slavery, that slavery could be eradicated only by the shedding of blood, and that it was a veritable 'irrepressible conflict,' a moral crusade. They are making of it a virtual 'holy war'..."
- pg 8, The Nebraska Question 1852-1854 by James C. Malin, published 1953.
Knowing that slavery was/is an atrocious institution and the ugliest chapter in this country's history does not necessitate consideration of the Civil War as some great crusade of Good vs. Evil. It's understandable if a freed slave saw this war personally as such a crusade, the culmination of cosmic justice finally coming to fruition, but on the macro/historical level that is an inaccurate conclusion. It puts the cart before the horse--it says that the effect, emancipation, was the cause.
Also, simplifying the war into a battle of Good vs Evil implies that each side of the War stood in solidarity, which is also not true. It's also in my experience that Northerners tend to like this historical framing because classifying slavery as strictly a Southern problem allows them to distance their ancestors and themselves from a society that ever condoned slavery.
Hell on Wheels is also guilty of implying that Southerners proclaimed that abolitionists were in the right after the war was over. For example, at one point Cullen expresses to another character, Elam I think, that he now understands why it was wrong that he (Cullen) owned slaves, now that the War is over. The 'great moral crusade' has shown him the error in his ways! The Civil War may have ended many Southerner's hopes for an independent state, but to suggest the mere ending of hostilities in and of itself shifted the majority of Confederates worldviews is pretty preposterous. On the flipside of that coin, to say that Northerners as a majority had an anti-slavery mindset in the first place is preposterous.
Emancipation is often considered by average Americans as the primary aim and goal of the War, when it is far more accurate to say that emancipation was a political tactic used by the North to hurt the South. Emancipation was not a forgone conclusion, nor goal of the North, when the War began. In fact, slavery continued to exist in Kentucky and Delaware even after the War ended. (As Gary Gallagher argues in The Union War, the War could have very well ended with slavery largely intact.)
Here is an article from the Jackson Citizen of Jackson, Michigan on February 25, 1863 that illustrates this:
February 25, 1863
NO PEACE! NO PEACE!
Suddenly, and by concert along the whole line of the Republican press, the cry is raised of 'No Peace!' 'No peace without the Union--no Union without Abolition.'"
The foregoing is a fair sample of the assertions going the rounds of the democratic press. It is not true. No Republican papers in this State at least have ever said a word to justify the assertion. All true and loyal papers it is true, are for "no peace without the Union;" but they are "for the Union with or without Slavery." Yet at the same time they believe the quickest way to crush rebellion is to destroy Slavery in those places where it is used against the success of our arms. If the democratic party or its presses will advise the government how to crush it by any other means, after a trial under the proclamation, half so long as the first eighteen months of the war under democratic advice, then we presume the government will change its policy; but it is sheer nonsense to talk about crushing rebellion by being mealy-mouthed about it. There is but one way and that is seize everything we can lay our hands on, and put it to the use of the Union cause. If that will not crush the rebels, after eighteen months trial as we have said, then we would cheerfully accept the advice of democrats for another eighteen months. But judging from the past, can we expect they will advise anything that will tend to harm the rebels? We think not!
Anyway, I understand that there are different types of dramas, and Hell on Wheels is one that seems to be fixated on getting an audience to "root" for a main character. And that's not going to work if a main character professes even the semblance of preference to slavery over free-market labor as an economic system. Even if I condemn any television writers that write a historical show in a modern context, the viewing audience is going to view it in a modern context, and so I understand that writers have to consider that. However, I think that the most successful dramas shed the good v. evil dichotomy, mess with moral event horizons, flesh out the characters, and above all try to tell a good story. Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, and Deadwood are all examples in which there's no clear hero. People are messy, history is nuanced, and everyone has blood on their hands. Television is long-form story-telling so there's time for the development. I've been very harsh on this show, I know, but it's only because I had such high hopes for it.
(This continues to be a popular post on this blog, so I revised this 2/11/2015 to flesh out some points and also try to specify what I mean instead of being flippant.)
If you're looking for more Hell on Wheels anachronisms (as the examples in my four posts on the show are far from comprehensive and I've never pretended otherwise), I highly recommend this message board thread about the firearms used in the show. Military history is definitely a black hole in my knowledge, and I'm pretty clueless about weapons and even worse at identifying various guns and gun technology. I found it very informative and hope you will too!