February 2, 2012

Anachronisms in Hell on Wheels, Season 1 Final Post

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.

For my recap of S2 Episode 1, please click here.
For my recap of S2 Episode 2, 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:

Jackson Citizen
Jackson, Michigan
February 25, 1863
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!

Acknowledging that emancipation was not a goal of the War from the onset does not mean that the preservation of slavery was not an essential motivating component of the Southern Secessionists. The war being "about slavery" and "about ending slavery" is a very important distinction. And the causes of Secession and the causes of the Civil War are also not one and the same.

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!


ganana said...

When Cullen, Elam and Native American Joseph were riding out of camp, I thought, "please don't hit me now with a sledgehammer and have someone comment on how cool it looks for a white, a Black and a Native American to be riding as equals. But alas, the writers couldn't resist having the Yankee Lieutenant sneer, "well looka here boys; we got ourselves a rainbow". All this seems to stem from the Gayton brothers' conviction that their viewership must be educated by the show and that the "lessons" must be drive home again and again.

Unknown said...

this is the best review i've read of what is wrong with the show.

thanks for posting.

ganana said...

I'm not sure where to leave a comment about the new season of H.O.W. I predicted that it would be filled with fistfights and killin' as a way to keep the action going. And it was. Cullen looked strangely bloated. Who threw the old cotton mop on his head and called it hair? Yes, yes, I know he's been out on the range a while. How long, I can't say. He's a desperado now, goin' to Mexico as soon as some trains are robbed. Then the obligatory racial reference: Elam accuses Durant of hiring discrimination: "maybe if I was just a few shades lighter." And Lilybell, who could have any man she wants, sullies herself by bedding the prim-mouthed tyrant, Durant; mercifully we are spared details of this scene. How will she ever scrub that off. Swede is all repentant and scabby -- shambling along in his new job of undertaker. All these characters utter the most banal, meaningless dialogue in dead earnest (by the way, there is NO humor in this show) and all seem almost cartoonish. My hubby likes the show, but I don't think I want to see this trainwreck again.

Dora said...

I also watched the pilot but I don't feel like punishing myself by writing a new post on it, I think this one here still stands just fine to discuss the fundamental problems with this show. Still, I think you got Sundays episode exactly. Uninteresting dialogue AND action--have you ever seen a more boring train robbery on screen? Blah. I feel like there is no reason to keep watching this show at all.

Thank you for commenting again. Sorry it took a bit for your comment to show up, I have it set where I personally approve comments so I can filter out spam.

ganana said...

Thanks Dora.. Quite frankly, I don't know why I even bother commenting. It's just a waste of money to make a show like this when it could have been so good. I may have mentioned this before but my gg grandfather was a Confederate soldier from Alabama who spent a year at Rock Island Prison after being captured at the Battle of Missionary Ridge. He got a chance to get out of prison in 1864 to serve in the federal army in the Nebraska Territory during the Indian uprisings. These former Confederates were called Galvanized Yankees and my gg gfather was serving just ahead of the current railroad work; he was stationed at Ft. Kearney, Cottonwood, and at one point, Julesburg in Colo. Territory. Why can't Cullen run into my ancestor?! What a story that would be. I'll be my old pappy would have been quite the conversationalist, having fought so hard for slavery and "states rights" and then turning the other direction. He stayed a Yankee all his long life, by the way, although he lived in Alabama.

I have wasted time again talking about Hell on Wheels. Prediction: this is the second and last season of this show. Gotta go now and get some help.

Anonymous said...

have you watched 'the hatfields and mccoys' on the history channel? i would love to read your thoughts on it.

AndrewPrice said...

Howdy. I just discovered the link to my article. Thanks for the link.

I'm usually not as political at the film site, or as "full blast" as I was in that article, but the show really turned me off in a hurry because it felt so misrepresented to me.

Instead of a show about the building of the railroad, we got a show exactly like you describe which tried to impose modern identity-politics views on the past and then have the characters supposedly judge themselves by standards that didn't exist at the time and on evidence that was extremely distorted and one-sided.

In short, the show felt like a hatchet job on history to me, and that offended me a lot.

Anyway, thanks for the link.

ganana said...

I wanted to say something about the causes of the Civil War. The war was about pressures and antagonisms between two ways of life that existed between north and south, with slavery being the underlying difference between the two. The south's attitude was "we are an agrarian society, and we need slaves to keep things going. We (whites) are superior to Yankees in that we are cultured and chivalrous. One southerner can whip a whole passel of Yankees. Northerners are rude, greedy, barbarous and rough characters. We in the South don't need industry - we have our cotton, sugar, tobacco and rice crops." The south was wearing out the land growing cotton and needed ever more land on which to expand their agricultural dreams. They saw the balance of power shifting in the federal government away from a majority of slave states to making the new western states slave free. This would hamper their plans to expand slavery to the western states. They envisioned a southern slave empire stretching into central and South America, Cuba, etc. Southerners had much of their capital tied up in slaves and land and didn't want to lose it. While many poor or yeoman farmers didn't own slaves, they were tied economically and socially to the fire eating slave owners who controlled Southern society. The lesson to poor whites was "if you're not better than a Negro, who are you better than? If 4 million slaves are set loose on white society, what will happen to you and your womenfolk?" These fears caused the poorer Southern Whites to join the cause of secession, although the bleating of "states rights" rang through the churches, meeting halls, and the press to give the Cause a noble ring. States rights to do what? Would the South have provoked a war over some piddly tariff issue? No. The terror of slave insurrections, slave freedom, and slave rights, freedom for Blacks, including the right to vote, struck fear in their hearts and they took up their weapons and set off a war that proved far worse than they ever imagined. What kind of insanity made them think that 5 million or so white southerners could defeat 22 million northerners? I think slavery made them crazy, and I am a southerner myself. Thank you for letting me vent. :)

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