Farewell, Lily Bell

I’m still reeling from the finale (season? series?) of Hell on Wheels Sunday night.  If you haven’t seen it, and mean to, you may not want to read this.  There Will Be Spoilers.

The writers of Hell on Wheels have never pulled their punches, and they certainly didn’t start doing so in Blood Moon Rising, the last episode of the second season.  They burned the town to the ground, and they killed people.  Important people.

When Mr. Toole, Eva’s husband, trailed her to Elam’s cabin (where she was in fact telling Elam that she had decided once and for all to stay with Toole) and waved his gun around, I fully expected him to take a shot at Eva or Elam.  I didn’t expect him to blow his own head off, but that’s what he did.

When Cullen marched Gundersen out to the middle of the bridge to hang him, I expected Gundersen to make one last insane speech.  I didn’t expect him to jump off the bridge, robbing Cullen of his personal vengeance, but that’s what he did.

The real shock, though, was the murder of Lily Bell.  I watched in disbelief as the odious, mad Gundersen strangled her.  I held my breath, waiting for Cullen to burst through the door of the railroad car and save her.  But he didn’t.  My first reaction, after the disbelief, was that I’d never be able to watch the show again.  But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.  I still don’t like it, but I understand.

As a viewer who always enjoys a good love story, I was crushed by Lily’s death.  She and Cullen were just discovering each other.  Did they have a chance at happiness together?  We’ll never know.

As a viewer of the female persuasion, I was angry.  We don’t have enough strong, competent, complex female characters on TV to throw one away lightly.

But as a writer, I gradually had to admit to myself that Lily’s death was a logical step in the story.  Hell on Wheels was never Lily’s story, or Eva’s, or Ruth’s, as much as the women fascinate me.  It’s a story of power, corruption and redemption, honor, treachery and vengeance, and its central focus is Cullen Bohannon.  It’s certainly not a romance, and Cullen is not a hero.

But he is the protagonist, and the story has followed his choices, many of which have been dreadful.  Is he seeking redemption, or running from it?  Hard to tell.  He’s badly flawed, deeply damaged, and he knows it.  He’s afraid, he tells Mr. Toole, that Lily won’t even like him once she really gets to know him.  In a romance novel, the love of a good woman would redeem a man like Cullen,  but not in a story like Hell on Wheels.  This is not a story about happy endings.

I don’t know if Hell on Wheels will be back next summer for a third season.  As I watched the end of Blood Moon Rising, I wasn’t even sure I wanted it to.  But after thinking about it for a couple of days, I’m hoping it returns.  I want to know what happens next to the Durants, Eva and Elam, Ruth and her church, Sean and Mickey and the rest.  I’m not entirely convinced that Gundersen is dead.  And I want to watch Cullen Bohannon drive the railroad west.





Hell On Wheels Keeps on Rolling

into a second season.  AMC made the announcement last week, with no details on start date or number of episodes.  Meanwhile, we have two more episodes of the first season to look forward to.

As much as I enjoy the male protagonists, Cullen Bohannon and Elam Ferguson, the show’s portrayal of its female characters continues to fascinate me.  Eva, Lily, and even Ruth are tough, determined women.  In this week’s episode, “Derailed,” Lily moved out of Durant’s elegant train car, planning to live in the tent she had shared with her late husband.  She soon learned this would be no easy task, but she soldiered on, with help from street-smart Eva.  As the two women shared a meal in the communal mess tent–a far cry from the cuisine produced by Durant’s French-speaking man-servant–Eva told Lily some of her story (loosely based, like her tattoo, on that of Olive Oatman), and interpreted Lily’s recurring nightmare.  According to Eva, the warrior Lily killed, shamed by dying at the hands of a woman, is trying to drag Lily along with him into death.

Even Ruth, the preacher’s daughter, is becoming interesting.  When she arrived, unannounced and unexpected, at Hell on Wheels (in episode 5?) she seemed rather a whiny little wimp, dominated despite long separation by her father, the marginally demented Reverend Cole.  But in “Derailed,” she’s fighting her attraction to Joseph Black Moon, Cole’s Cheyenne convert.  And she not only confronts Cole for abusing and abandoning her mother, she fearlessly stands up to him when he raises his hand to strike her–and he backs down.

While the men fight the Indians (and each other), the women work, knowingly or not, to bring civilization, along with the railroad, to the West.

TV: Hell on Wheels

I nearly turned the first episode of AMC’s new original series Hell on Wheels off after about twenty minutes–but then it got interesting.  And it’s been growing on me ever since.

I’ve been a big fan of AMC’s Mad Men since the beginning, at least partly because I grew up in the advertising business, and in the 1960s, although thankfully my dad was an ad man in Milwaukee and then Miami, never in Manhattan.  Having no personal interest in either meth dealers or zombies, I’ve never watched Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead.  But a show about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, that idea grabbed me as soon as it was announced.

The first episode got off to a slow start.  No, that’s not true.  The first episode starts with Cullen Bohannon, the protagonist–one hesitates to call him a hero, not yet, anyway–killing another man in a church.  We soon learn that Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, is systematically hunting down and killing a group of  Union men who killed his wife during the War.  His search takes him west, to the travelling railroad “town” known as Hell on Wheels.

It took half that first episode for me to connect with the characters, but they are turning out to be an interesting lot.  Bohannon (played by Anson Mount, whom I would definitely remember if I had seen him before) finds himself taking on the job of foreman of the rail crew, mostly to escape being hanged for the murder of the previous incumbent, which slows but doesn’t stop his search for vengeance.  He also finds his life entangled with that of Elam Ferguson, an intelligent and perceptive former slave who is not at all surprised that freedom is not the same as equality.

The builder of the railroad, Thomas Durant, is equally passionate about reaching and crossing the Rocky Mountains, scamming the government, and making piles of money for himself.  Surrounded by very realistic mud and squalor, he lives in his elegant rail car, dresses immaculately, and sends a steady stream of telegrams back East.  (Durant is played by perhaps the best known actor in the cast, Colm Meaney, looking a bit heavier and a whole lot meaner than he ever did as Miles O’Brien of the Star Trek franchise.)  Durant’s head of security is a man known as the Swede, although he tells Bohannon he’s actually Norwegian.  He stays busy extorting money from whoever is handy and taking a cut of the black powder shipment.  (The Swede is played by Christopher Heyerdahl, who also plays both John Druitt and–under quite a bit of make-up–Bigfoot on the SyFy series Sanctuary.)

But it’s the two main female characters who have really pulled me into the story.  Lily Bell is the English wife of a railroad surveyor, and the only survivor when the Cheyenne attack the survey camp.  Lily watches in horror as her husband is slaughtered and scalped (this is not a show for the the faint of heart), her own right hand pinned to her left shoulder by an arrow.  She then jerks that arrow out and uses it to kill the Cheyenne who shot her, taking him by surprise and driving the arrow into his throat.  Talk about a tough broad.  She’s just as tough in her own well-bred way when she eventually makes it back to Hell on Wheels.

Eva, on the other hand, is a whore.  (This show doesn’t pull any linguistic punches, either.  Prostitutes are whores, and the black men on the crew are–well, we don’t use that word anymore, but they did in the 1860s, and they do on Hell on Wheels.)  Somewhere along the way, Eva was held captive by Indians, and she has the tattoos on her face, and the total loss of status, to show for it.  No romanticized treatment of Eva’s plight here.  Eva never was a lady, but she’s as sharp and perceptive as Elam, and perhaps more of a realist.

The show is filmed in Calgary, and the beautiful open country is a constant contrast with the squalor of the railroad camp, with its bedraggled tents and muddy ground.  The bustle of the crew, the costumes, the fist fights, drinking bouts, shootings and explosions provide an impressive recreation of the era.  I’m glad I gave that first episode a chance.

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