A Writer Reviews: Hell on Wheels

If you could live in any period in history, what would it be?  Whenever I see that question asked, I’m shocked that more people don’t answer “right now,” for the simple reason that most of history, to put it bluntly, sucked.  Yes, people have idealized versions of historic periods.  The SCA adores the middle ages.  Steampunks adore the Victorian Era.  American politicians adore the 1950s.  But in each of those instances, the world that’s been remembered, the world that’s been idealized, the world that people are waxing so philosophical about was a dirty, ugly place filled with disease and death.

Not to mention dirty, ugly people.

As a society we’re certainly not perfect.  There’s still a lot of inequity between races, genders, religions (and lack thereof), sexuality, and any number of other elements that we can use to define who is different within the United States.  That said, we’re at a point in our history where the country is as inclusive as it’s ever been.  There are periods in our own history where the modern view of “racist” was the contemporary view of “normal.”  Such as, to pick an example at random, the post Civil War era.

Enter Hell on Wheels, AMC’s new drama surrounding the building of the Union Pacific half of the Transcontinental Railroad.

I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns, so I’m a bad one to discuss their history, but Hell on Wheel strikes me as a more modern breed of Western that I don’t remember existing before Unforgiven, a realm also inhabited by the remake of True Grit.  It’s a West full of grit, smoke, racism, bodily functions, and general suck.  And it’s a West that, in its presentation, feels more real than the more idealized frontier presented in what earlier Westerns I’m familiar with.

The writing lesson I’m getting at?  There are times it pays to be true to the source era.

Oh certainly there are times that it doesn’t.  Presenting an idealized past has long been a part of the Hollywood cannon, and has a certain place in lighter fair or children’s movies.  But the willingness of the fiction consuming audience to go swimming in a grittier and all together more realistic version of these previously spit-polished ages is as high as ever.

Hell on Wheels lands firmly in the shadow of the Civil War and the earliest phases of Asian immigration into California.  These were tough times for the country.  There were still tensions between those who fought on either side of the war.  There were the demographics of suddenly freed slaves and suddenly slaveless holders at odds with each other, and at the same time a suddenly expanded working class looking to earn a living.  There was a casual and almost expected racism to the age amongst landed whites of not just the south, but the north as well.  There was a renewed push into Native territory as the nation sought to better unite East and West while working through the challenges of reintegrating North and South.

Hell on Wheels is shying away from very little of this, and is better for it.  It paints a world of hard men who live, use, and move along.  One of the closing shots of the first episode is the filth left by the traveling city following the railroad builders, an indictment of an era of consumption, the repercussions are often ignored in the crafting of the Western.  It’s images like that, bits of the world left uncommented on by the “locals,” as it is where they live after all, but glaring to the modern eye.  It’s one of those places where the visual medium will always have its advantages over those of us working in print, brief and powerful images that can be a second of airtime.  We get them back in other ways, though.

For all the grit and horrible, my wife has even argued that it could go just a little farther.  That it pulled a punch by having its main character be a former slave owner and Confederate officer, but one who freed his slaves a few months before the war began.  One who fought for pride, rather than prejudice.  It would be a harder line to walk, it would be a harder character to like, and it would make the budding…well, friendship is the wrong word for the protagonist’s relationship with the primary freedman character.  Perhaps alliance?  It would make the budding alliance more complex.  But on the positive side, it would make it more complex, and complexity is the source of drama and plot.

I think the cliché of a setting becoming a character is overused, and often misused.  I’ve said it before, settings are not characters, and the setting is not a character in Hell on Wheels.  It is a rich environment that helps make all the other characters seem all that more real.  As all settings in dramas should be.  They should inform the character, define them, and make them who they are.  So while the setting is never really a character, neither are the characters without a setting.  By injecting more reality into the setting, the writer is injecting more reality into the characters.  It’s knowing just how much grit the characters need in a story that should dictate just how much grit must be afforded to the world around them.

For those who have missed the show so far, the pilot is available on AMC’s website until November 30th.  Give it a watch.  Stick around for Colm Meaney’s fantastic speech at the end of the episode.  If nothing else in the pilot had hooked me, that would have.  It starts at 44:35, and is a fantastic monograph on the villain in fiction, and reminds us that every character needs to be the start of his or her own story.  More of that in a future Writer Reviews, I’m sure.

  1. avatar

    #1 by Dr. T. Hansen on November 15, 2011 - 11:12 am

    I would live in the 1500’s. Yes, I am aware of the lack of modern conveniences however, I have always been drawn to that period of time. I could be a lady in waiting to Elizabeth I. Who am I kidding? I would be Tracey I. lol

  2. avatar

    #2 by Day Al-Mohamed on November 17, 2011 - 5:10 pm

    Must. Watch. I skewed Pigeonfall so the rail was never built but I’m curious as to the “real” environment so I can examine how my changes would impact my world. Will definitely check out AMC’s site.

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