‘Hell On Wheels’ Wants So Badly To Be Deadwood

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"‘Hell On Wheels’ Wants So Badly To Be Deadwood"

I feel sort of guilty comparing Hell on Wheels, AMC’s new Western about the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad, to Deadwood, but it’s sort of hard not to do when the show is trying as hard as it possibly can to ape as many Deadwood elements as it can transfer to a railroad camp. As I wrote in my review at the Atlantic:

The minister who’s set himself up in Hell on Wheels is a straightforward prairie minister (though one with a dark secret that ultimately reinforces the show’s sympathy for former slave-owners and advocates of slavery), rather than the tormented Union civil war veteran who ministered to Deadwood in its first season before succumbing to the brain tumor that was robbing him of his faith. And when the Hell on Wheels minister mildly asks “Haven’t we had our fill of war? Our fill of killing?” it’s no match for the anguished cries of Deadwood’s camp doctor raging at God: “What conceivable use was the screaming of those men? Did you need to hear them to know your omnipotence?”

Hell on Wheels doesn’t compete with Deadwood in the arts of cussing or whoring, either. Declaring of the Emancipation Proclamation, as Elam Ferguson does at one point, that “Ain’t nothing good coming from this either…Look what this got. I might as well wipe my ass with it,” or the sight of Doc Durant denouncing his own pitch to investors as “Twaddle and shite,” don’t remotely compare to Swearengen promising a crowd fired up by rumors of a massacre by Native Americans “I will offer a personal $50 bounty for every decapitated head of as many of these godless heathen cocksuckers as anyone can bring in. And God rest the souls of that poor family. And pussy’s half price, next 15 minutes.” Hell on Wheels’ prostitutes are hookers with hearts of gold—and in one case, tattoos from her time in Indian captivity—rather than full-fledged citizens in this rough new society, and their interactions with men are entirely predictable.

The one thing that Hell on Wheels has on Deadwood is the sight of Common in a jaunty hat, though of course that doesn’t make up for the show’s Confederate nostalgia. There’s a really interesting story to be told about the black experience in Westward expansion, or about the railroad and Manifest Destiny from the perspective of the Native Americans who are being displaced by it. But this isn’t it. Also, this is a reminder that I need to finish blogging Deadwood. That starts again tomorrow.

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