HELL ON WHEELS “Immortal Mathematics” Review

HELL ON WHEELS “Immortal Mathematics” Season 1 Episode 2 – Cullen spends much of this episode in handcuffs, Durant travels to the sight of his surveyors’ massacre and dictates a newspaper article, Lily Bell is on the run with a bloody wound and a new character called the Swede is introduced.

There are a few problems with Hell On Wheels. From a technical viewpoint, despite taking place in some of the most beautiful regions in America, it’s not very aesthetically appealing: the cinematography is unexciting and fails to play with the beauty which made Sergio Leone, John Ford and Howard Hawks masters of the genre. The editing, meanwhile, is the typical jerky jumpy type which mars much of television in assuming that audience suffers from severe ADD and needs the screen to be physically moving and cutting in order to mask a lull in forward momentum of a story.

But there are narrative problems. Perhaps none so insulting as the way the Native Americans are portrayed. Hollywood does not have the greatest track record when it comes to portraying any race other than Caucasians, but the Native Americans have been particularly maligned. You’d have hoped that after hundreds of years of genocide, followed by a hundred years of racism on film, that now in the 21st century we could get a look at the American Indian without a prejudice slant. But holy cow, this episode was really racist. From lines like “There was a time when you loved the taste of blood” to “You better find her before I do” there’s just no getting around the laziness of the racism. It’s just bad characterization to have the Natives portrayed as one dimensional villains. Nobody likes a poorly sketched villain.

What’s so sad is it just feels like a wasted opportunity: think of the amount of material Hell On Wheels could get out of the domination of the white man, the literal industrial colonialism of the pastoral landscapes and the violent and bloody extermination of the American Indian. Instead it’s just got a bunch of Native Americans wandering about the place speaking English. I don’t blame the network for this. Breaking Bad has large chunks of its episodes in Spanish and that never deters from the awesomeness of the show- if anything it enhances the authenticity. The fact that the Gayton brothers were so lazy in their research that they just had these Native Americans speak in English amongst each other was outright pathetic.

Outside of the deplorable racism, the show’s other problem is its humorlessness, something which could be fixed soon. Breaking Bad and Mad Men are among the funniest shows on television, and it’s no accident that the funniest shows are often the darkest. Just look at The Simpsons. I hope that Anson Mount and company uncover their funny bone soon.

I complain a lot. The thing is, I still really want this show to succeed – or rather, to improve, then succeed. I’m a sucker for the Western genre. I don’t know why. It’s inherently racist and sexist. But it’s pretty and there’s something to like about the ruggedness and loneliness of the frontier. This show has a lot of potential too. The cast seems pretty solid – the Swede is a great character, easily the show’s standout. The show has a pretty interesting grasp on religion. And of what I’ve seen so far, the way this show shoots and portrays violence is fantastic.

What did you think of this episode? Sound off in the comments below.