By the time you read this, the AMC drama series Hell on Wheels will have wrapped up its second season. Just a few weeks after the network initially picked up the show, it was officially renewed; an average of 3.2 million viewers tuned in to watch artfully begrimed characters laying tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad across the undulating plains of the Midwest in 1865.1
The first episode is thick with smoke and references to the Civil War. The show’s long narrative arc involves a revenge plot born in the chaos of the war: a detachment of Union guerrillas killed the wife and son of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) in a raid on his Mississippi plantation, and now he’s out for blood. When we meet him in the first scene, blowing the head off of a man in a church, Bohannon has already systematically tracked down most of these Union soldiers and murdered them. He follows one man to Hell on Wheels, a company town that is dismantled and reassembled as the railroad track moves westward and whose town sign reads “Population: One Less Every Day.”
In each episode, white and black railroad workers, their bosses, and their camp followers battle one another, their bodies mired in a range of viscous liquids: mud, saliva, and congealing blood. Bohannon squares off against a host of men (he takes any opportunity to remove his shirt), but the central fraught relationship here is between him and Elam Ferguson (Common), the literate son of a planter and a slave. They have a lot in common: both have lost their families and are natural leaders of men. Their bromance, therefore, is violent and uneasy. A feisty British woman, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), arrives on the scene, a fugitive from an Indian raid that has killed her surveyor husband; Bohannon discovers her, delirious from an infected [End Page 235] arrow wound, in a cottonwood grove. Over the course of the first season she proves herself another natural leader in this town; she makes alliances with everyone and uses both her husband’s surveying maps and her blond good looks to keep the men of Hell on Wheels in check. Bohannon reluctantly becomes a law-and-order man, but he keeps getting distracted by vengeance, whiskey, and—you can see it coming one hundred miles away—Lily Bell.
Bohannon is a drunken mess, but that does not stop him from being our protagonist; neither does the fact that he was a slave owner before the war and a Confederate soldier during it. Granted, Bohannon reveals early on that he freed his five slaves (only five, on a “small tobacco farm”) before the war began, out of respect for his northern wife’s sympathetic heart and abolitionist leanings. Clearly, the show’s creators believe that audiences will root for a slave owner if he is a reformed slave owner.
This is a television series that could only have been made in the twenty-first century, during an era of Civil War scholarship that has emphasized the “real” war of destructive, nasty, and often immoral acts rather than the glorified vision of massed charges and patriotic deaths. Only at this moment could a series showcase a rapacious railroad titan (Colm Meaney) who had been a Union cotton smuggler during the war and who uses the memory of the conflict to sell shares in his transcontinental project. “The nation, which almost destroyed itself by Civil War,” he intones, “can only be healed by the binding together of East and West.” And only today could there be an evil foreman (Ted Levine), who confesses to having been both a Copperhead Democrat and a conscript. When the foreman meets Bohannon, he tells him that he has no hard feelings about the war (or the arm he lost in it) directed toward the graybacks—“it’s the darkies I blame.” By this, we know him to be a Bad Guy, along with the Union guerrillas who killed Bohannon’s family...