Musings

Hell on Wheels Writers, Do You Hate Women?

I am gearing up for a big, fat spoiler-filled rant about Hell on Wheels.  If you want to avoid spoilers and plan to watch the show, then I send you elsewhere for your daily dose of interesting.  Chuck Wendig has a nice post about YA this morning.  Also, Leigh Bardugo’s much anticipated Siege and Storm is out today, along with Nalini Singh’s Heart of Obsidian.

Right.

SPOILER ALERT.

And a nice brooding picture of Cullen Bohannon as a space saver.

Beware ye who pass this point: Spoilers await.

Still here?  Okay.  You have been warned.

Now I really love this show.  It’s gritty, dark, sometimes pretty graphic.  It paints the years after the Civil War in a brush that’s…probably a lot more authentic than a lot of westerns.  And Cullen Bohannon is my favorite kind of hero.  One bound by his own code of honor, who strides calmly into danger while everybody is flailing around him and takes care of business.  Plus, he’s got one hell of a steely glare.  It’s Cullen’s story, despite all the various and sundry subplots flying about around him.  I get that.  I’ve known that from episode one.  But I get invested in other characters, as you do when you watch a lot of a show.

The world in this show is one of men.  Which is, I imagine, really accurate for the times.  This is on the frontier, as the transcontinental railroad is being built.  The only women around are prostitutes for a really long time.  And once the town gets established in season 2, there are a few more–wives and the preacher’s daughter.  But that’s just about it.  Respectable women were back in the cities back east.

Except for Lily Bell.

Lily Bell shows up at the very beginning of the show.  She is the wife of Robert Bell, the surveyor for the railroad.  The pair of them are beset by Indians.  Robert is killed protecting Lily, and Lily yanks an arrow from her own shoulder to stab into the throat of the brave trying to rape and kill her.  She’s a tough chick.  She then manages to survive on the prairie long enough to get rescued (by Cullen and another guy) and taken back to Hell on Wheels (which is the name of the tent/shanty town the travels along with the railroad).  All the well intentioned folks thought she should go back to England where her family was from, and Thomas Durant, the owner of the railroad, escorts her back to Chicago and to her husband’s family himself.  But they’re judgmental jerkwads, and she decides she’s going back to Hell on Wheels to see her husband’s vision through.  She works with Durant (and as she has all the survey maps her husband did, she’s got leverage over him) as an almost partner.  She’s tough as nails underneath a pretty exterior, and she, being a lady, tends to elicit better behavior from those around her.

Of course from the moment Cullen sees her, I’m expecting her to be set up as a love interest.  And I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for his tortured self to SEE and GET IT and think himself worthy.  Which takes until nearly the end of season 2.  Through which Lily continues to take care of business in her own way, doing her damnedest to earn respect from these men, survive several threats to her life, and generally making a damn fine go of things in a rough world.  She looks out for others, and when Durant is shot in an hostage situation and must travel back to Chicago for a surgeon, she’s running stuff on her own while he’s away.  This is when she and Cullen FINALLY get together, and he admits that he’s better with her.  This would be, I think, episode 8 of a 10 episode season 2?

So then other stuff happens that is not actually related to my pissed offness.  And in the end, the Sioux attack.  And Lily’s wielding a gun, protecting the prostitutes (who, of course, weren’t good enough to make space to evacuate on the train with the other women and children), and the other people in town, while Cullen and most of the men are protecting the railroad bridge (which tactically makes the most sense–something he learned in the war).  And she SURVIVES all of this, the burning of most of the town, and slaughter of a lot of people.  And she’s in her quarters waiting for Cullen after the battle is over, and this dude the Swede (played by Christopher Heyerdahl who I really love to hate in this role) comes in.  Lily tries to shoot him (because she knows he can’t be there for anything good), but she’s out of ammo, and he just stalks her across the space and strangles her.   She barely puts up a fight, is making some impassioned and choked statement about how Cullen’s going to kill him, and then she’s dead.

I didn’t really believe it because it was like 30 seconds and it takes way longer than that to choke somebody to death.  I thought, maybe she’s faking and is about to kick him in the balls.  Or that Cullen was about to come bursting through the door and righteously beat his ass.  But no.  She really was dead.  And I was left spewing a great deal of vitriol and profanity.  Because, seriously, WHAT THE HELL?

Leaving quite aside the issue of the fact that the writers of the show completely effed up my romance, which pisses me off on a supreme level, I have a whole lot of other issues with this.

1) The Swede’s motives for killing her were not clear.  Was this just to screw with Cullen, whom he hates?  Was he working for Durant or his wife?  Why did he do this?  (It was brought to my attention that he clearly says this was all for Bohanon, which I probably missed due to my outrage but still does not in any way change the thrust of this post)

2) Her death did not fit at all with her character.  At every turn in this show when she could have given up, she was shown to be a character with mettle, one who FOUGHT to LIVE, to do what’s right.  I get that this man was bigger than her, but she could’ve tried pelting him with whatever she could reach, hitting him, kicking him, trying to run.  If he’d had to chase her and knock her down and it was a real FIGHT, if she’d gone down swinging, then okay, I could see it.  I still don’t agree with it at all (see reasons above), but then at least her death would’ve fit the kind of character she was portrayed to be.

What the hell were the writers thinking?  I get that this was definitely a No One Is Safe (except Cullen) cast.  I get that killing her in a violent manner gives Cullen yet another ghost to add to the collection that started with his wife and son from the war and has been steadily added to over the life of the show.  But there was no reason to kill her in that manner.  No reason for the Swede to have done it, no reason for it to have gone down like it did.

I am left to conclude that the writers must be men who cannot tolerate the idea of KEEPING a strong female character in the cast.  Now I don’t know if this was a point at which they thought the show was being cancelled (because apparently it was cancelled and brought back or something) or what, but either way, it made no damned sense.  They are apparently setting up for some spunky chick journalist to join the cast in season 3 (starting in August), but I fail to see how or why Lily’s death served any purpose whatsoever.

This kind of shit drives me crazy.  God forbid we have a “man’s show” with strong female characters.  We can only have permanent or long-standing strong women as a token character unless it’s a show written primarily for women about “woman things”.   Of course there’s all kinds of gendered argument going on lately (not like this is a new thing).  There’s a movement to make the next Doctor on Dr. Who a woman.  Chuck made a great argument in favor (though of COURSE the writers won’t do that).  And then there’s all KINDS of argument going on the last couple of weeks about the denigrated place of women in Sci Fi and Fantasy because of a brouhaha going on with SFWA (through which, outgoing president Scalzi has proved to be a total class act).

I’m just. So.  ANGRY about this right now.

Not that it’s going to stop me from watching the show, because Cullen totally fulfills my quota for brooding, tortured hero.  But I’m still pissed.

35 thoughts on “Hell on Wheels Writers, Do You Hate Women?

  1. First let me say I’ve never watched the show. Second…I was completely having a girlie moment when I saw the picture of Cullen because…um…WOW. Once I managed to scroll past that, yeah. That would piss me off too. Even if the show was going to be canceled it doesn’t make sense to off her like that. I despise it when characters act out of character; it’s one of the reasons I watch very little television nowadays because I know they’re going to screw it up. (plus everything is so predictable I’d rather not be annoyed by being right…again)

    I don’t know if it’s about strong women being competition for strong men or not. An age thing? Accepted format thing? But it sure is about idiotic writing.

  2. It’s been quite a long time since I watched that, and, indeed, I tried to block the show out of my head afterward because I was pretty upset. But, as I recall, Eva was no slouch either, for a while. And then it seemed to me that the writers put her in her place and turned her into a damsel. Which is why I made the snide remark about women-hating writers. Maybe they just don’t think we’re ready to buy a tale about a non-cannibalistic llama.

    1. It’s like they think, it’s all well and good to show them fighting but in the end they have to be put in their place and proven to be the weaker sex in every respect because we’re men and we overpower them if we want to. Of course the fact that pretty well every dystopian story ever has the vast majority of men turning into mad-rapist lunatics doesn’t paint them in any better light…

    2. Finally finished watching 2 seasons and the writers killing off lily made me SO.FREAKING.ANGRY. that I’m done watching the show. They derailed any satisfaction for me between the violence and futility of Hell on Wheels. Killing Lilly was obscene. GAAAAH.

    1. I totally agree. I just watched the 2nd season and Lily’s death put me off the show for good. Whoever wrote that episode is a terrible writer.

  3. I’ve never watched this show but if it’s as you say – with a bunch of prostitutes and only one strong woman in the bunch, who ends up getting killed off (and without a romance tie up, what?!), then that’s just… I mean, who’s their target audience? Do I even want to know what kind of male viewers they’re trying to attract?

  4. I wanted to like this show. I thought the storyline sounded so great, but I only made it 2-3 episodes in. So I guess I’m not surprised that more stupid stuff happened. Sad though, I did like her character from what I saw.

  5. They need to find a woman along the railroad trail with just as dark a past as Cullen. Who can ride, shoot and fight better than the men. I know they existed. Love the show except for the helplessness of for example “Eva poorly shooting a shotgun at the Indians.”. Come on she lived with the Indians. She is tough but should be a bad ass especially when pregnant..

  6. Maybe they don’t show women in a good light because they are trying to reflect how women were treated back in the 1800s. I am talking about the fact that they just couldn’t win or be successful no matter how hard they tried. But, Hannah Durant seems like a strong lady?

    1. And that’s totally a valid point. But my biggest beef is that Lily went down so EASILY. As if she didn’t fight at ALL. It was positively inconsistent with her character.

      1. FO SHO. I’m boycotting the show. Cullen’s an awesome character but Lily was the Yin to his Yang. Killing her off in such a pathetic way was something that Durant’s wife deserved. Not Lily. It was a great show for me, while it lasted. But I’m done.

  7. I thought this was both a success and a huge screw up by the writers. Point 1. It was unexpected. I love surprises. t.v and film has become so clichéd and predictable this was a welcomed surprise, especially after the failed attempt by Durant to convince Elam to kill Lilly. Right up to when Elam stalks her and go’s into her train carriage I knew he wouldn’t do it. It was obvious. So the Swede’s actions where a great surprise and shock when it happened.

    Point 2. It was totally out of character for all three involved in the storyline. Lilly for not fighting back, the Swede for his actions and Cullen for his reaction. Had the writers been sensible they should have had Lilly have the fight of her life, she would have kicked, bit, spat, screamed and cursed the Swede until it was over. The Swedes actions made no sense. We know he hates Cullen, and wishes for him to suffer, but he has never given any reason to suspect him capable of orchestrating the towns demise (other than the fact he was humiliated by his new position) or murdering the only person who defended him in a town who mostly despised him. She even stopped Cullen from harming him a few times and yet he still did what he did. And Cullens reaction just topped the bill for me. He calmly walks him to a bridge, chatting like nothings happened, whilst being goaded by the killer and attempts the most half hearted execution I’ve ever seen considering this was the man who hunted down and murdered all guilty parties the last time his lover was murdered.

    It was a great storyline but executed poorly, I’m not entirely convinced about the writers hating strong women because there are a good few in this series (Lilly, Eva, Ruth and Hannah Durant are all strong women who are vocal and even physical at times) but they did screw up big time on how the ending should have played out, and I will agree Lilly’s part probably was screwed up by males believing women are helpless. That being said, I now need to watch series 3 (I have been watching it on amazon’s streaming service Lovefilm and only has series 1 and 2) and see how this plays out.

      1. Thank you 🙂 Don’t get me wrong I’m still annoyed that they killed off a great character, plus they way it was handled but if there’s one thing I hate more than anything its killing off a character only to bring them back in a rubbish storyline that doesn’t fit in with the previous storyline. Like you said in your review/rant it only took like 30 seconds for her to lose breath and pass out, which has lead me to maybe suspect that they could bring her back with some weird storyline like ” She was only passed out when Cullen found her so he wakes her up and tells her to play dead, then takes her to the church tent where she’s hidden in a coffin by Ruth and shipped out without anyone knowing” which could also explain the lack of effort from Cullen’s revenge. But in all honesty I hope not. I recently watched the 6th instalment of the Fast and Furious movies and I hated the way they brought back Michelle Rodriguez. Waste of two movies and a great new female lead.

        1. I’ve watched the first four eps of Season 3 and unless there’s something they’re REALLY hiding…I think she’s really dead. As to the 30 seconds to lose her breath thing, they actually do that kind of thing in movies and TV a lot because it would be kind of boring to sit there for the several minutes it would take to actually kill somebody that way. Which I get. But still.

    1. I agree with all of this. Two other questions that bother me are:
      1) How did Bohannon manage to find the Swede, get him into custody, and prove that he had killed Lily?
      2) Why didn’t Bohannon just shoot the Swede in the back of the head like Doc Whitehead? He knows the Swede managed to pry his handcuffs off and kill the infirmary guard without alerting him at all. He knows completely how dangerous the Swede is and how determined he is to survive…..

  8. I desperately want to like this show. I’ve gone through cycles of watching, getting pissed and quit watching, and watching again. I do agree with you on the unrealistic portrayal of some of Lily’s death. However, I believe we saw that Mr. Swede need no motive for anything. He was all about some vague “judgement” and “reckoning” for Hell on Wheels. Essentially, chaos. As far as how the women and prostitutes were portrayed, I can only believe it was “generally” accurate. It doesn’t mean that I like it, I don’t. And some of it was definitely off. What is sad is that most Americans are going to remember this portrayal better than that of their high school history curriculum.

    I personally have many reasons for this love/hate relationship with the show, the biggest of all being Elam Ferguson – the most pretentious historical fiction character television has ever seen. Understand that I judge based upon historical accuracy. Ferguson, a freed slave, constantly spews a script of contradictions to his own character. His mysteriously-gained skill with a gun (his ability to out-gun anybody who would have been familiar with guns all their lives), his complete arrogance and disrespect towards everyone, his unwillingness to identify with his fellow freed slaves, his complete and utter lack of a conscience, and the way he completely overreacts to every situation leave me sick. In an attempt to balance the historically accurate discrimination towards African Americans with “politically correct” black-power, AMC’s writers have botched an otherwise fairly historically-sound drama series. The greatest fault I find in him is in Season 2 (SPOILER ALERT!) when Mr. Toole discovers his wife, Eva at Elam’s cabin that he built for them. Without a word of anger, bitterness, or disappointment, Mr. Toole unholsters his revolver and sends a bullet through his own cranium, thereby preserving Eva’s honor. Since they were bound until death by Christian marriage, Mr. Toole releases her from her obligation to himself so that she could not be labeled an “adulterer.” Elam then in some attempt to comfort Eva in her grief and without any understanding of the phrase, answers, “he took the coward’s way out.” I just couldn’t take it. It took me a year to watch another episode.

    1. Other than the general concept of the building of the railroads and such, I had no idea any of these people were actually supposed to be based on actual historical personages. Huh. That casts some things in a new light. I watched the first three or so episodes of Season 3 and I just…quit. The show stopped working for me.

      1. I just meant realistic personalities and accurate historical context. This is a “historical fiction drama.” Not that the main cast was based upon actual historical people. No. And there must be room for creativity. But when AMC’s writers bring in actual historical events, it is their obligation to do just a little research on the social attitudes of the time. Aside from that, there is knowing how to build a realistic character with a realistic personality using a decent script. For example, I am not saying that a character like Elam Ferguson is necessarily completely unrealistic, but what is unrealistic is everybody’s passively-acceptance towards his lawlessness. The guy murdered a railroad worker, stole liquor from the railroad, cheated on a guy’s wife, and constantly gets promoted. He is the only character who is never addressed for his faults, but only in the first season for his skin color by Mr. Toole.

    2. Well, just in response to your displeasure with Mr. Toole’s death, I would say, you might be giving him motives that simply weren’t there.
      Yes, all of those would have been excellent, self-sacrificing reasons for doing what he did, but none of them seemed to play a part in it. He didn’t kill himself so she could be with Elam, he killed himself because (he thought!) she wouldn’t be with him!
      Mr. Toole was always a coward. Sure, he was kind in many ways, unless he was drunk and beating on her- which he only did a couple times, so, that’s ok [sarcasm!]- but he was always shown to be a coward. He only talked tough when he was surrounded by his friends/racist lynch mob.
      Yes, he tried to do right by Eva (again, when he wasn’t drunkenly beating on her those couple times), but when it became (mistakenly) obvious to him that she would never be his, he took the cowards way out and killed himself.
      As to your general dislike of the handling of Elam’s character, again I would have to disagree with you. People are contradictory. While I agree it can make for a frustrating character, it does make for a realistic one. He is a man caught between two worlds. His father was a white slave-owner. He was given preferential treatment as a slave, not because he was cared for, but because his owner/father thought it made for a neat trick to impress the neighbours. He’s filled with a lot of anger, and while he can identify with the other black slaves, he wants more than that. He wants the freedom and equality he was promised and has to fight for every inch of it.
      (As to his shooting ability, they do show a quick scene in one episode of him practicing and getting very good, but in the rest of seasons 1 and 2, he never does anything especially spectacular with a pistol. In fact, It’s always Bohannon who has to save the day in a shoot out).
      The complicated nature of their characters is one of the reasons I like this show so much. They seem to be maturely handled. And while, again, it can make for some frustrating moments, they aren’t necessarily unrealistic ones.

      1. You do present an interesting case for Mr. Tool’s suicide. I may have read into it what I wanted. However, as far as Mr. Toole’s character goes, can we say that he was a coward? He was racist initially for sure, but cowardice is different. He swore at Elam with a revolver in his face – we know how that turned out. When he some how magically survived, he became a good and decent humble man, giving up drunkenness and treating Eva with respect she hadn’t had. Elam wasn’t ready to marry her, but to have her as a prostitute. Mr. Toole was. Mr. Toole was honest of what he was while Elam stole, lied, presumed, and cheated his way anywhere with a questionable lack of resistance from supposedly racist social attitudes. He is the only character in the show whose even minor faults are never addressed. How do we account for this? I have to say that in real life, Common’s renowned racial-prejudice/segregationist/supremacist and distrust-of-establishment attitudes have carried over into this series. The writers at AMC only encourage it as a “politically correct” enlightenment inserted into history via their script.

        “Black men walkin with white girls on they arms/I be mad at em, as if I know
        they moms” – Common (“Real People”)

        “But the white man didn’t care, shit he didn’t have to wear it (uh ha)
        He scratched that pad he got from his parents, with his tight ass
        He would have been poor white trash, but anyway
        Everyday the blackman would ask for some spare change
        But Adam, the white man would stare strange
        So the black man got fed up
        cause wasn’t nobody feedin’ him and feedin’ him
        And took red by his neck and started beatin’ him and beatin’ him” – Common (“Rich Man vs. Poor Man”)

        “Tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton
        I walk like a warrior,
        from them I won’t run
        On the streets, they try to beat us like a drum
        In Cincinnati, another brother hung” – Common (“A letter to the Law”)

        “A guinea won’t see the sun
        with his family stung
        They want us to hold justice
        but you handed me none
        The same they did to Kobe and Michael Jackson
        make them the main attraction
        Turn around and attack them
        Black gem in the rough
        You’re rugged enough
        Use your mind and nine-power, get the government touch
        Them boys chat-chat on how him pop gun
        I got the black strap to make the cops run
        They watching me, I’m watching them
        Them dick boys got a lock of cock in them
        My people on the block got a lot of pok* in them
        and when we roll together
        we be rocking them to sleep
        No time for that, because there’s things to be done
        Stay true to what I do so the youth dream come
        from project building
        Seeing a fiend being hung” – Common (“A Guinea Won’t See the Sun”)

        These are only a few of the guy’s lyrics. Even in reality, Common is bitter the world that he divides into 2 races and 2 social classes. He sings of his hate of interracial marriage, threatening of law-officials, and fantasies of beating white men. He preformed at the White House for our own First Family.

  9. I realize you wrote this a year ago, but I only just started watching Hell on Wheels and have just finished season 2. So if this is all ancient history to you, no worries!
    I have to say, so far I quite enjoy the show!, but I was also disappointed by the death of Lily Bell. Not because I thought it was a poorly written death, but because her character was one of the reasons I got into the show in the first place, and I will miss her presence. (Though her doppleganger- actress-wise, if not character-wise- seems to be on the show Black Sails!)
    Like you, I was looking forward to her and Bohannon getting together, but we only ever got a glimpse at what their relationship might be.
    Which is what made this such a good death, narratively speaking, from the perspective of a Bohannon-centric story, in which the protagonist thrives on misery. ;P
    It was still both unexpected and terribly tragic.
    Having just watched it, I do have to disagree with your 2 points that made it a bad death, though.
    1) The Swede as much tells Bohannon that he killed her because Bohannon loved her (and the Swede was clearly suffering from one psychosis or another). And,
    2) Lily does put up a fight, throws things at him, makes a dash for it, but the Swede quickly over powers her, stuns her by banging her head off the wall, and then pins her to the ground and her arms to her sides by sitting on her. She was struggling even after this the entire time.
    It made for a very brutal death.
    As a fan of Lily, however, I agree, it did not necessarily make for a satisfying one. She deserved better.
    But that may have been the point.
    I’m reminded of another great western, Unforgiven, in which Clint Eastwood’s character relates, “deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
    I’m looking forward to season 3, to see how things fall out. And I do hope they continue to have strong female leads on the show! (Other than Ruth- her, I’m not a fan of. But that’s a whole other forum ;P ).

    1. I have read that the actress who played Lily, was missing her home country of Ireland and did not enjoy being on location in the severe conditions. Dominique decided to leave after Season Two. I also missed Lily, but each and every Season was excellent. As to the manner of her death. That is for the individual to like or dislike. Mixed feelings

  10. It seems to me that she did all she was capable of doing before being strangled like a kickin’ chicken. She tried to hit him with the gun, it failed. She tried to fight back melee, (which was obviously not her strong suit.), He threw her against a wall, bashing her head and seemingly crippling her arm. Then he does what most of us know from childhood if you were ever bullied or have an asshole sibling. He places his knees on her arms so she cannot move. Even if she were a man, its pretty damn hard to get out of. At that point its pretty obvious, even to her, that she is up shit creek and the paddle is stuck firmly at the top of Mt. Everest.

    She then tried to appeal to his human sympathy. When that doesn’t work, she says Cullen will kill him.
    To which he replies, “yes…”

    Honestly, she did a lot of things that i thought “out of character” for her. Like sleeping with Durant, meekly cowering to Durant’s bitch of a wife, Not shipping that damn ledger herself, etc.

    She was a flawed character from the word go.

  11. I don’t watch this show, but my husband does. Everytime I look up at the TV when he’s watching it, someone is brutally having sex with some poor woman who doesn’t seem to be enjoying it at all. I hate this show because of this. Is it accurate for the historical time period? probably, but I don’t want to see any show depicting this type of treatment of women, no matter how accurate it is.

    1. I truly understand your feelings, and why you wouldn’t want to watch it, but to soft pedal and white wash the treatment of women in that day is to whitewash history and it is only through preservation of the mistakes made in history that we can grow and fix them. We can’t ignore them. The show is not for everyone, and if it disturbs you then of course you shouldn’t watch it but being fair, you didn’t say it shouldn’t be produced or changed; just that you hate it.

  12. “But there was no reason to kill her in that manner. No reason for the Swede to have done it, no reason for it to have gone down like it did.” Of course there was. He’s nuts! Maybe demon possessed, but definitely something akin to a sociopath. Deranged. No good reason for him that we would ever understand. And in subsequent seasons he’s no less violent and wicked. The writers were just keeping him in character.

  13. I came to the internet for an angry article about this. And I found it. IM SO MAD. I’m all hot and angry, honestly I met one of the producers of this show this second of rip them a new one. The whole time I’m thinking Cullen will save her it’s going to be ok. Nope. It was and I don’t know if I’ll even watch the other seasons I’m that pissed about it. Thank you for your article 👏🏻

    1. It boils down to the fact that it’s a show written by men, where Cullen is on the hero’s journey. The classic hero’s journey means he can’t ever be happy. He has to be apart and outside society because women will weaken him (and they only exist for his edification in the narrative to begin with). Gail Carriger wrote a really fascinating book on the Heroine’s Journey that discusses the difference.The Heroine’s Journey

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