Through a Lens Darkly
Hell on Wheels: The Grand Dangers of Tiny Sins
I have willingly forgiven "HoW" a multitude of storytelling sins. I am not, however, blind to them, particularly when the majority of the show's thematic and narrative weaknesses can be traced to a single cause: the tendency to present its heroes as incarnated ideas rather than real people. Why would the somber Bohannan embark on an extended leave of absence moments after being named foreman of Durant's entire operations, you ask? To stumble across the distressed damsel Lily Bell upon his return, of course! Does it make sense in a "let's make sure certain things happen for the sake of the story" kind of way? Yes. Is it something an ordinary, real-life human being would do? No. (And does this damage our ability to relate to the unnecessarily unpredictable Bohannan? Without question.)
Another direct result of "HoW's" failure to value characters over ideas is its inability to produce compelling heroes. Bohannan's cliché-laden struggles are strangely sterile—a result of his erratic behavior and the obvious, often ill-fitting agendas of his creators. Constantly reminded of the role he must play in support of the show's larger, overarching themes, we are never quite willing to embrace him as a believable, relatable character. Unsurprisingly, this gap is filled by men whose charismatic personalities are unhindered by the need to say (or do) something deeply meaningful: the glory-and-gold-seeking Durant and his twisted henchman, The Swede.
Yet it is precisely through combining one of its anti-heroes with a screamingly-obvious "No One Acts That Way in Real Life" moment that the show produces its most interesting and insightful idea. Toward the end of Episode One, a drunken Durant delivers a strangely riveting, Fourth-Wall-breaking monologue on the need the world has for precisely his sort of man: men eager to dive in and get their hands dirty; men willing to do evil (and to be remembered for all eternity as evil-doers) for the sake of achieving an otherwise unattainable good.
One hundred years hence, when this railroad spans the continent, and America rises to become a power like no other the world has seen, I shall be remembered as a caitiff and a malefactor who operated only out of greed for personal gain.
All true. All true. But remember this: Without me and men like me, your glorious railroad would never be built.
My immediate reaction to Durant's words—unsurprising, given the relentless Silly Season in which we find ourselves—was to recognize its applicability to the political sphere. Yet his suggestion that we all want a little evil in our lives hits much closer to home than that. Abstractly, we are reluctant to say that "doing Evil is good, if Good will come from it," but recognizing how frequently and effortlessly we do it is far more painful than recognizing it in our publically-elected officials. Being insincere "for the sake of a little peace-and-quiet" when one's wife asks about her personal appearance; sneaking away from work early to spend "some quality time with the family (and football)"; overindulging at dessert "so as not to offend the hostess"—what is common in these and countless other cases is the willingness to embrace a minor evil for the sake of an obvious good.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.