[This post contains spoilers for Seasons 1-2 of Hell On Wheels and Copper]
I didn’t watch either Hell on Wheels or Copper with the intention of comparing one to the other, but when the quality of the shows took such drastic turns, I couldn’t help myself. Hell on Wheels was meant to sate my need for violent Westerns, while I started watching Copper on the recommendations of friends and Racialicious readers. As an AMC show going into it’s third season my expectations for Hell on Wheels were high. It turns out I may have put a little too much faith in AMC –and to be fair, this was before the abysmal premiere of Low Winter’s Sun.
So before we move into Fall premieres (your suggestions for that, by the way, have been received and greatly appreciated) a little side by side comparison of Copper and Hell On Wheels: two Civil War era period dramas with different acknowledgements of race.
Copper is a fascinating take on New York during the Civil War, centering much of its plot on the relationship between the Black and Irish residents of the Fives Points neighborhood. The show follows the lives of Kevin Corcoran (Tom Weston-Jones), an Irish Union Army soldier turned New York City police officer. He served in the army with both Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), his wealthy 5th Avenue former army colonel, and Martin Freeman (Ato Essandoh), an African-American physician, surgeon, and budding forensic scientist. Morehouse’s eventual wife, Elizabeth (Anastasia Griffith) is conspiring with Confederate soldiers to commit arson in the city, and Freeman’s wife, Sarah (Tessa Thompson), is a woman still trying to get over witnessing her brothers’ lynching outside their home by a white mob during the Five Points riots.
Hell On Wheels’ (HoW) post-Civil War pilot sets up Cullen Bohannon (Ansom Mount), A former Confederate Soldier on a mission of revenge to kill the Union soldiers who murdered his wife and son begins working on the westward expansion of the railroad. He meets Elam Ferguson (Common), a mixed race former slave who also works for the railroad along with a larger group of Black freedmen. Their paths cross when Elam kills one of the union soldiers in the path of Cullen’s revenge before he has the opportunity to do it himself. The pilot has a wealth of potential, including a fantastic 4th wall breaking monologue delivered by the self-proclaimed villain of the story, railroad boss Thomas Durrant (Colm Meaney), right before the credits roll.
Neither of those sound horrible!
In theory, they’re not, but I was expecting quite a lot from HoW and not as much from Copper. In retrospect, this may have skewed how I viewed both programs.
As much as I enjoyed the HoW pilot, there were signs of trouble from the get-go. Most glaringly for me was the way they rushed to immediately shine up Bohannon’s backstory. We know he’s a Confederate Soldier from the start, but as soon as it’s revealed that he also ran a small plantation there’s a rush to point out that his enlightened Northern wife convinced him of the evils of slavery before the war began. He fought for the Confederacy not because he wanted to keep his slaves (in fact, he freed them prior to the war), but out of a sense of honor. While you could argue that this isn’t necessarily and unrealistic take, there’s not a lot about Bohannon’s character that’s overly interesting or unique to begin with (he’s tall, dark, scruffily handsome, and out for revenge with his gun. It’s been done.) so the writer’s surgical removal of all culpability and guilt doesn’t do much for him.
What’s more, it seems to sort of defeat the purpose of creating the character of a Confederate Soldier to begin with. Is there a point if you’re just going to neuter the background you’ve gone out of your way to give him? Nothing else about his character demands that choice (he could have just as easily been a Union soldier) and minimising its importance so immediately makes it seem arbitrary. A strange choice from the network that excels in antiheros.
So there’re no arbitrary white people on Copper?
Well, there are, but the one is easier to ignore and, most importantly it’s a better show as a whole. My attention wanders when Elizabeth Morehouse appears on screen, but that’s not because Season 1 found her working with a Confederate spy ring to burn down New York City. The guilt she’s been dealing with this season stemming from those actions has been uninteresting and repetitive for the most part, but at least leads to developments for other characters and showcases one of Copper’s strengths:
Compared to HoW, Copper does a far better job at exploring the relationships between whites and freed slaves.
There’s a refreshing honesty in the gamut of emotions that the Black characters on Copper are allowed to express. Sarah’s fear and mistrust of their white neighbors and the pride Matthew takes in his skills as a doctor are evident from the beginning, and their characters are allowed to authentically develop and change as people. Though Matthew holds a respectable position in the community he’s not universally respected by whites or fellow freed Blacks and the show devotes time to exploring those encounters. Not only do both Freemans contribute to the plots of the show’s white characters, they also have their own independent storylines that require they interact at length with –are you sitting down?– other Black characters.
Those characters include Sarah’s mother, Hattie (Alfre Woodard), the one positive that’s come out of Elizabeth’s guilt ridden Season 2. Out of remorse for what she’s done Elizabeth volunteers to go south and rescue Sarah’s mother from the plantation she and her brothers ran from. There’s no glossing over of Hattie’s adjustment from plantation to city life. While she marvels at the small things Sarah and Matthew now take for granted (there’s a lovely conversation about the novelty of being able to go out and choose to buy things like sugar and flour whenever they please), she also finds her image of the North as the promised land quickly shattered as she watches the tensions between the Blacks and Irish grow in Five Points. When she finds out what happened to her sons, despite Sarah’s attempts to hide the truth, she realises that she can’t live in the city.
The nature of Sarah and Matthew’s relationship is another standout feature; as of now they’re the most stable couple on the show, likely due to the infinite respect they have for each other. When Sarah needs to move out of Five Points to escape the memories of her brothers’ deaths Matthew sacrifices part of his business to move them up to the rural African-American community of Carmansville (the Hamilton Heights and possibly Sugar Hill neighborhoods of Harlem). They deal with a miscarriage, Sarah often assists in his forensics work, and in one of the best scenes of the second season they both work to tear down the lamp post her brothers were hung from so that she can move on. Overall, the women of Copper are drawn bold and headstrong. Even as she’s working through her fears, Sarah’s no different and Matthew never tries to limit those characteristics within her.
Kevin Corcoran is, without a doubt, the show’s main character, but the writers clearly made a decision to give each supporting character equal weight. The attention these African-American supporting characters receive make them unique not only on period dramas, but on popular dramatic television in general. So while, yes, I do have to sit through Elizabeth’s opium addiction (which has at least introduced the burgeoning Chinatown and the potential for Chinese-American cast additions. something HoW sorely lacks), getting to see Sarah’s meeting and subsequent fangirling of Frederick Douglass (a fantastic aside during season 2) was entirely worth it.
Okay, but Common’s on all the Hell On Wheels promo material and he’s easily the biggest cast names on Hell On Wheels. I’m assuming his character has that kind of depth too.
Assuming outright that any character on Hell On Wheels has depth is your first mistake.
I thought the role of Elam Ferguson would be, if not more substantial, better developed than it stands. After killing Bohannon’s target, Elam works his way into Durrant’s good graces as his camp enforcer. He also falls in love with a camp prostitute (a white woman kidnapped and partially raised by the Mojavi) which results in an accidental pregnancy after she marries one of the railroad foremen.
Elam’s “love” story with Eva represents one of the many structural problems I have with HoW as a whole. It came out of nowhere. In fact when I found myself hearing what seemed like sudden declarations of love sometime around episode 10, I took to twitter wondering aloud when on earth these two had gone from sleeping together to being in love. One of the show’s writers, Tom Brady, answered:
Ah, it took one episode and it was love at first bedroom tumble. The clunky accompanying bonding dialogue about how she’d felt like a slave as well to the Native Americans she was sold to –for “three blankets and a horse,” she says, to which Elam replies, that her eyes are worth a hundred horses, confirming that this is not up to AMC’s usual snuff– must not have mustered as much sympathy in me as the writers were hoping for.
That bit of pacing might have slid by were there any more to Elam’s character. The AV Club goes so far as to call him “useless” at one point, and that’s not entirely wrong. As we see him almost hanged by the white men in the camp, forced into a fist fight with Bohannon that he must lose, stumble into an accidental pregnancy, and volunteer (for no real reason) to help fight the Cheyenne among other things, we start to realise that Elam does a lot of reacting to plot instead of acting. Rarely is he the instigator in the events of his own life and we often find him doing more to advance the stories of white characters than his own. Perhaps that could be owed to the fact that as a slave he wasn’t afforded that sort of freedom to shape his life, but I’m not sure HoW is that deep of a show. Especially given the lengths Elam and the other Black extras go through to remind the viewers and each other that they’re freedmen who no longer have masters.
And yes, there are other Black extras, including a recurring friend of Elam’s named Pslams, but he and the others have even less dimension than Elam. Unlike on Copper, there’s no sense of a community here. We know that the Black railway workers stick together and that as a group they look to Elam for leadership, but they have no driving plot and lack many independent interactions. It’s unfortunate– they’re there, but under utilised.
Do you have anything good to say about this show?
The best insight into Elam’s background comes in the form of a plantation flashback in episode 7 where we see his father (and also owner) using him as entertainment for a group of white men. He’s taught Elam how to read and recite Bible verses, but doesn’t believe that he’s capable of comprehending the meaning of what he’s reading and tells his friends it’s like teaching a parrot. Unfortunately moments that read as well as that one are few and far between.
Otherwise, it is beautifully shot and the opening credits sequence is great. One of the female main characters, Lily Bell, is a fun portrayal of a fiercely independent frontier woman. She became one of my favorite characters over the two seasons I watched, and if they hadn’t pointlessly killed her off at the end of season 2 I might have been more inclined to watch the season 3 premiere.
That said, she, Eva, and other white female supporting characters such as the preacher’s daughter, do all annoyingly fall into the show’s trend of having white women suffer at the hands of Native Americans, whether violently or emotionally.
So, why on earth did you put yourself through two seasons of this?
If we chose not to watch anything that didn’t meet our standards and desires for diversity, a lot of us just wouldn’t be watching television. I have an eternal optimism when it comes to television in genres I love and I give second and third chances when I probably shouldn’t. Sometimes those pay off. For instance, the development of Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White in seasons 2-3 of Boardwalk Empire turned out to be worth the wait. Admittedly, I started watching the Copper pilot twice before I was able to get through it and realise that it was a truly great show.
I can wholeheartedly recommend going through Copper binge on Netflix. As for Hell on Wheels, well… If I’ve learned anything this summer it’s that the more money you spend building historically accurate trains in the west, the worse the resulting piece of media is going to be. Like The Lone Ranger, Hell On Wheels put a lot of stock in the quality of their railroad tracks and that should have been the first warning sign.