Tag Archives: Hell On Wheels

Race + Television: Hell On Wheels and Copper Give Different Weight to POC Characters

 

The title cards for both Copper and Hell On Wheels.

The title cards for both Copper and Hell On Wheels.

[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.

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Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman And The State Of Period Dramas

By Guest Contributor Kendra James

Principal cast of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

Late in the second season of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, there’s an episode where the Klu Klux Klan comes to Colorado Springs in the form of a bank official peddling a “social club” for men. “Like the lady’s quilting circle,” the women claim, unknowingly sewing uniforms for the men to use during their first outing.

But when they put those uniforms on and Grace, half of the show’s one Black couple, is cornered by three Klan members, the situation takes a disturbing turn. The Klansmen grab her in broad daylight and hold her down against one of her restaurant tables. At first it seems an act of rape is imminent. Yet, somehow, when they rip her hair down from the carefully constructed bun she wears and begin to slowly carve it away with a barbershop razor while she screams, it seems almost worse–more intimate–than what could have been.

Jonelle Allen as Grace on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”

That episode, “The First Circle,” aired during a season where the show averaged 13.46 million viewers per episode for CBS–an incredibly strong showing for a family-oriented show that aired at 8:00 on Saturday nights. As the 49th most watched show in America, it was up against the 104th and 113th most watched shows from ABC, NBC, and FOX, and was outperformed only by another CBS Saturday-night show, Walker, Texas Ranger. Dr. Quinn, which starred British actress Jane Seymour, had a relatively family-friendly facade and–since “family-friendly” often goes hand-in-hand with a sugarcoating of American history–the topics it chose to handle are always a welcome surprise.

Episodes like “The First Circle” were an indication of not only how good Dr. Quinn could be, but how much television has changed and what our current period television dramas often fail to do and acknowledge. In its own way, the show regularly dealt with issues like racism, immigration, and gender equality, but often touched on more nuanced subjects as well. The white encroachment on Cheyenne lands, mob lynchings of African-Americans, marital rape, and domestic abuse were only a few themes explored throughout the series. Unlike many period dramas, Dr. Quinn never shied away from dealing with the difficult realities of its setting laid out.
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