Hell on Wheels: Can We Forgive and Forget Slavery?

AMC has gotten a reputation for making the best, smartest shows on television, even when playing with genre. And their new "western," Hell on Wheels, is no different. It's epic and lush and well made. But how are the themes of racism and redemption going to play in the modern age of political correctness?

Hell on Wheels is ostensibly a show about the making of the transcontinental railroad, but just like Mad Men isn't really about advertising, Walking Dead isn't really about zombies, and Breaking Bad isn't really about crystal meth, it's about something else entirely. It's the story of a former Confederate soldier, the impossibly named Cullen Bohannon (played with classic cowboy stoicism by the impossibly hot and also impossibly named Anson Mount). Bohannon's wife was raped and killed by a bunch of Yanks during the war, and he's out to get revenge. Revenge is so much sexier when it's done in cocktail dresses in the Hamptons on Revenge.

Bohannon isn't the only one who is out for redemption, but the entire country. The south has to make up for enslaving black people for so long, and the north has to redeem itself for burning and destroying the homes of their countrymen. This isn't the classic tactic of painting one side as good and one side as bad, but both sides as bad and each individual accountable for his own actions. Also, as pioneers make their way across the plains, they have to deal with the Native Americans who already live there. This is really one of the darkest times in our country's history and every interaction is so incredibly fraught. It doesn't so much remind us of what was going on back then, but how things are now, and the deep undercurrent of racism that seems like it will plague us forever.

In order to make Bohannon a sympathetic character—a character who is going around killing people who he thinks wronged him—they have to make a big deal out of the fact that he set his slaves free before the Emancipation Proclamation. So killing people is OK, but being a slave owner is not? The same thing goes for former slave Elam (wonderfully played by Common) who bristles against how he and the other black workers on the railroad are treated. When his brother is killed by a labor chief, Elam takes revenge by slitting his throat, even though he knows it means he'll be lynched. Here racism is a crime punishable by death, but murder is totally fine.

But that same chief, a Union soldier in the war, is willing to forgive the Confederate soldiers who blew off his right hand, but he still treats the black men like slaves, which means he needs to be killed. It seems that a capacity for forgiveness isn't enough for redemption, one needs to be racially enlightened too, something that would have been difficult at the time. Just ask St. Bohannon, who was willing to treat the workers fairly but was then punished for it by his superior.

The thing that really puts this in a strange perspective is that the show seems to demand a racial sensitivity from the white characters in the story toward the black workers, but it's no big deal if they go around killing the Native Americans who attack them. When Lily (flinty Brit Dominique McElligott) and her husband Robert are attacked by a tribe, the killers are shown as the blood thirsty villains, and we aren't meant to pass any harsh judgment on Lily, even though she grisly murders one of the "Indians" with his own arrow. Maybe it's because the Indian was a killer and we're operating with no moral compass other than "an eye for an eye." But was it wrong for them to kill these people who are trying to take their land? It seems like it's OK to be racist towards Native Americans but not black people. Does that seem right?

I'm not sure how well that's going to play for an entire season. Hell on Wheels seems closest to HBO's wonderful (though sometimes baroque) Deadwood, another world full of morally ambiguous characters. But from the first episode of the show, you knew where it was headed—toward a showdown between progress (symbolized by sometimes generous villain Al Swearingen) and order (symbolized by sheriff Seth Bullock).

Maybe my problem is that, from watching just the first episode, it's unclear where Hell on Wheels is headed and just what it wants its message to be. Will we all find redemption as a country by watching the show? Probably not. But by honing its message, Hell on Wheels might just redeem itself and turn into something great.