“Every New Land Demands Blood”: ‘Nature’ and the Justification of Frontier Violence in Hell on Wheels

Abstract: This paper demonstrates how AMC’s TV show Hell on Wheels portrays the ideological force of nature to justify violence in frontier mythology. After a short look into the historical and ongoing relevance of frontier mythology in US culture, I will argue for its ideological reliance on nature. The following chapter will provide a theoretical background on social Darwinism, determinism, and scientism. I will then analyze how these relationships are examined in Hell on Wheels. First, as Thomas Durant’s social Darwinist monologue is paralleled with imagery that challenges the providential myth of Manifest Destiny, the show reveals that both ideologies equally replace human responsibility with a quasi-evolutionary rhetoric of inevitable progress. Second, the Swede’s deterministic notions of nature demonstrate the mythical power of the natural environment and evolutionary biology, which can easily assume Manifest Destiny’s divine authority as a justification for violence. Finally, the Swede’s and Reverend Cole’s discursive replacement of God with blood signifies a shift from religion to a redemptive scientism, in which science purports not only to explain but also to justify the violence of westward expansion. In these renditions, nature is variably utilized as the prime model for social behavior, as the ultimate victor over culture, and as the final authority whose imperatives are intelligible only through science.

The first two seasons of AMC’s popular TV show Hell on Wheels (2011, 2012) are certainly not without their problems. Almost too concerned with traditional generic conventions of the Western, the program’s predominantly male characters solve most of their disputes—over territory, justice, women, or money—by resorting to violence. The slaughter of Native Americans is often justified as self-defense against bands of attacking Sioux and Cheyenne. Most strikingly, protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is classically introduced as a hyperindividualistic gunslinger who has come to the frontier on a vigilante quest to avenge the murder of his wife and son. Around this theme of revenge, Hell on Wheels arranges the stories of various characters living in the eponymous camp that moves westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa, as its workers undertake the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad after the Civil War. An ambitious number of subplots might be the reason that some central figures lack psychological depth and appear as overtly symbolic stereotypes, which caused one commentator to complain about the show’s “declamatory cartoons” (Wiegand). Its rendition of the historical Union Pacific executive Thomas Durant (Colm Meany), for example, is just as reminiscent of the robber baron archetype as Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), “the fair-haired maiden of the West,” personifies benign civilizational progress (“Immoral Mathematics” 0:24:55).

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