The AMC series Hell on Wheels – renewed for a second season – follows a number of complex characters that take part in and respond to the construction of the transcontinental railroad westward. The lead character of Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, has provided a prime example of a multilayer figure in this post-Civil War dramatic Western series.
Mount, who is from Tennessee, has publicly stated that he was attracted to role of the southerner Bohannon as it offers an opportunity to create a southern character that was not monochromatic and negatively stereotyped. The character of Bohannon, thanks to the writing of the show and Mount’s portrayal, is not simplistic.
In the first season, Cullen Bohannon is a former Confederate soldier who becomes foreman for the Union Pacific as it lays its track toward the west in 1865 – this position gives him a base by which to track down the gang of Union soldiers that had murdered his wife and son during the war.
In the first episode, prior to becoming foreman, Bohannon shares that he had released his former slaves before the Civil War and kept them on at wages – this brings incredulity from those he plays cards with and demonstrates the layers of the Bohannon character. He was convinced of the wrongness of slavery and yet still fought for the South – the reasons he did so are a Confederate echo carried into the post-war period and are revealed in this scene:
Later in that same episode, after many drinks, Bohannon is drawn into conversation by Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan). In an attempt to share his ideas about divine grace and forgiveness, Cole discloses that he had taken part in the violence against pro-slavery groups prior to the Civil War that was known as “Bleeding Kansas”. Cole admits that he was a comrade of the abolitionist John Brown, who advocated armed force and was involved in the killing of pro-slavery southerners in his efforts to end slavery.
Bohannon, who had released his slaves without the need for violence, calls Brown a cold-blooded killer and in that statement there is an implicit critique of the immoral acts committed in the name of a cause. The immoral deeds perpetrated against his family during the war are now the driving force for his revenge – those acts by Union soldiers echo in his heart.
To set himself apart from Reverend Cole, Bohannon begins to sing “Dixie”, a song from the 1850s that became the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy. Cole walks away in disgust and Bohannon is left singing the song to himself – the strength of Mount’s portrayal in this moment is to leave the viewer wondering just what those words mean to him now…what they represent to his own identity and in their connection to his past. What echo do they have for him?
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)