Sunday, June 5, 2016

TV | The Case of Lily Bell on Hell on Wheels

PLEASE NOTE: There will be spoilers for season's one and two.  IN FACT, THIS WHOLE POST IS BUILT AROUND A MAJOR SPOILER! Proceed at your own risk

I watched the first couple of seasons of Hell on Wheels 2-3 years ago and generally really liked the show.  I'm a sucker for stories that take place on the American Frontier in the late 1800s and this show has an engaging lead character/actor and a gritty feel reminiscent of one of my other favorite "westerns", Deadwood.   My one qualm was that season 2 ends with quite the shocker: the main female lead on the show, Lily Bell, is murdered unceremoniously by the show's creepiest character ("The Swede").  On that first watch I was shocked, disappointed and very sad about this development but I liked the show enough that I was willing to see where it would go in season 3.

Fast forward 2-3 years and there are now three additional seasons of Hell on Wheels with season 5 just being released on Netflix.  I decided I was ready to dive back in and began by re-watching seasons 1 and 2.  This time when I got to the end of season 2, I not only felt disappointed and sad but also really angry and it has made me feel conflicted about continuing with the show.

So what's changed? I think it is that I've been more involved in or aware of "fandom" on the ole internets these last two or three years and have been exposed to the many ways that female characters are given the shaft on a pretty routine basis.   For example, "fridged" is a term I recently became acquainted with.  It refers to when a female character is killed in order to kick off a new arc of character development for the male protagonist. Even though it is a term specifically associated with comics, I think it almost certainly applies here as well and I think that this is at the heart of my real disappointment at Lily's murder.  It dismisses the fact that she was an interesting character in her own right, with potential independent storylines that weren't all about Cullen Bohannon.

Hell on Wheels is a show with a LOT of dudes so  it was particularly nice to have such a strong, complex and interesting feminine character like Lily Bell.  The predominantly male cast makes sense given the time and place the show is about so I'm not fussing about that and in fact I rather applaud that they found a way to include a main female character.  Sure, her chemistry with Cullen Bohannon is super hot and I really enjoyed their relationship but she was an independent character in her own right with her own motivations and story lines.  Her death however was 100% about Bohannon - its cause and the repercussions - and that's just kind of ...crappy.

Every episode in season 1 gave me some new reason to love her character.  The fact that she fled prosperous London Society with an American surveyor and explorer.  That she insisted on going into the field with him and formed a genuine attachment to the wild prairie landscape.  That she is lusty.  That she is practical and not afraid of hardship.  That while she keeps a placid and controlled demeanor, underneath she is passionate and emotional and occasionally will allow those emotions to drive her.  That she didn't just go west with her husband but helped him with his work and applied herself to learn his trade well enough to take over his job after he dies. That she has the presence of mind even when half dead to take her husband's surveying maps with her and to bury them until she gets the lay of the land at Hell on Wheels and with Durant. That when Durant pours out a truly heart wrenching story of his childhood in Hell's Kitchen, and even though you can see the sympathy on her face while he is talking, she properly reads him and gives him no quarter, telling him to buck up and stop feeling sorry for himself.  That even though she faced down a murderous Indian and crossed many miles of wilderness while sick, she is much more terrified of facing a parlor full of her husband's female relatives.  That when told that the Hell on Wheels carpenter will take advantage of her, she lays her own wood floor in her tent even though she has no idea what she is doing.  That though she is interested in Cullen and develops admiration and respect for him, she doesn't chase him.  That she becomes committed to the idea of the railroad and wants to stay involved because it honors her husband's memory and gives her purpose.  She hates feeling useless.

Season 2 Lily is a little bit harder to love, though maybe that's not fair.  She is in a weaker position and in some ways seeing her try to navigate the increasingly challenging hand that is dealt her is just as interesting.  With Cullen gone, the only way she sees to secure a place with the railroad and not have to return to "civilization", is to throw in her lot with Mr. Durant.  She uses Durant's desire for her to get power, a power not usually allowed to a woman.  As with things like this, it is fraught with danger and disappointment but she still manages to champion the women in the camp and keep her eye on the prize.  I appreciate that it's not too easy for her, that we see her be unsure and have to back down from things and appeal to the men around her to help her.  It feels authentic but still she is not bowed.  And then when it comes to it she is the one that aggressively makes things happen with Cullen.  For all his feral toughness and barely restrained violence, Lily is a light that saves him.  A lesser woman would have run long ago.  The more he gets to know her, the more he "you know" (I swear he's infuriating).  He is in awe of her and easily admits, almost reverently and without shame, that she makes him better (see video below).  One of the main reasons I am so heartbroken to lose her is that she made the character of Cullen more interesting.

There are two other regular female secondary characters, Eva and Ruth, and they are both fine but I find neither is nearly as interesting as Lily.  They fill more generic or expected roles in a frontier story - Eva was a prostitute and Ruth a religious zealot.  Lily's story was a little more unique, falling in love with the wilderness and the work after following her husband and then not wanting to return to being a pampered princess.  She was Cullen's equal and by the time they had come together, they were each their own person and could only act as equal partners (again see video below).  It was refreshing and interesting and now at the end of season two, apparently, it's done.  

So where to go from here?  I've searched to see if Lily's death was a staffing decision rather than a narrative one; prompted by the actress wanting to leave, but I can't find anything like that anywhere.  It would have made me feel more amenable towards the show and partial towards giving it the benefit of the doubt.  As a narrative decision though, I just can't like it.  Cullen had ALREADY lost a woman he loved (the show's first season is about him avenging his wife's murder during the war) so I'm not sure I see how losing a second woman provides a more compelling story.  And that's the thing - anything they do moving forward is likely to just annoy me.  If it spurs Cullen into a a violent flurry of revenge?  Been there, done that.  If they just move on like Lily never existed?  Rage.  If we don't get another female lead?  Boring.  Will they be able to create and build another character that rivals Lily in awesomeness?  Doubtful.  I'm not sure how the show moves forward in a way that will be as satisfying for me but I do have connections to other characters like Cullen, and I am interested in the story of the railroad.  I think I will just have to see if the mood takes me to continue the show.

So how about you all?  How did you feel about Lily's death?  Are there are other shows that have thrived even after the loss of a beloved character?  Do you think I'm being to critical or "missing the point" of the show by being so irritated with this decision?

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