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Series / Hell on Wheels

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Hell on Wheels is a live-action television series that premiered on AMC on November 6th, 2011 as a Sunday Evening Drama Series.

Set in the 1860s at the beginning of Reconstruction, the series follows Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, who is determined to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. His quest for vengeance sends him westward to Nebraska's "Hell on Wheels," the lawless town that moves with the construction of the transcontinental railroad. However, things get complicated when a Cheyenne tribe attacks the construction of the railroad, determined to destroy the project because it is being built through their lands.

This series provides examples of:

  • Aborted Arc:
    • Cullen's quest for revenge against the Union soldiers who murdered his family, the main arc in Season 1, is eventually forgotten. Justified as he had lots of distractions by then.
    • Cullen receives a pardon for the killings at the beginning of Season 2.
    • While Cullen still shows no interest in tracking down his wife's murderers, this arc is picked up after a fashion in Season 3, when the brother of the guy Cullen killed in the opening scene of the pilot comes to the Hell on Wheels camp, and Durant uses the history of Cullen's murders in an attempt to get him fired from the railroad.
  • Alternate History: Verges into minor forms of this. Namely, in both real life and the show Durant was cast out of the railroad due his corruption, but in the show he managed to scheme his way back to the railroad, which in real life he never managed. Also, Brigham Young's son never attempted to assassinate him.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: How most non-Mormons see the Mormons, not helped by the fact they tend to shoot or enslave anyone who gets close to their land.
  • And This Is for...:
    • In season 2 after Mr. Durant gets Cullen released from prison he gives Cullen a good clout, just to square things up.
    Durant: That's for robbing my railroad.
    • In Season 4 Cullen punches Sydney after trying to negotiate the release of prisoners with him.
    Bohannon: That's for pointin' a gun at my wife and son.
  • Annoying Arrows: Averted. The arrows are shown to inflict painful wounds or are outright lethal like a real arrow would be.
  • Anticlimax Boss:
    • Hannah Durant (Played by Virginia Madsen no less) comes in at the end of Season 2 and upsets the balance of Hell on Wheels, stomping on several characters, especially Lily. Between Seasons 2 and 3, she leaves Doc with only a line of dialogue covering this before it's never mentioned again.
    • John Campbell is set up to be the Big Bad of Season 4, but ultimately his dragon does more damage. The only real confrontation that anyone has with him is when he and Durant get into a fistfight over the deed to Chicken Hill, which ends without any decisive winner.
  • Anti-Hero: Cullen Bohannon. He uses violence freely (from coldly gunning down enemies to savagely beating them), he seems to constantly scorn and mock others (even some of the "good" people), and he abides by a code of honor that takes others a while to see and understand. Specifically, he's a Byronic Hero, if you look close enough; through the second and third seasons, he displays much more depth of character and far more cunning than any other character is capable of believing of him (often to their regret, if they oppose him doing something). It should also be noted that Cullen is not racist due to regrets over his slaveholding past, at least not after his family's death, and from the first time he actually speaks with Elam he treats him with as much respect and dignity as he shows anyone (more, actually, considering the way he later deals with Toole and others).
  • Anyone Can Die:
    • Especially in the second season where Reverend Cole and Lily Bell are both killed, and Toole kills himself after earlier miraculously surviving a gunshot to the face in Season 1.
    • And in season five The Swede is hanged.
    • By the end of the series, the only characters left from the first season's main ensemble are Bohannon, Durant, Mickey, Psalms, and Eva.
  • Artistic License – Geography:
    • In Season 1, the railroad camp is in Iowa, which is about as topographically interesting as a plywood board. Even so, the mountains of Alberta (where the series is filmed) show up in the background periodically.
    • In Season 5, Collis Huntington proposes to build the railroad terminus at Fort Bridger, which he points to as being on the Utah side of the Utah/Wyoming border. The Fort is on the Wyoming side by about 40 miles.
  • Artistic License – Religion:
    • Mormon Aaron Hatch says Bohannon has damned his daughter Naomi to Outer Darkness for eternity because they had extramarital sex (and she got pregnant). However, Mormon doctrine is that only those who have first accepted the Holy Ghost and then denied it will go to Outer Darkness, which you'd expect he would know. See "Plan of Salvation" on the Mormonism page.
    • Then there's the whole business with Bohannon marrying the Mormon girl. Mormon wedding ceremonies are not open to non-believers. The ceremony that the Swede presides over doesn't resemble a Mormon sealing in any case, but still, a Mormon bishop (even a fake one like the Swede) would not preside over the marriage of a Mormon girl to an outsider (or if he did, it would raise suspicions).
  • The Atoner: Toole, thanks to his miraculous non-death from a gunshot at point-blank range.
  • Audible Sharpness: Elam makes a point of using this with his knife in an attempt to intimidate Bohannon. It doesn't work.
    Bohannon: You come at me with that knife, son, you best be prepared to use it.
  • Back from the Dead: The Swede, last seen being chucked off a bridge in Season 2, pops back up in Season 3, and soon gets back to his murderous ways.
  • Badass Boast: From Brigham Young of all people, to Durant.
    "Lay one track north of Salt Lake, and you'll learn why they call me The Lion of the Lord. I've defeated the United States Army. I'd damn sure make short work of you."
  • Badass Longcoat: A western staple, though only a few main characters wear them. The Swede is a notable one.
  • Badass Preacher:
    • Reverend Cole is a retired one.
    • Elam may technically count as well. Though never formally ordained, he grew up reading and preaching scripture to the other slaves on the plantation.
    • Psalms as well, similar to Elam.
    • Brigham Young comes across as this after his Badass Boast to Durant (see above).
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The second season, in stark contrast to the first, ends with The Swede acquiring a complete, crushing victory on our protagonists and dying happily ever after. See Downer Ending further below for the consequences of such action. It's even worse at the end of Season 3. The Swede, who survived the second season finale, kills most of a Mormon family and takes the identity of a bishop. A bishop that later presides over Cullen's trial. Durant gets a hold of the rail road, and its heavily implied that Elam dies trying to rescue Bohannon, who wasn't even in mortal danger anymore; The Swede decided not to Execute him, and instead force him to marry a woman he had impregnated earlier in the season.
  • Berserk Button: Thor Gunderson is widely known as 'The Swede', despite being Norwegian. Occasionally, he will explain this. The line is delivered with an increasing mixture of anger and desperation as the series goes on. The joke appears again well after his apparent death, with Bishop Joseph Dutson, actually Gunderson posing as a Mormon Bishop, declaring angrily to Bohannon that " The late Thor Gunderson was Norwegian!". He even used his last words upon being executed to reinforce this, exclaiming "I am Thor Gunderson... FROM NORWAY!".
  • Big Eater: There's rarely a scene featuring the Swede that he isn't munching on something.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • During a physical altercation with Cullen in season one, The Swede yells "Faen!", which is Norwegian for "Fuck!" Not only was this an uncensored shout, but it also served as foreshadowing that The "Swede" was not from Sweden.
    • Though this is essentially correct it's slightly more complicated than that. "Faen" is actually a name for the Devil, commonly used as a swear word. It's used in Swedish as well, though only as a rare variant of the there much more common "Fan".
    • In "Life's a mystery" the Mexican sheriff doesn't utter a single word in English, and his entire dialogue is untranslated Spanish.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Season 4. Ruth, the only innocent soul of Hell on Wheels, has died for no reason, as has Ezra, the innocent child. Bohannon is even more psychologically damaged and looking for his family, but he now has a bright future ahead of him under Huntington, Durant is finally back at the top of his game, and while Mickey has been kicked out of the railroad, him and Eva find their place in the sun in the West alongside the Dead Rabbits. Campbell has ruined his relationship with Louise, but he is finally managing to make Hell on Wheels a better place. In summary: Everyone lost something, but the future's looking brighter than ever (as far as this series goes)
  • Book Ends:
    • The first episode starts with Callum in a church confessional on the East Coast, then taking a train out west. He does the same thing near the end of the last episode.
    • The first episode also has a monologue delivered by Thomas Durant about "needing a villain" and so he will "play the part". He has a similar speech towards the end of the finale.
    • At the end of the first episode Durant says, "Blood will be spilled, lives will be lost, men will be Hell on Wheels." In his final monologue he says, "Blood has been spilled, lives have been lost, men have been ruined..."
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The only way to explain Durant's monologue at the end of the first episode; his speech is for the audience.
  • Call-Back: In the ninth episode of season 3, Bohannon tosses Durant a rifle and asks if he knows how to use a rifle, Durant merely grins and cocks the weapon. This calls back to the season two finale, where Durant fought with a rifle (the exact same model, in fact) against a Zerg Rush of Indians.
  • Camera Abuse:
    • Cameras get splattered with water and dirt and more in the big fight in "Timshel".
    • Vomit in "Blood Moon"
  • Catchphrase: Sidney loves repeating "Life's a mystery!" and variations of thereof.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Invoked.
    Durant: Is it a villain you want? I'll play the part.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Major Bendix makes passing mention to Phineas Gage in Season 3, a real-life man who had his personality altered by a traumatic brain injury. The next season Elam suffers a similar injury after a bear attack and has his personality similarly altered.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Mormon girl that Bohannon had a (literal) roll in the hay with early in Season 3 pops up again towards the end of the season.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Cole mentions how he killed slave owners with a sword when he was a Jayhawker. When Sgt. Griggs tells him that he's going to kill Joseph, he gets to put those skills to the test.
  • Child by Rape: Elam was conceived by his master raping Elam's mother. Another freedman says Elam shouldn't consider their former master his father, and he appears to agree.
  • Christianity is Catholic:
    • Averted. Reverend Cole is an Evangelical Protestant, along with his daughter.
    • Toole is definitely Catholic, however, along with the McGinnis brothers and other Irish workers.
    • This trope is also averted as it is made very clear that Catholics and Protestants do not view each other as being fellow Christians but instead as heretics doomed to Hell unless they convert. Ruth Cole, a Protestant (Congregationalist) expresses negative views of Mormons and Catholics, and converts Sean from Catholicism.
    • Later the Mormon settlers come to play a prominent role.
    • While no longer practicing, Eva is a Mormon. She's nearly awestruck by the sight of Brigham Young.
  • Cool Guns: The Griswold and The Swede's Beauty.
  • Confessional: In the opening scene, a Union soldier enters a confessional to speak with a priest. The priest turns out to be Cullen, who's come to kill him.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Thomas "Doc" Durant, who owns the company that finances the railroad as well as the railroad company itself (so he's essentially paying himself to build the Union Pacific using government subsidies), and who fires one of his surveyors because the guy dares to suggest building the railroad straight (as opposed to curvy, which would make the railroad artificially longer and therefore mean that he gets paid more to build it). He also bribes/blackmails a senator in the pilot. Truth in Television: This was common practice with subsidized railroad building.
  • Corrupt Politician: Senator Crane, whom Durant intimidates during his Establishing Character Moment and who later gets revenge by threatening to reveal Durant's double-dealing to the authorities.
  • Cosmic Deadline: The fifth season suffered from this, with Bohannon's rapid switch from Union Pacific to Central Pacific, the sudden end of the Naomi plot, and the heavily compressed plot involving Mei and Chang. It's been suggested that there was meant to be a sixth season that was eventually cancelled due to declining ratings.
  • Crapsack World: Hell on Wheels more than lives up to its name.
  • Damsel out of Distress: Lily Bell stabs the man who killed her husband with his own arrow, treks however many miles alone and sews up her own wound before she's rescued.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: EVERYONE has one.
    • Cullen's wife and son were murdered by Union soldiers.
    • Elam was a slave and is half-white, due to being conceived by his master's rape of his mother.
    • Something bad happened to the McGinnes brothers in Boston.
    • Eva was kidnapped and enslaved by a native tribe, who tattooed her lip to show that she was their property.
    • The Swede is a survivor of Andersonville (a notoriously brutal Confederate prison camp for Union POWs)
    • Judging from his dialogue with the Cheyenne warriors, Joseph Black Moon used to be quite the ferocious warrior.
    • Reverend Cole was a Jayhawker (an anti-slavery terrorist in Kansas) who murdered several slave owners alongside John Brown.
    • Durant (unlike the historical Durant) grew up in Hell's Kitchen in abject poverty, partly in a brutal orphanage.
    • Mei and her father fled from China when her village was attacked by a rebel leader who wanted her for his wife.
  • Deal with the Devil: Between Bohannon and Durant. Lampshaded and discussed.
  • Decapitation Presentation: A squad of cavalrymen rolls into camp toting Indian heads on spikes ("Range War").
  • Deconstruction: Of the American Dream. Many characters, notably the immigrants of Sean and Mickey McGinnis, black slave workers, and many poor workers of Hell on Wheels all try to follow the American Dream ethos of living and laboring in America to gain success they could not have in their old lands through hard work and determination, but the more they try to obtain success for themselves, the more immoral and despicable their actions and characters become. The McGinnis brothers for instance start off as two hopeful discriminated Irish siblings trying to gain success from squalor to remorseless murderers and backstabbers who kill their associates and eventually each other to come out on top.
    Butcher: This is a free country, by God!
    Bohannon: That's about the funniest damn thing I've ever heard.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Casual racism towards African Americans, Native Americans, and the Irish for starters. Catholic and evangelical Protestant characters are not shy about declaring that members of the opposing faith will be damned to eternal Hellfire for practicing the wrong religion. When Mormons are introduced in Season 3, a significant portion of the cast considers them to be Always Chaotic Evil.
  • Deranged Dance: The Hell on Wheels settlement burns to the ground thanks to an Indian raid caused by the Swede, who's by now become a crazed murderer and gleefully dances with himself while the town burns down around him.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Durant undergoes one of these when he thinks he's going to lose the contract for the railroad and be exposed for the Corrupt Corporate Executive he is. Lily snaps him out of it with a Get A Hold Of Yourself Man speech.
    • Reverend Cole slowly but surely drifts over the line until he finally snaps after killing Sgt. Griggs, telling Bohannon that the Devil has rendered God powerless, and that he should just choose the dark path he's on, as "it's easier."
  • Determinator: Lily Bell, who manages to kill a Cheyenne warrior, escape through enemy territory avoiding trackers, and sew up her wound all on her own.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: In "Derailed," Bohannon beats the crap out of the Swede for sending a posse after him and Ferguson. The scene, with Bohannon hitting the Swede with his belt, the Swede raising his arm to block the blows and crying out in pain, and (perhaps most importantly) Bohannon saying things like "Hold still, boy!" make it clear that it's supposed to be reminiscent of a slavemaster beating one of his slaves - especially since Bohannon was a slavemaster. Ferguson's knowing smirk as he looks on seals it.
  • Downer Ending:
    • The second season ends with a massive wave of misery: Durant is on the run from the law, Mrs. Bell is graphically killed, Bohannon crosses the Despair Event Horizon and stays catatonic, Sean ruins what was left of his relationship with Ruth, Mr. Toole is Driven to Suicide after a miserable existence. To put it into perspective, Fergurson is the best off of the bunch and his home was destroyed in the same episode. The last shot we get is Bohannon, walking alone.
    • The third season is possibly worse. The Swede is alive, in a position of power over Bohannon, whom he forced into a marriage. Durant has retaken the railroad. Elam is likely dead, and Eva knows this, meaning she's up to her neck in despair. The only minor victory is the fact that Bohannon isn't dead, but with the Swede watching him like a hawk, its likely he will be soon. If nothing else, he gets to return to farming, which he stated earlier in the season he missed.
  • Egopolis: The Hell on Wheels from last season has evolved into the town of Durant, Nebraska. Then General Grant has the town renamed to Cheyenne, which massively amuses Bohannon.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first episode is chock-full of these for introducing all of the characters, many of them in their very first scene. For example, Durant bribing a senator.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Swede.
  • Every Scar Has a Story: Eva has tattoos on her face under her lip. "Everyone stares, but no one ever asks." The tattoos signify her status as a slave in the native tribe which held her.
  • Exact Words: Elam confronts the man who killed the prostitute in the season 2 opener, asking him to confirm he killed her "before I shoot you in the gut." The guy points out that Elam's not going to do it, as people will hear. Elam seems to relent and begins to walk away, while the guy admits that he did in fact murder the prostitute. Elam turns around and says "You're right, I'm not going to shoot you." He then proceeds to brutally stab the man to death.
  • Expy: As a large, amoral, psychotically violent, Wicked Cultured Übermensch figure with a near-supernatural nature, the Swede is very similar to Judge Holden from Blood Meridian. This is most obvious in the season 2 finale, when the bald and pale Swede dances gleefully amid the burning destruction of the town.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In the first episode, Durant says: "Blood will be spilled, lives will be lost, men will be Hell on Wheels." The second season then shows all three happening in fast sequence: Massive bloodshed against the Sioux, the death of two major characters (Reverend Cole and Mrs. Bell), Bohannon's Despair Event Horizon and the destruction of Durant's career.
    • Toole talks about his family with a worried tone as if they were dangerous folks Eva wouldn't like to meet. Declan Toole appears in season 3, and he seems quite fearsome, while his evil is ambiguous.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: During the conversation between Bohannon and Durant at the end of "Timshel"
  • Faith–Heel Turn: Reverend Cole gives an epic Rage Against the Heavens to Cullen after murdering a Union soldier in cold blood who came after Joseph Black Moon. It's clear that by this point his personal demons have caught up with him.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Cullen and Elam seem headed towards this after Cullen saves Elam from a lynch mob and later, pursued by said mob, they fight and kill them all.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Toole and his Irish followers are racist assholes to prove that they're not bottom of the barrel anymore. Truth in Television, as it was a primary reason different oppressed ethnic groups were always at each other's throats, especially the Irish.
    • Also The Swede, who spent a chunk of his time in Andersonville. His case in special because he explicitly mentions he became who he is there.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Lily delivers a verbal version of this to Durant when he's moping over possibly losing his contract to build the railroad and being exposed for being a Corrupt Corporate Executive, telling him "Is this Thomas Durant I see before me, or a blubbering schoolboy?"
  • God Is Dead: According to Reverend Cole, He has had His arms and legs cut off and His eyes gouged out by the Devil, thus leaving him unable to help anyone.
  • Good Shepherd: Reverend Cole is a pious and holy minister before he crosses the Despair Event Horizon.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Cullen is our protagonist but no one is much more heroic or villainous than anyone else. The closest to being "pure good" in the show is likely Ruth, who is strictly focused on the church.
  • Groin Attack: Elam gets a couple of vicious nut-punches from Psalms in the episode Scabs.
  • Gory Discretion Shot:
    • The show usually isn't shy about showing blood, gore and death, however it makes two notable exceptions.
    • Ezra's body is never shown. The show instead relies on Bohannon's reaction to discovering it.
    • When Ruth is hanged, it cuts to a POV shot from under the death shroud.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: A truly epic, and Holy Spirit filled one between Cullen and The Swede, wherein Cullen manages to get The Swede to confess to his crimes.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Brigham Young uses the term "Jack Mormon" in reference to Eva, who says she'd been raised Mormon but no longer practices the religion. However, this is it's modern meaning (an inactive or lapsed Mormon), while in the 1800s the term means someone friendly towards Mormons or Mormonism.
  • Heel–Faith Turn:
    • Toole in "Timshel". After being shot in the face, he claims an angel came down and flicked the bullet from his wound. He's noticeably less of an asshole after this.
    • Joseph apparently went from a bloodthirsty Cheyenne warrior to a mild-mannered Christian in his backstory.
  • Hellhole Prison: The Swede did time in Andersonville Prison which was brutal. Episode 5.8, "Two Soldiers" tells the harrowing story of his incarceration.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Thomas Durant was a real corrupt businessman.
    • Collis Huntington turns up early in Season 3, trying unsuccessfully to lure Bohannon west to take charge of the Central Pacific Railroad (the one that was was being built eastwards from California to meet the show's Union Pacific). Later in Season 3 he again tries and fails to hire Bohannon.
    • Ulysses S. Grant gets involved in Union Pacific business in Season 3.
    • John Allen Campbell, governor of Wyoming Territory, appears in season four under the orders of Ulysses S. Grant.
    • Brigham Young, "Lion of the Lord", appears in the fourth season as well.
    • "Stagecoach" Mary Fields shows up in Season 5.
    • Bohannon meets Custer in the final episode.
  • Historical Fiction: Hell On Wheels' plot is directly tied to the history of the Union Pacific Railroad.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Brigham Young's righteousness or lack of thereof is debatable in real life, but the show seems to draw from the worst accounts to portray him as an unlikable and corrupt preacher. Of course, he's a more dramatic character that way.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Newspaper reporter Louise Ellison comes to Hell on Wheels to cover the railroad in Season 3.
  • It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Swede's response when Durant questions his attempt to hang Elam.
  • Jerkass:
    • Johnson, the Copperhead (i.e. Southern-sympathizing Northerner) foreman who helped in the rape and murder of Bohannon's wife, who is casually racist and accidentally kills a black railroad worker, then claims it was a result of the guy disobeying orders. He gets his throat slit by Elam before the episode is over.
    • Also the Irish railworker who seems to have made it his mission to taunt Elam over how, as a black man, none of the white prostitutes will sleep with him, and continually denigrates Bohannon behind his back and to his face. Probably no coincidence his name is Toole...
    • Sean Maginnis, who sees the murder of the prostitute as an opportunity.
    • Durant has his moments, such as when he tells Lily that a horse has more value than a prostitute, and so therefore he won't do anything to catch the man who killed the prostitute.
    • Cullen Bohannon is this in spades. Almost none of the characters are spared his acidic remarks. Lily, in a fit of exasperation, once even calls him out on it once. It goes about as well as you can imagine...
    Lily: "Mr. Bohannon, has anyone told you what an insufferable ass you are?!"
    Cullen: (pause) "Yeah."
  • Karmic Death: Given that he strangles Lily Bell to death and attempts to have Elam hanged, it is very fitting that The Swede is eventually executed by strangulation via hanging.
  • Large Ham: Colm Meaney is having way too much fun as Durant. For instance, the pilot ends with him giving a lengthy, operatic breaking speech to no one.
  • Last Girl Wins: Evoked. Mei. The last scene of the series is of Bohannon boarding a boat to China to find her. This is after losing his first wife, his lover Lily being killed by the Swede, separating from his second wife, and seeing Ruth hang (who at the very least was in love with him, though it's not clear whether this was reciprocated).
  • Lean and Mean: The Swede. Notable in that he went into Andersonville as a 200-some-odd pound man, and came out thin as a rake. His Badass Longcoat accentuates this.
  • Loophole Abuse: Chang learns that under California law, a Chinese man cannot testify against a white man. He later entreats a white man to kill one of his enemies and tells Bohannon that it's too bad all the witnesses were Chinese.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Bohannon is a direct embodiment of "tall, dark, and mysterious". Elam also has his moments. The first season episode "Bread and Circuses" deserves special mention because it involves a (topless) fight between the two.
  • Never Suicide: Bohannon's wife, as we learn in the pilot.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • Whatever happened in Boston to the McGinnes brothers.
    • This is latter explained as having something to do with the murder of two women. Who is to blame is not entirely clear, but Mickey pins the murders on Sean.
  • Not Blood Related: The reverend considers Joseph as his son and calls him such. It's thus all the more repulsive to him when he sees Joseph and his daughter are attracted to each other.
  • Not Quite Dead: Toole, shot in the face in "Revelations", turns up alive in "Timshel".
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • "Revelations" opens with a flashback of a young Elam stumbling over a pro-slavery passage of the Bible, reading to entertain his master and some of his master's friends. One of the friends remarks upon the danger of teaching a slave to read, mentioning that Nat Turner was taught how to read. Elam's master says there's nothing to worry about, as Elam doesn't understand what he's reading. Cut to the barn, where the slaves are huddled around Elam as he reads clearly from an anti-slavery passage of the Bible...
    • Cullen Bohannon's default setting. It's one of the things that draws Lily to him. She even gets him to admit to it. He happily plays the dumb Johhny Reb hick, but he is the one who solves most of the railroad's routing and engineering problems. He also can come up with alternative solutions that don't involve violence, or a cunning plan of attack when violence is needed.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The Swede when he realizes that Brigham Young survived his assassination attempt.
    • Cullen Bohannon, when he realizes where The Suede is going after the failed attempt on Brigham Young's life.
  • Odd Friendship: Bohannon (a former slaveholding ex-Confederate) and Elam (an ex-slave Scary Black Man who refuses to be treated badly) seem to be developing one or a Friendly Rivalry.
  • Oireland: The McGinnes brothers make a hefty sideline with a magic lantern show of images of Ireland for the Irish workers on the railroad.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: Cullen Bohannon impregnates a Mormom girl after a single tumble in the hay (of course, she's around twenty, meaning she's at her most fertile). When he finds this out, he's a captive of the Mormon colony for separate reasons, so he's forced to agree to a Shotgun Wedding.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Swede actually mentions his name, but everyone just calls him The Swede or Mr. Swede—even though he is actually Norwegian.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Durant has a sympathetic moment when he refuses to send a boy to an orphanage, recounting his own time in one which involved frequent beatings.
  • Politically Correct History: Bohannon is a former Southern slave owner/Confederate soldier-who only fought as a matter of honor, who freed his slaves before the Civil War, after his northern wife convinced him of the evils of slavery and then she ended up raped and murdered by Union soldiers. However the show subverted this, when Bohannon confessed to Elam that he did not, in fact, free his slaves.
  • Put on a Bus:
    • Joseph. In his final appearance, he helps Bohannon track a Sioux war party. Once they've found him he simply says, "You'll never see me again." He wasn't lying. No further explanation is ever given.
    • Hannah Durant comes into camp at the end of Season 2 and quickly establishes herself at the new Alpha Bitch, but she's gone at the start of season 3, never to return.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Reverend Cole eventually breaks down after killing a Union soldier who was threatening Bohannon and gives an epic one.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits:
    • The inhabitants include our ex-Confederate protagonist, several ex-Union soldiers (including a very tall and thin Swedish Norwegian lawman), a crew of Irishmen, a crew of freed slaves, an ex-Jayhawker revivalist preacher, a Cheyenne who has converted to Christianity, a white woman raised by natives working as a whore, a female English surveyor, a Yankee Corrupt Corporate Executive, and his French-speaking black manservant.
    • Season 2 reveals that a significant segment of the population of rail workers are German, as is the town butcher who gets murdered by the Maginnis brothers and fed to his own pigs
  • Railroad Baron: Durant. He even Lampshades this in his speech near the end of the pilot.
  • Rape and Revenge: Eva finds the man who raped her badly burned in a fire, and smothers him with a handkerchief.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Bohannon is hunted by the Swede for the murder of Johnson who was killed by Elam. So what does he do? He goes to Durant and tells him he needs Bohannon as foreman in order to build the railroad. Durant lampshades it, asking Bohannon how he puts his pants on "over those big balls of yours." It works!
  • Replacement Goldfish: Shortly after the season two finale where Lily Bell dies, we are introduced in the next season to three women all maintaining facets of Lily's role on the show. An intrepid career girl determined to make a name for herself here, a refined and wealthy woman collaborating and competing with Durante, and a new love interest for Bohannan, and all of them are blonde to boot.
  • Riches to Rags: Durant when he ends up in jail for corruption. He gets better after his release and return to leadership of the Union Pacific, but ultimately dies penniless and alone.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Bohannon's purpose for going west.
  • The Rule of First Adopters: When the Mcginnes brothers go back into business, guess what they start showing with their magic lantern?
  • Rule of Symbolism: The wild horse rounded up by the local army garrison, which Eva sees herself in.
  • Running Gag: people mistaking the Swede for being Swedish. When someone recognizes his name as Norwegian, he is genuinely shocked and pleased.
  • Shame If Something Happened: An Establishing Character Moment for The Swede.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Cullen says The Swede has "The Soldier's Heart," the period term for PTSD. Given what The Swede endured in Andersonville, this doesn't seem far off the mark.
  • The Sheriff:
    • The Swede, of the Small-Town Tyrant variety. He only uses his authority to lean on the local businesses or to step in when the Important People get wronged. Otherwise, he lets the town rot. Also something of a Hanging Judge, as he has the power to order people hanged.
    • Season 3 briefly had another Sheriff, who seemed to be far more easygoing than his predecessor. Too bad he gets shot by a trigger-happy Mormon teenager within an episode, forcing Bohannon to return with Union soldiers and hang the boy.
  • Shotgun Wedding: In season 3, Cullen Bohannon has sex with a Mormon girl while visiting their family, whose property is an obstacle to the railroad project. Towards the end of the season, Cullen is kidnapped by the Mormon settlers and finds that the girl is pregnant. Her father, who initially wanted to hang Bohannon as revenge for hanging his oldest son (legitimately; the boy shot the Sheriff), agrees to forego such punishment when Bohannon does the honorable thing by converting and marrying her.
  • Slashed Throat: A popular method of murder in Hell on Wheels, starting with the pilot.
  • Small-Town Tyrant: The Swede, when he's not out being the Hanging Judge, he's shaking down businesses and bribing officials to look the other way while he robs his employer.
  • Smug Snake: Toole, who unlike more villainous characters such as The Swede and Durant has basically no redeeming qualities, not even intelligence. Though he's noticeably less smug when he becomes The Atoner after surviving being shot in the face.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: One turns up in 5.05 peddling his wares and promising eternal youth. The Swede confronts him and says that eternal life is free if people join the Mormon church.
  • Sound-Only Death: Ruth. Once the hood is placed on her head, the scene cuts to her POV. The screen goes black and all we hear is her nervous, rapid breathing until the trapdoor of the gallows opens.
  • Tar and Feathers: In "God of Chaos", The Swede gets tarred and feathered before getting run out of town.
  • That Man Is Dead: The Swede, who is impersonating a Mormon bishop, says words to that effect when Bohannon confronts him in the third-season finale. The Swede's obvious seething hatred for Bohannon seems to indicate that he isn't sincere.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: The Swede does this a lot, due to being a Shell-Shocked Veteran.
  • Title Drop: By Durant, toward the end of the premier episode. There's also a visual one earlier with the shanty town's sign.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The Swede finds himself on the receiving end of this after pushing the townsfolk too far.
  • Translation Convention: Probably safe to assume that the Cheyenne weren't conversing in English with each other in 1865.
  • The Knights Who Say "Squee!": Eva, raised Mormon before her kidnap, is positively starstruck by the sight of Brigham Young.
  • The Western: The setting takes place in the American West, involving railroads, cowboys, and indians
  • Villain Decay: A common criticism of the series is all the villains' incredible knack for becoming pathetic or ineffective rather quickly. The Swede in particular zigzags this trope completely-he starts off as a major threat, then he becomes more passive and less threatening, loses all threat value in the middle of the season, but suddenly gets his act together in the finale...only to get tarred and feathered fairly easily in that same finale. In season 2 he's reduced to the town's graveyard digger, but he steadily becomes worse than ever as he riles up the German-Americans to the point of almost killing the McGinnes brothers, motivates Reverend Cole to start a massacre, and eventually murders Lily Bell in cold blood to spite Bohannon.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The skirmish with the Indians in season one. It leaves only the main characters, Lieutenant Griggs and one non-speaking cavalry corporal alive. Lieutenant Griggs is later murdered, but his corporal is never heard from again.
  • Where da White Women At?: Explored. For striking up a relationship with Eva, a white prostitute, Elam is nearly hanged in the highly racist 1860s.
  • Wretched Hive: The eponymous "Hell on Wheels" camp. It's a 19th century railroad camp, what do you want, Boardwalk?


Video Example(s):


Dancing In the Carnage

The Swede dances in the death and destruction of the Hell On Wheels settlement caused by an Indian raid he personally instigated.

How well does it match the trope?

4 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / DerangedDance

Media sources: