Depicting the Racist Past in a “Postracial” Age: The White, Male Protagonist in
Hell on Wheels and The Knick
Michael L. Wayne
This article explores the relationship between moral ambiguity and postracial depictions of race and racism in several prime-time historical dramas. Specifically, this analysis argues that the juxtaposition of morally ambiguous, white, male protagonists with morally unambiguous, overtly racist white characters in Hell on Wheels (2011–2016) and The Knick (2014–2015) inscribes a contemporary postracial logic onto the American past. On one hand, the frequent use of racial epithets and graphic displays of racially motivated violence distinguish these shows from the long tradition of popular culture that denies the historical significance of race. On the other hand, positive interracial relationships between white protagonists and African-American characters allow viewers to historically situate racism as an individual-level phenomenon. As these depictions of race and racism create a veneer of historical authenticity, paradoxically, the power of such imagery is undone by narrative devices that deny any connection between the past and the contemporary realities of structural racism.
This article begins with a discussion of postracial culture and a review of scholarship offering postracial readings of Mad Men (2007–2015). In contrast to representational strategies that rely on polite or politically correct depictions of racism, this article argues that Hell on Wheels uses its protagonist’s identity as a former Confederate soldier and former slave owner to emphasise racial ambivalence and colour blindness as points of identification. This interpretation is then extended to the medical drama The Knick and its drug-addicted protagonist in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. If these depictions of race and racism can be understood as allowing white audiences to acknowledge the historicised existence of racial inequality while maintaining their ability to distance themselves from the systemic and historical perpetuation of racial inequality, then Deadwood (2004–2006) illustrates an alternative representational strategy. A brief consideration of this earlier show highlights the ways in which depictions of race and racism can complicate rather than simplify audiences’ relationships to white protagonists in historical dramas. Considering these differing strategies, this article concludes with a brief discussion of postracial politics in the post-network era in light of the economic realities that shape the contemporary cable TV landscape.
Postracial Culture and Contemporary Historical Drama
In the post-civil-rights era, the belief “that race is no longer a central factor determining the life chances of Americans” has become “accepted dogma” among whites in the United States (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 190). In contrast to the brutal enforcement of racial inequality and the assumed biological inferiority of African Americans associated with Jim Crow–era racism, this “new racism” is associated with the emergence of a colour-blind framework that requires assertions of essential sameness between racial and ethnic groups despite unequal social locations and distinctive histories (Frankenberg). Developing this concept, Bonilla-Silva argues that the “racial structure characteristic of the post–Civil Rights era” includes five elements:
(1) the increasingly covert nature of racial discourse and practices, (2) the avoidance of direct racial terminology, (3) the elaboration of a racial political agenda that eschews direct racial references, (4) the subtle character of most mechanisms to reproduce racial privilege, and (5) the rearticulation of some racial practices of the past. (“The Structure of Racism” 1362; emphasis in the original)
Within this broader context, postracial colour-blind thinking is less literal refusals to see race than it is beliefs forwarding the notion that race ultimately does not matter. As such, in public discourse and popular media, race must be present but contained in contexts that deny it any political or historical weight.
On popular television, which privileges white, middle-class audiences as ideal viewers (Gray 71), such containment is often associated with images of diversity. According to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Austin Ashe, diverse casting supports postracial ideology through “symbolic inclusion” (67). In some instances, diversity is justified by notions of “enlightened exceptionalism” (Wise 9). Depictions of exceptional individuals of colour who are deemed capable of succeeding on the dominant culture’s terms demonstrate that mainstream (middle-class, white) culture is able to accommodate diversity without seriously threatening the privileges of whiteness. In other instances, as Thornton argues in her examination of interracial friendship in the lighthearted series Psych (2006–2014), representations of interracial friendship suggest that positive feelings toward African Americans and whites’ willingness to have black friends mark the end of racism. Yet, in this postrace context, any embrace of racial identity is linked to racial oppression. Racial epithets are stigmatised (Rossing) and their use is often understood as an immoral act in and of itself (Bonilla-Silva, “Linguistics”). Overt racism is associated with individual-level deficiency which is problematic precisely because it violates “the decorum of the white racial order” (Hartigan, “Unpopular Culture” 320). To date, however, scholars exploring historical dramas have largely avoided addressing such concerns.
Arguments regarding postracial representational strategies in post-network-era prime-time historical dramas largely draw evidence from AMC’s Mad Men. Created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, the show features a morally ambiguous, white, male protagonist who works at a fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency during the 1960s. Celebrated for its attention to historical detail and often discussed as one of the greatest television dramas of all time, Mad Men does not include any major characters of colour. Discussing the largely white cast, Weiner defends his creative choices on the grounds of authenticity. When asked about the absence of characters of colour by an interviewer, Weiner refers to the segregated social world Mad Men depicts saying, “That is the world [the characters] move in” (Itzkoff). In another interview, he similarly asserts that including characters of colour would be ahistorical: “I do feel like I’m proud of the fact that I am not telling a wish fulfillment story of the real interaction of white America and black America” (Wakeman).
Despite this claim that Mad Men has nothing to do with racial wish fulfilment, scholars argue that the show supports contemporary postracial culture in multiple ways. Kent Ono, for example, argues that the absence of major characters of colour belies a sophisticated approach to race relations. Given Mad Men’s attention to historical details, the show can be thought to portray what race and racism were “really” like in the past. In the context of postracial culture, however, representational strategies that address race and racism through white characters allow the past to serve as a container for racism. As a consequence, the concept of race itself appears anachronistic. Focusing on Mad Men’s depictions of racism, Sarah Nilsen argues that the show uses a political correct mode of representation to “allay the anxieties of the predominantly white, liberal, and wealthy audience” (192). She explains: “Racism in Mad Men is never ugly or violent, and the ‘N’ word is never spoken. The rhetoric of political correctness is maintained throughout, and acts of racism themselves are treated with the utmost politeness and critical distance” (202). Racism is enacted by white characters through speech, not action. Such depictions provide audiences with opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of racism and confirm their own nonracist identities.
Yet, there is little reason to think that Mad Men’s postracial representational strategy is dominant (or even common) among post-network-era historical dramas. Many historical dramas include characters of colour and images of racism that cannot be characterised as politically correct. For example, a critic reviewing Hell on Wheels notes that “it only took 11 minutes for the first N-word to be uttered” in the show’s pilot episode (Carlson). Similarly, in The Knick’s pilot, the show’s protagonist resists hiring a well-qualified African American saying, “I’m not interested in leading the charge in mixing the races” (“Method and Madness”). To address the ways in which these post-network-era historical dramas use race and racism to forward postracial thinking, this analysis focuses specifically on the depictions of interracial friendships and displays of overt racism (in both speech and action). Driven by conflict between white men, the moral economies of Hell on Wheels and The Knick position a white protagonist with ambivalent racial attitudes as morally superior to unambiguously racist white character(s). In contrast, the racial caste system in Deadwood presents white supremacy and American history as inseparable.
Hell on Wheels
Created by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, Hell on Wheels premiered on AMC in 2011. The show’s first season was the network’s second most popular series trailing only ratings giant The Walking Dead (2010–). After the show’s second season, the network moved Hell on Wheels to Saturday night, which many interpreted as a sign of impending cancellation. But that did not happen and the show concluded its five-season run in the summer of 2016. Among historical dramas, Hell on Wheels is one of the few contemporary shows that draw directly from the generic tradition of the Western. According to Richard Slotkin, the Western functions as “a myth that can help us make sense of the history we have lived and the place we are living” (655). In the case of Hell on Wheels, however, the myth being crafted attempts to address race directly. Discussing the impetus for the show, Joe Gayton explains: “We wanted to look at racism in this show and shine a light on it. That’s why one of our characters is a freed slave” (Goldberg). Nonetheless, the protagonist is a heteronormative white man. Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, Hell on Wheels begins in Washington DC where protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), former slave-owner and Confederate soldier, murders a former Union Army soldier in a church confessional as revenge for the deaths of his wife and son (“Pilot”). Seeking further retribution, Bohannon takes a train west to the leading edge of the Union Pacific railroad—the mobile town known as Hell on Wheels.
In the pilot episode, Hell on Wheels makes clear that its protagonist is a Southerner with a reconstructed relationship to slavery who is capable of sustaining interracial relationships. When asked if he was bitter about having to free his slaves after the war, Bohannon replies that he had, in fact, freed his slaves a year before the war started. He explains that his deceased wife was from the North and had “convinced me of the evils of slavery” (“Pilot”). Bohannon’s identity as a reconstructed Southern man is further cemented when he and freedman Elam Ferguson (Common) bond following the murder of the racist railroad foreman and former Union soldier who participated in the deaths of Bohannon’s family. Indeed, this relationship between former slave owner and former slave is central for the series’ broader narrative.
Yet, it is the close friendship between Bohannon and Ferguson that makes the latter’s death all the more shocking. At the end of season three, Ferguson was severely injured during a fight with a bear. Midway through season four, it is revealed that Elam was nursed back to health by Native Americans who believed he gained magic powers by killing the bear. Yet, when he returns to Cheyenne, it is clear that Ferguson has suffered some kind of brain trauma as he attempts to sell three women into slavery on the town’s streets (“Life’s a Mystery”). When the territorial governor of Wyoming wants to resolve the situation with violence, Bohannon advocates on his friend’s behalf, claiming that Ferguson “ain’t in his mind.” The governor responds, “The negro is an inferior race, but human nonetheless. That is why we fought your war, Mr. Bohannon.” Whether or not this exchange can be understood as a larger comment on the state of American racial thinking in the aftermath of the Civil War, Hell on Wheels’ protagonist is presented as being in the morally superior position relative to another white character. After a final attempt to peaceably end the standoff fails, Bohannon delivers a mortal knife wound after an extended fight. Yet, the scene only concludes when Bohannon pulls his revolver and shoots the already dying Ferguson in the chest at close range. In the narrative context of Hell on Wheels, this execution of a former slave by a former slave owner is presented as necessary, even merciful.
Like his interaction with the governor, frequent conflicts with overtly racist white characters provide opportunities for Bohannon to express colour-blind racial ideology and distance himself from his confederate past. In season four, for example, Bohannon crosses paths with Syd Snow (Jonathan Scarfe), a former confederate soldier, who recognises Bohannon from the war (“Elam Ferguson”). Speaking of Bohannon’s fighting prowess, Snow claims to have “never seen a meaner Yankee killer on God’s green earth” (“Life’s a Mystery”). Yet, instead of reminiscing, Bohannon attempts to end the conversation by returning to his work loading a rail car. Nonetheless, Snow asks Bohannon to get him a job “throwing rock” (clearing debris) and Bohannon vouches for Snow. At the work site, an African American worker complains about Snow’s “slack work.” In response, Snow loudly says, “Bohannon, listen to the way these niggers talk to us.” To avoid a confrontation, Bohannon pulls Snow aside and explains, “This right here, hey, is my job. Now, I work with these men.” Pointing over his shoulder at his African American walking boss, he continues, “That man right there, he’s my boss.” Incredulously, Snow snorts, “You got yourself a nigger boss.” Bohannon replies, “He’s yours too, if you want to be here.” Like representations of racism in popular culture which rely disproportionately on classed images of “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” and “white trash,” Snow performs a “critical function in the maintenance of whiteness” as a figure white audiences can use “to delimit an attention to the subject of racism” (Hartigan, “Who Are?” 111).
By aligning the moral standing of white characters with their racial attitudes, the moral economy of Hell on Wheels reflects the contemporary postracial context where any embrace of racial identity is linked to historically oppressive racial boundaries and anyone “who ‘sees’ or talks about race becomes complicit with racism” (Rossing 47). Similarly, Bohannon’s interracial relationships function both as images of diversity that historically validate the coming end of race and racism by providing visible evidence of racial cooperation and historically situate the problem of race in personal and emotional terms. In so doing, Hell on Wheels supports postracial discourses that refuse to address racism in systemic or institutional contexts.
In contrast to the contemporary Western Hell on Wheels, Cinemax’s The Knick draws from the generic tradition of the medical drama. Set in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, the show has a distinct visual style crafted by film director Steven Soderbergh and the protagonist, Dr. John Thackery, is played by film star Clive Owen. Promoted with expensive marketing campaigns and highly stylised publicity materials, The Knick has helped Cinemax achieve a measure of separation from the network’s traditional brand identity colloquially known as “Skinemax”, which references its well-known late-night soft-core pornographic programming. Indeed, the success of the show’s first season has helped the network rebrand itself as producer of prestige dramas like other premium cable channels including HBO and Showtime. Through a series of flashbacks, The Knick’s pilot episode reveals that Thackery, an intravenous cocaine addict, has recently become the head of surgery at Knickerbocker Hospital following his predecessor and mentor’s suicide (“Method and Madness”). Beyond Thackery’s drug use, a major subplot introduced in the pilot episode involves the racial integration of the hospital’s surgical staff.
Figure 1 (Left): Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon in Hell on Wheels. AMC, 2011–2016. Figure 2 (Right): Clive Owen as John Thackery in The Knick. Cinemax, 2014–2015. Publicity stills.
Unlike Bohannon in Hell on Wheels, The Knick’s protagonist begins the series holding ambiguous racial attitudes as evidenced by his initial unwillingness to hire an African-American surgeon. Following his promotion, Thackery wants his current colleague Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) to fill his former role as deputy surgical chief. However, the hospital’s primary benefactors insist that Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), who is African American, fill the vacant position. Despite his desire to promote Gallinger, Thackery is nonetheless forced to accept Edwards. A conversation with Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), the Knick’s manager, makes the situation clear. Thackery asserts, “I’m not hiring the Negro.” Barrow counters, “Do you think I want that dusky coon roaming these halls? A man of high rank on our staff who will repel patients? … You know we have no choice.” The use of racial language in this scene is telling. Although he is expressing his desire for the surgical staff to remain segregated, Thackery’s use of the term “negro” is presented as descriptive, lacking racial animus. In contrast, Barrow’s characterisation of Edwards as a “dusky coon” appears to come from a place of bigotry and hatred.
Over the course of The Knick’s first season, however, Thackery’s attitude towards Edwards shifts. Several episodes later, for example, he allows Edwards to talk his white colleagues through a procedure he helped pioneer in Europe (“Where’s the Dignity”). During a crucial moment in the operation, Edwards stops participating. As the patient begins bleeding to death, Gallinger says, “We don’t have time for your nigger games.” But the brinksmanship peaks Thackery’s interest and he asks the other surgeon present if he would like to wager on the outcome. Once the patient is out of danger, Gallinger says to Edwards, “So I suppose we won’t be needing your expertise any longer.” Edwards only offers half a response, “I suppose not,” before Gallinger unexpectedly punches him in the face. Turning his attention towards Edwards, Thackery instructs his nurse to help Edwards up and throws Gallinger out of the surgical theater. Among critics, this scene is thought to reflect Thackery’s shifting racial attitudes and his progressive relationship with Edwards. Writing for New York Magazine’s online shingle Vulture, one critic claims that the scene “feels like Thack and Edwards have crossed a threshold—respect is trickling in through the levee of intolerance” (Uhlich). Writing in the A.V. Club, another critic notes: “So for those counting, he dismisses Gallinger, he has Edwards helped up, and he seals it with a joke to relax his stuffy white audience, not to imply that he’s above it himself” (Nowalk). This critic explains that the scene is “kind of extraordinary” not because it appeals to contemporary white audiences’ negative sentiments about overt racism, “but rather because it’s a modern antihero with some nuance in his troublesome attitudes.” Later in the season, Thackery again has the opportunity to stand in opposition to overtly racist white characters.
The racial tensions simmering beneath the surface in New York City serve as a near constant backdrop for The Knick. These tensions explode when an Irish policeman, Phinny Sears (Collin Meath), asks an African American woman standing on the street if she would like to work as prostitute for a local pimp (“Get the Rope”). The offended woman’s boyfriend stabs Sears several times and he is taken to the Knick where he dies shortly thereafter. On the hospital steps, Sears’ widow angrily instructs the gathered Irish crowd to avenge her husband and “take down every one of them fucking darkies.” The crowd, which seems to require little encouragement, begins chasing and then beating any African American in sight. Watching the chaos unfold from inside the hospital, Thackery pushes his way through the angry Irish mob and stands over one of the mob’s random African American targets. He shouts at the assailants, “You’re just standing there. Help him, Goddamn it.” Not surprisingly, help was not forthcoming and, following a hard cut, the audience watches Thackery single-handedly bring the wounded man into the Knick. To emphasise the spirit of racial equality that motivates its protagonist, while working in the Negro clinic where all the Knick’s African American patients had been moved before the mob stormed the hospital, Thackery parts with one of his precious vials of cocaine thereby providing a patient with a much-needed anaesthetic.
In pairing Thackery with Barrow, then Gallinger, then the violent Irish mob, The Knick consistently juxtaposes ambiguous racial attitudes with virulent bigotry in speech and action thereby allowing audiences to understand the protagonist through a relative moral framework. As such, the show encourages audiences to attribute the historical problems of race to “those racists” and exclude themselves (vis-à-vis the protagonist as a point of historicised identification) from that category. Like Hell on Wheels, The Knick reflects the paradox of postracial popular culture whereby discomfort with and the desire to forget racism hangs comfortably next to demonstrations of progress wherein the damage of racism is addressed by “good” white people.
In contrast to the postracial representational strategy utilised by Hell on Wheels and The Knick, the unflinching depiction of America’s racial caste system in David Milch’s Western Deadwood forces viewers to confront overt prejudice without the softening effects of relative morality. Set in the years immediately following the Civil War, Deadwood’s vision of American history includes textured and complex individuals who are equally capable of offering pleasantries and vile expressions of bigotry and hatred. This historical drama “refuses its audience the ‘pretty’ stories” (Perlman 112) of earlier Westerns and defies much of what previously marked the genre on television and film.
Deadwood’s narrative is driven by several equally prominent white protagonists and the series’ moral economy is unrelated to the racial orientation of white characters. Saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), for example, incessantly makes anti-Semitic remarks in the presence of the town’s only Jewish resident and hurls a variety of racial epithets at Chinese residents. Indeed, throughout the series, this character remains totally unrepentant in his racism. In contrast, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), the show’s representation of law and order, never exhibits racial animus. For example, Bullock inadvertently stumbles upon a Native American building a funeral pyre, is attacked, and kills his attacker (“Plague”). Discussing the incident, Bullock positions himself and the Native American as equals and offers a colour-blind interpretation saying, “He was just trying to live, same as me, do honor to his friend, make some fucking sense out of things” (“Bullock Returns to the Camp”). Yet, Deadwood neither uses Swearengen’s bigotry to make Bullock a more attractive point of audience identification nor does the show present Bullock’s colour-blindness in a manner that softens the impact of racist speech and action undertaken by other white characters.
Without a central white protagonist or a primary character of colour, the representations of people of colour in Deadwood make it difficult to imagine a frontier town in 1870s South Dakota as a breeding ground for democracy and freedom. Throughout the series’ three seasons, Chinese and African American life is consistently less important than the rights of white men. In season one, for example, the struggle for power between two saloon owners results in a manufactured racial conflict between Deadwood’s white and Chinese communities. Acting on behalf of one of the saloon owners, Leon, a heroin addict and a comparatively minor character, tries to inflame tensions by denouncing a prominent Chinese resident in the street, “Are we that far west that we’ve wound up in fuckin’ China? Where a white man kowtows to a celestial like that arrogant cocksucker Wu!” (“Jewel’s Boots Are Made for Walking”). When confronting Wu in a later episode, Leon again invokes the operative racial hierarchy, “You may be a big shot in this alley, but you are less than a nigger to me!” (“Sold Under Sin”). As this quote indicates, Deadwood’s depiction of the treatment of African Americans also includes expressions of overt racism. For example, Samuel Fields (Franklyn Ajaye), an African American resident, is tarred during an eruption of mob violence that acts to express and purge the anger of the town’s whites (“Complications”). Arnette Hostetler (Richard Gant), the African American livery owner, is harassed by a white man who continuously questions his virtue and casts aspersions on his character. Ultimately, Hostetler commits suicide and his tormentor is allowed to take control of the livery (“Full Faith and Credit”). In these instances, people of colour are clearly victimised by those who have little to fear from any legal or social authority.
None of this, however, is to say that Deadwood portrays a more authentic, historically accurate version of the American past than Hell on Wheels or The Knick. Evaluating such a claim is beyond the scope of this analysis. Yet, in the context of a viewing culture permeated by postracial ideology, the depictions of race and racism in Deadwood call attention to the ways in which white supremacy is fundamentally intertwined with American history. In contrast, Hell on Wheels and The Knick indulge the audience’s desire to believe that racism and, by extension, race itself, are historical relics. In these more recent prime-time dramas, the viewer is invited to embrace a deracialised image of whiteness that lacks any connection to the moral stain of racism.
Rather than forwarding postracial logic by excluding characters of colour or offering politically correct depictions of racism like Mad Men, the overt racism depicted in historical dramas like Hell on Wheels and The Knick draws attention to the historical facts of racial oppression only to limit the potential for critical engagement by presenting racism as a social force that only structures relations between individuals. If a fictional former confederate soldier and slave owner can view African Americans as equals while building the transcontinental railroad, then surely there must be historical correlates. Similarly, if a once-racist New-York-City surgeon can come to see the error of his ways and embrace an African American doctor as a valued peer, then perhaps the social barriers African Americans faced at the turn of the century were not so high. Yet, as a brief consideration of Deadwood demonstrates, there are alternative representational strategies that can confront viewers with images of systemic racism and challenge audiences to consider the legacy of American racism.
How should we understand these differing depictions of race and racism in the post-network era? It seems possible that such differences might be related to significant shifts in postracial ideology that occurred between Deadwood’s conclusion in 2006 and the premiere of Hell on Wheels in 2011. Some scholars have speculated that the 2008 election of Barack Obama supported the emergence of a new racial dogma allowing whites to believe that race is no longer a central factor determining the life chances of Americans (Bonilla-Silva and Ashe). Postracial representational politics, however, are rarely so straightforward.
Alongside broader cultural shifts, cable networks have also begun navigating with new industrial realities in the post-network era. When Deadwood premiered, HBO was far and away the most prestigious cable network and its primary subscriber-based rival, Showtime, produced dramas intended for very specific niche audience segments (Peters). Similarly, at the beginning of the post-network era, advertiser-supported networks like AMC could afford to produce original scripted content if such shows went on to draw one percent of the available audience (Lotz 37). Yet, since 1999, the number of scripted series produced for cable channels has increased by 1000% (Littleton).
In this context, it remains unclear if Hell on Wheels is AMC’s attempt to solidify its brand identity as a source for mass-appeal shows like Walking Dead or if it is another confused attempt to save the ill-defined brand left in the wake of Mad Men and Breaking Bad (2008–2013) (Jaramillo). In addition, the proliferation of subscriber-supported online video streaming services has begun to undercut the cable audience upon which premium networks like Cinemax depend. Furthermore, in the contemporary moment of “peak TV”, Cinemax’s ability to build its brand around The Knick depends upon its ability to either attract new premium cable subscribers or draw existing ones from its rivals HBO and Showtime. In light of these industrial shifts, the unwillingness of historical dramas like Hell on Wheels and The Knick to challenge audiences with imagery that problematise dominant postracial ideologies might well reflects market realities created by the ongoing expansion of viewer choice.
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Wayne, M. L. (2017) 'Depicting the racist past in a “postracial” age: the white, male protagonist in Hell on Wheels and The Knick', Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, 13, pp. 105-116. https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.13.06.
Michael L. Wayne is a Kreitman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. He received his PhD in sociology from the University of Virginia in 2015. His research interests include qualitative audience analysis, critical television studies, and the consumption of popular culture. His work has appeared in a variety of peer-reviewed journals including Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, Journal of Popular Culture, VIEW: Journal of European Television History and Culture, and The Communication Review.