How Hell on Wheels Captured the Real Point of a Sex Scene

The second season of AMC’s Hell on Wheels demonstrates why a sex scene should be included for more important purposes than the old mantra, “sex sells.” Instead of focusing on lurid physicality, which is especially prominent in visual media, the scene was stripped down to any scene’s foremost purposes: advancing plot and character. With the physicality out of the way, the show gave us a tender moment that demonstrated the characters’ flaws while giving us hope that they can overcome them.


Series leads Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and Miss Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) have been two parts of a classic love triangle since season one. Though they’ve had their share of cutesy moments, I was hesitant to be enthused about the idea of them beginning a relationship, because both characters would inevitably bring their troubled histories and flaws into it in ways that could end up damaging the other.

Cullen is a man divided between his old self, a farmer and family man, and his new self, which seeks vengeance following the murder of his wife and son. His is a story of redemption or damnation demonstrated by the story’s central plot – the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The post Civil War setting, where a nation was divided against itself, is symbolic of Cullen’s internal struggle to remain the man he was, or become a man his family wouldn’t even recognize as he tries to avenge them. Though his eyes are “set west to the future,” we are never sure if he will follow the tracks to a new life of redemption, or succumb to his hate and be damned along with the rest of the corrupt souls who reside in the show’s namesake: a railroad town named Hell on Wheels.

Lily’s character is driven by a belief, founded after a harrowing solo experience following her husband’s death, that she cannot survive or find a place in the world on her own. She has thus attached herself to the railroad’s owner, Mr. Thomas Durante, in a relationship not based on love, but survival. We are left wondering if the moments where she seems to genuinely feel for Cullen are just a show put on to re-attach herself to someone more rough-and-tumble who can care for her in the violent daily life of Hell on Wheels.

The consummation of Cullen and Lily’s relationship came at the perfect time to demonstrate their flaws, and the worries we have over whether or not they can overcome them. Cullen is angry enough to flee the railroad and resume the trail of his family’s killers, and Lily is faced with being alone again after her partner, the aforementioned Mr. Durante, is shot and must leave town for a surgery with a small success rate. Neither of them are aware that each other is the catalyst needed to overcome their flawed ways of thinking. For Cullen, Lily is a future removed from the pain, guilt, and hate he feels over his family’s death. For Lily, Cullen is a relationship formed on actual affection rather than the help or security someone else can provide her. It is when these two finally begin to realize the ways they help each other that they give in to their season-long desire to be together, though it’s a hesitant engagement.

The internal conflict that both characters feel during their intimate moment is revealed according to a classic rule of writing: show, don’t tell. Lily has a moment before initiating the first kiss where she reaches out to pull Cullen in. Had it been someone else across from her, who could offer security but whom she did not actually care for, she would have eagerly kissed them in order to cement the relationship and her own safety, just as she eagerly jumped into bed with Mr. Durante after Cullen refused her affection in season one. Instead, we get a hint that she can overcome her flaws; she gently brushes the hair out of Cullen’s face and proceeds only with his approval, softly kissing him in a moment of genuine affection.

Due to the camera angle, the kiss isn’t even shown, which was a clever way to put the emphasis on Cullen’s reaction. He wears a hesitant expression, and his thoughts, which are left ambiguous, seem to be on whether or not he can move forward in this new affection and put the past behind him, or if he should run and honor his wife and son’s memories.

The song choice for the scene – The Duhks’ Annabel – served to reinforce Cullen’s internal conflict in this moment. A song about a deceased loved one, the lyrics “Where does the spirit go when you die?” showcase the question Cullen is asking himself about how Lily can change his life. Where will his spirit go when he dies? Will he start to find the good man he used to be, as Lily encourages, or will the town of Hell on Wheels drag him down with it as it encourages his bloodlust and rage? Further, the lyrics, “Annabel Annabel way up high, are you kissing the starry birds in the sky?” make us think that Cullen is having these thoughts about where his wife and son are, what they’re doing, and what they think of him. Would he honor them better through vengeance, or by remaining the man they loved? This is the question he continuously asks himself, but hoped Miss Lily Bell could answer.

Hell on Wheels has capitalized on the grim tones of many modern and successful shows. As the last episodes of season 2 showed, there was never a happy ending in store for these two. Lily Bell, often referred to as the Fair-Haired Maiden of the West, did not fulfill the old trope of the woman who tempers the gruff and troubled hero; instead, she is killed by Cullen’s nemesis just a few short episodes after starting their relationship. This made me realize, after the initial shock, that the sex scene and brief relationship with Lily had already made the necessary impact on Cullen’s battle against damnation, an impact that gives him new fervor to complete the railroad in season 3 and beyond. Though Lily is gone, her memory continues to strip away Cullen’s flaws, piece by piece.

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