Complete First Season
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All photos © AMC
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
s long as you don’t go into “Hell on Wheels” expecting TV perfection like its fellow AMC series “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” you’ll probably find much to appreciate about this lawless, violent spin on the final days of the Old West. Not every series can change the definition of television, and if anything, one of the big strengths of “Hell on Wheels” is that it has an almost old school type of approach. Sure, there’s some creative spilling of blood, and occasionally a pop tune fills the soundtrack, but these are minor flourishes at best, and hardly define “Hell on Wheels.” Really, it’s the sort of show I picture Clint Eastwood kicking back at home and enjoying with Scotch and a cigar.
The action begins in 1865, with the country rebuilding after the Civil War, and at the top of the rebuilding list is the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. This was a massive turning point for the United States, as previous to the building of the railroad it would take six or more months to traverse the country; via the railroad, the same journey would take less than a week. In charge of building a portion is Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), a less than ethical businessman who’s far more interested in money than philanthropy. On his watch, a mobile town of sorts crosses the country, building the tracks. This town is dubbed Hell on Wheels, and both it and Durant are factual parts of history. The rest of the show is, to my knowledge, fiction.
Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, is on the trail of the Union soldiers who murdered his wife and child – a bloody quest which brings him to Hell on Wheels to exact yet another killing. After witnessing a murder which he is blamed for, he finds himself in hot water, but Cullen’s resourceful, and just as quickly he turns the tables in his favor, and finds himself foreman of the entire operation. Bohannon forms an extremely complicated relationship with Elam Ferguson (hip-hop artist Common), a freed slave who’s trying to figure out where he belongs in this new world. A big part of this series focuses on the difficulties of integrating slaves into society, and the problems many had in leaving their prejudices behind (keep in mind that the first black president was still 143 years in the future).
Another major player is Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), an Englishwoman who has moved to the U.S. with her husband, a surveyor working for Durant. In the first episode, the husband is killed by Cheyenne Indians and Lily is forced to fend for herself in the wild until she’s discovered by Bohannon. She’s taken back to Hell on Wheels, where Durant makes her comfortable, as she has a collection of her husband’s maps which he requires. Another conflict that plays a big (not to mention violent) role in the series is that of Cheyenne versus the White Man, and though the Cheyenne can hardly be called heroes of the piece, it’s pretty easy to see their point of view. Any self-aware American knows this history. They’re having their homes stolen out from under them, and naturally, they brutally strike back. It’s a simple and logical equation that doesn’t require a whole lot of character shading.
The acting from Meaney and McElligott is exemplary, while Common takes a little more time to find his character, but certainly by the end of the 10-episode season, he’s up to par. (Also, major props to Christopher Heyerdahl as the vicious Swede, who’s actually Norwegian.) Unfortunately, the biggest problem with this series is its lead, Anson Mount. He’s essentially playing a variation on the same guy Eastwood’s played a half a dozen or more times in his career (indeed, “Hell on Wheels” owes a great deal to “The Outlaw Josey Wales” in particular). But Eastwood spent years perfecting that character, and he worked with some outrageously talented people along the way. Playing a morally ambiguous man of few words is probably not an easy task, but Eastwood mastered it, and became an icon in the process. Mount just isn’t there yet, and he’s even difficult to root for most of the time. This sounds like a braver move than it comes across onscreen, as I don’t believe the intention was to have such an unlikable lead. Hopefully, this will change over time, and Mount will become more comfortable with Bohannon and find ways to say a whole lot without saying anything, because this show has too much potential for it to be ruined by one weak casting decision.
And that’s kind of the other thing – the potential. The folks who make this show are clearly playing a long game, and I’m unsure if I found myself dazzled throughout the season; entertained, for sure, but not blown away. Much of the goings-on feel like set-up for bigger, more important events further down the road. Not every series can come charging out of the gate, taking no prisoners, and this one does not, but it’s definitely one to keep an eye on, because soon that might just change.
Special Features: This set features no commentary tracks, but is loaded with nearly two hours of featurettes. “Recreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels” and “Crashing a Train: From Concept to Camera” kick things off. They’re followed by seven “making of” pieces covering various aspects of the production, as well as seven character featurettes, and 10 “Inside the Episode” spots, one for each episode of the season. Finally, there’s 30 minutes of behind the scenes footage and a trailer.