“HELL ON WHEELS” is a wild ride into the Wild West packed with surprises. It holds its own among the trend in high quality American television. Each character is gradually stripped of its armor and must bare their souls. Given the rough terrain, and the harsh reality of life, none of these people are going to reveal their secrets easily which is part of the fun of this show. Once the dust settles, we see who was meant to survive and move things forward. Two of the main players to prove their might are a mysterious outlaw, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and a former slave, Elam Ferguson (Common). With a hint of “Huckleberry Finn,” we have these two characters thrown together by fate with every reason to distrust the other but somehow finding reasons to do just the opposite. They don’t come right out and say much about it but these two need each other.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “Huckleberry Finn” lately. You can read my recent essay here. “Hell On Wheels” embraces that novel’s spirit in its unabashed look at America’s struggle to find itself. The story is set in 1865, immediately after the American Civil War. Much blood has been spilled and much more will be shed. Post-Civil War America is an open wound with great need of healing. The hope and dream is to mend America with the construction of the first transcontinental railroad but that proves, time and again, easier said than done. Such an undertaking is, after all, “hell on wheels,” which is also the name of the company town that sets camp at each work site along the way of construction of the Union Pacific leg of the project which is heading west to ultimately meet with the Central Pacific heading east.
Created by the brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, this series is larger-than-life and has a similar authentic vibe like another AMC hit, “The Walking Dead.” It’s hyperreal quality, in no small part due to its highend production, will blow you away. You might even expect a zombie to jump out but “Hell On Wheels” already has enough of its own gore and mayhem to deal with. It also has the magic ingredients of a stellar cast and excellent writing.
So what is “Hell On Wheels” all about? It’s about greed, corruption, lust, sex, revenge, violence, justice, history, race and a whole lot more. This is America at a turning point nearing breaking point. African Americans are no longer slaves but they don’t feel much different except for getting paid for their hard labor. It is the beginning of the end for Native American claims to their land and many will die in the process. And it’s a time when a former Confederate soldier by the name of Cullen Bohannon can just about get away with exacting revenge for the death of his wife by going on a demented killing spree. Like Clint Eastwood before him, Anson Mount has found a sweet spot where the audience will root for the misunderstood killer who really isn’t as bad as he may seem. Truth be told, this is a pretty honorable guy. And he’s capable enough to turn his psychosis into a carrer opportunity, more than once. He joins the “Hell On Wheels” crew with relative ease but he only does this because the crew leader is next on his list of his wife’s killers that he must now kill. All pretty grim except that the guy has a point and he’s got a certain charisma about him.
Meanwhile, and there are a number of meanwhiles in this series, there is Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) who is the mastermind behind this whole railroad venture. He must grease the right palms in Congress and manipulate, coerce and decieve all in the right measure to assure that his Union Pacific will maintain a pipeline of nearly unlimited government cash to keep things rolling. It doesn’t help matters, or maybe it does, that he must contend with an idealist beauty by the name of Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott). She holds the key, in more ways than one, to keeping Durant afloat.
You mention one character and you open up a whole new world. For instance, who is Lily Bell? She is the wife of the master surveyor who was killed during a raid by the natives. She got shot by an arrow in the hand and, by sheer force of will, was able to get the arrow out and thrust it into her husband’s killer’s throat. She may have an English aristocratic background but she keeps proving to be a tough enough. Then there’s “The Swede,” (Christopher Heyerdahl) an amoral accountant turned henchman. It’s this guy who is forever on the heels of Bohannon. He also gives the whole town a hard time by extorting money from all the vendors and they try to put an end to it by literally tarring and feathering him. There are numerous colorful and defining moments like this in the series.
The characters, to varying degrees, continue to intrigue all the way to the end of the season. There are three romances on a slow simmer. We’ve had time to feel sorry for Durant, the ruthless railroad tycoon while the town preacher proves to be far more complicated than first expected. There’s even a subplot about a young man caught between the world of the settlers and his native land. And, in all this time, Bohannon has yet to kiss Lily Bell. At least that’s what we think should happen. The style of the show has been to paint in broad cinematic strokes while striving for storytelling substance. There’s been a bit of hit or miss here but, overall, the show is engaging.
The DVD and Blu-ray for the complete Season One of “Hell on Wheels” has just come out and this show has proven to be marathon viewing worthy. Now is the time to revisit it or dive in and get caught up before the second season on AMC later this year.