After the Civil War tore North and South apart, America was repaired by a union of East and West through the Union Pacific Railroad.
That’s the history lesson behind Hell on Wheels, the latest creation from the cable broadcaster that brought us such distinguished programs as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead — and The Killing, which is a bizarre, compelling, idiotic, utterly watchable entity in its own right. Hell on Wheels lacks the depth and focus and general superlative writing of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and can’t capture the overwhelming atmosphere of The Walking Dead, but there are enough elements in it to make for a compelling show.
Hell on Wheels is the story of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier looking for revenge on the Union soldiers who killed his wife during the war. In the first scene in the show, we see Bohannon posing as a priest taking the confession of one of his wife’s assailants before sliding the confessional screen open and blowing the man away. Right from the get-go, this show aims to have its morality muddy and its main character a bona fide badass.
On his quest for vengeance, Bohannon gets a job as a boss man at a Union Pacific Railroad construction sight where he becomes entangled with a bitter former slave, Elam, played by the rapper Common. That’s as far as we get in Bohannon’s story in the first episode. Unfortunately for the show, there are a lot of subplots that populate the screen when Bohannon is not seeking out justice, not all of them good.
The good subplot follows Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), the bureaucratic blowhard behind the railroad’s construction, as he forces a senator into compliance and expounds upon how history will misrepresent his great quest for the nation’s unification. There’s also a plot following a preacher played by Tom Noonan hoping to start a mission in the midst of the railroad’s debauchery, which hopefully will bear fruit.
The bad subplot follows two laughable lovers working for the railroad who get mixed up in an attack by Cheyenne Native Americans. And then there are these two baffling Irish brothers who try to serve as comic relief but end up being too reminiscent of Marty McFly’s Irish great-grandfather (also played by Michael J. Fox) in Back to the Future Part III to be taken as real characters.
The show is best when it follows Bohannon, although the character is not written perfectly. In that uniquely muddled way Hollywood has of writing Confederate heroes, Bohannon is a Confederate soldier who owned slaves but who freed them before the Civil War, in which he fought purely for honour’s sake. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?
Still, Bohannon has the makings to be an adequate avenging man in black. Anson Mount, best known for playing the dude that Britney Spears and company shack up with in the 2002 travesty Crossroads, wipes away memories of that misstep, playing tortured and steely-eyed but not stoic to a fault. He’s playing an archetype here and knows that roles like this work best when you mostly stay out of their way and let screen presence and the plot’s necessity for heroic badassery do the job.
Colm Meaney’s Thomas Durant is also very compelling. Meaney was a television mainstay in the ’90s with his role as Chief O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Here he hits the right amount of hubris and self-knowing villainy. Critics have said that Meaney’s Durant is Hell on Wheels’ answer to Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen from Deadwood. Only time will tell whether that is an accurate comparison.
Hell on Wheels is a hodgepodge of Western tropes borrowing from everything from Sergio Leone to Sam Peckinpah to John Wayne to Cormac McCarthy, and not all the borrowing is equally successful. Showrunners Joe and Tony Gayton are not masters of cinema and so their show is far more a work in progress than a polished product. But the elements are in place for a compelling show as long as the Gayton brothers trim the excessive writing and characters.
Westerns are uniquely suited to television. While Hell on Wheels isn’t likely to usher in a Silver Age of the television Western, nor even to repeat the critical success of Deadwood, its genre trappings alone give cause to ride the rails for a season.