My wife and I recently had the delight of taking a guided tour through the streets of Tombstone, Arizona. We’re both history nuts, and our guide – a retired doctor who’s gone about researching the peoples and places of the famed city for his own purposes – peppered his 2 and ½ hour presentation with modern pop culture references in order to help bring the days of the Wild West back to life. In terms of authenticity at depicting the struggles of daily life for common folks, he rated two television programs very high. The first – we guessed right – was DEADWOOD; the second was a bit of a welcome surprise: AMC TV’s HELL ON WHEELS.
HELL ON WHEELS appeared on AMC’s schedule with relatively little pomp and circumstance … at least, little by comparison to their competing programs MAD MEN and THE WALKING DEAD, which were given red carpet treatment. The small, comfy Western’s first season came and went with little critical acclaim, though it currently garners a respectable score of 63 on Metacritic’s tracking poll. Starring a practically unheard of Anson Mount in the lead, along with strong character actor Colm Meaney in a sizable secondary role, HELL ON WHEELS is ‘the story’ of the old West, of pioneering a frontier and making it hospitable for the men, women, and children coming to populate it, all with a healthy bit of gunslinging vengeance thrown in for good measure.
Cullen Bohannen (played by Mount) harbors a mystery: he’s on a personal vendetta to find and kill the men who raped and murdered his wife while he was away fighting the Civil War. In order to ‘fit in’ inconspicuously amongst with the unruly types populating the expanding Western frontier, he takes a job as a crew chief for Thomas Durant (Meaney), rail baron. However, Durant’s sheriff – ‘The Swede’ (Christopher Heyerdahl) – suspects Bohannen is secretly up to no good, and he goes forever out of his way to keep the man under his thumb. The track will be laid, blood will be spilled, and vengeance will be had … but at what costs to the players involved?
What’s particularly fascinating about the program is that – strictly from a character dynamic – Bohannen never knows who to trust, and this keeps the audience on the edge of its seat. He’s an effective boss, but he’s constantly on his guard against others wanting the ‘top job’ and willing to weasel it out of him. Durant clearly suspects Bohannen’s motives, but he’s beholden to him at the same time for getting the tracks laid. Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) – a widower with strong ties to the train business – wants to trust the man, but she’s drawn into her own affairs to set right the legacy of her late husband. To its strengths, WHEELS becomes a kinda/sorta Western noir as the roles of ‘ally’ and ‘adversary’ always seem to be in flux for our main character.
Also, the expansion of the frontier – the building of the railroad – serves as a metaphor for all the stories here. No gains are made without great personal effort and sacrifice. With each new stretch of track comes another turn into unsuspected treachery – be it financial, spiritual, or even territorial as the local Indian tribes seek to stop the ‘black beast’ rampaging over their land. But, in order to grow, something must be torn away first – or be crushed under the locomotive’s mighty steam-driven wheels – and the frontier promises to always extract its price.
Bohannen’s primary storyline – vengeance – comes and goes throughout the course of the first season; it plays strongly into the pilot episode, as well as significantly in the season finale, but along the way he’s allowed to grow a bit and come to grips with the consequences of his actions. Where it’ll all go is a mystery as the season ends on a bit of a dramatic upheaval (no spoilers, just a massive set-up that might change the stakes for all involved) … but I’ll definitely be on board once the train heads out again for the next season.
If there is any weakness to the stories here, it’s the prevalence of interracial relationships. For some reason, it seems as if the writers were intent upon putting everyone through the ropes so far as ‘race matters’ was concerned. Granted, you’ve got your ‘whites,’ your ‘blacks,’ and your ‘native Americans’ all thrown together at a time when the cultural melting pot was boiling on the stove, but I’d rather the program dial back the blossoming romances every-which-way and continue to tell great stories of exploration. Bohannen’s search for justice has enough teeth to carry the main narrative for a respectable amount of time; layering on secondary romance after romance only dilutes the tales into yet another ‘spin’ on race relations that, so far, carries the same moral of the story: “try to get along regardless of color, folks.” Plus, there’s plenty of gibes made at the expense of the Irish. Seriously, by the end of the season, I was hoping that the writers played out the race card so that it appears only sparingly in the episodes yet to come. It grew tired real quick.
Mount, in particular, does an impressive turn as the principle gunslinger here. For a talent whose rarely been seen on the big and small screen, he brings a wit and a charm to his grizzled stare, and the West comes alive with the crack of his pistol. He’s an everyman plunged into an antihero’s journey – a jaded past and a jaded future – every bit as mean and lean as the circumstances require of him. Meaney feels a bit miscast, at times, but, as the season progresses, his character thankfully gets fleshed out a bit more. The true grit here, though, goes to Heyerdahl’s Swede; he chews scenery every time he’s on the screen – a great foil to Mount’s main thrust – and it’ll be a pleasure to watch where this ticket takes him.
HELL ON WHEELS is produced by a partnership of AMC with Entertainment One Television, Nomatic Pictures, (gayton)2, Endemol, Endemol Entertainment UK, and H.O.W. Productions. DVD distribution is handled through Entertainment One. The disc is solid with exceptional video and audio production qualities; it looks and sounds terrific. Music is used to terrific effect throughout the first season, at times sparse and, other times, haunting. There’s a great array of special features, including several ‘making of’ shorts and character bios as well as some additional focus providing key insight into the narrative of several episodes. If you’re looking forward to season two, then you’d do well to bone up on these in order to better grasp where the show may be headed when it comes back to the small screen.
STRONGLY RECOMMENDED. Fans of HBO’s late foray into the contemporary Western DEADWOOD would do well to discover HELL ON WHEELS’ charm; it isn’t as obviously vulgar or gritty, but it captures the mystique of that certain time and place of the days long ago with equal emphasis on delivering a quality show with exceptional (if not minimalist) production qualities.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Foundry Communications provided me with a DVD screener of HELL ON WHEELS: COMPLETE FIRST SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.