For the longest time, I felt like I was the only person watching Hell On Wheels. I don’t know why I would receive blank stares when I mentioned the show, which had quickly become my favorite on television after only the second or third episode, but I would try and convince anyone who would listen that there were other worthwhile shows on TV other than The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. On the same network, even. A few listened, a few had their eyes glaze over at the lack of zombies, bald drug dealers or 50’s-era advertising executives making snide quips, however; the few who listened were mighty pleased they did.
I would even draw comparisons to Red Dead Redemption, which, at first glance, this show seems to ape, even when it comes to the design of its lead character. Both are revenge stories, more or less. Both are westerns (duh). Both take uncompromising looks at the greed of westward expansion in the post Civil War-era. All in all, I find that Hell On Wheels is better fiction than Red Dead Redemption, though both clearly have their merits. It may seem wrong or perhaps a bit unfair to compare a video game to a television show, however; both are episodic in nature and give the viewer/player ample time to digest the impact of what has just occurred.
Hell On Wheels is the story of westward expansion in the post-Civil War era of the then-turbulent United States of America. The concept of a railroad making its way west is juxtaposed against a powerful revenge tale, and anchored with a tremendous cast including Star Trek alum Colm Meaney as Thomas Durant, investor in the transcontinental railroad, and rapper Common as Elam Ferguson, former slave and railway worker. The rest of the cast includes the standard tropes of the western genre – preachers, Native Americans, prostitutes, and proper ladies.
Of course, a good revenge story needs a badass hero to exact said revenge, and we get him in the form of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, now killing his way through the Union soldiers who raped and murdered his wife in the closing moments of the Civil War. Bohannon is an incredibly likeable, rage-filled hero that becomes endeared to the viewer almost immediately. It would be a disservice to go over exactly what happens to Bohannon over the course of the season, however; there are moments of betrayal and triumph, along with some tremendous shootouts.
I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention Christopher Hyerdahl and Tom Noonan, respectively. Heyerdahl plays The Swede (who’s actually Norwegian), head of Durant’s security, keeping everyone working on the railroad (all the livelong day) in check. His performance is dripping with intensity, and his delivery is nothing short of brilliant. Noonan plays a reformed gunfighter-turned preacher looking to broker peace between the white railway owners and the Native Americans in the area. Some of the finer moments of the show involve Noonan’s character sitting down with representatives of both sides, talking about them coming to a mutual agreement on how to share the land. Wes Studi appears as the Chief of the local tribe who describes the land as having no owner, a concept the white invaders clearly don’t understand. It’s a beautiful commentary on the white man’s rape of the then-beautiful natural world.
The Gayton brothers, who gave us the 2010 action flick Faster starring Dwayne Johnson (another revenge tale that may serve as a kind of blueprint for Hell On Wheels) are the creators of the show, and have somehow managed a second season out of AMC, so good for them. In an era where far too many brilliant shows get canned after one season (I’m mostly looking at you Firefly), I’m glad to know that AMC is keeping the engine roaring, keeping the track going, and plans on continuing the fantastic story of Cullen Bohannon’s quest for revenge.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Some great pieces on crafting a period western are mixed with "making of" featurettes, along with "inside the episode" content and a great extra called Crashing The Train: From Concept to Camera, which entails a climactic moment from the first season.
"Hell On Wheels: The Complete First Season" is on sale May 15, 2012 and is not rated. Western. Directed by Adam Davidson, Alex Zakrzewski, David Von Ancken, John Shiban, Michael Slovis, Michelle Maclaren, Phil Abraham. Written by Joe Gayton, Tony Gayton, John Shiban, Jami O'brien, Mark Richard Bruce, Marshall Romans. Starring Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, Dominique Mcelligott.