"Hell On Wheels" had me at hello, and by hello I mean the whole Post-War-Confederate-Vigilante-Wild-West business. The tagline "blood will be spilled, lives will be lost, men will be ruined" was all a bonus, and the cherry on top whilst actually viewing: that our main man, Cullen Bohannon (you can't even say that name without slipping into a Southern accent), played by the stern and grizzled Anson Mount (which could have served well as his character name, frankly) is from Meridian, Mississippi, my Dad's hometown and current locale of most of the Keene clan. It's the little touches, you see.
Just as there is an overabundance of television focusing on cops, lawyers and hospital staff, so too is there a corresponding dearth of material taking place in the Wild West. I used to claim that the most underrepresented time period in modern history was the Edwardian era leading up to and beyond World War I into the roaring '20s and Prohibition '30s. Luckily "Downton Abbey" and "Boardwalk Empire" have provided a great amount of historical satisfaction on that front, so now that we've got that covered, why not backtrack slightly a bit to Reconstruction, the rise of the railroad, and a fresh round of Manifest Destiny? It's a time period well trod in films, but far less so on TV in the last few decades. "Deadwood," rest its blessed soul, has been our best and most recent ticket to this tumultuous time frame, and it's through the lens of a "Deadwood" fan that I inspect "Hell on Wheels," which looks so far to be of a much wider scope and of deeper racial considerations.
Let's back up for just a moment and set the scene, as the show so helpful does to orient us among our major narratives. The literal Hell on Wheels is the name of the (sin-filled - Whores! Liquor! Murder!) camp that travels along with the construction of the transcontinental railroad. It's has become a Mecca for wayward sorts looking to make some money (like the enterprising Irish McGinnes brothers Cullen meets on the train) and for former slaves looking to find and establish a new life. And of course then there's Cullen, who we learn pretty early on is avenging the brutal death of his wife at the hands of Union Soldiers during Sherman's March to the Sea. So far he's done a swell job, even masquerading as a priest in Washington, D.C. in order to slay one of the perpetrators. He arrives at the Hell on Wheels encampment for a little work and a little murder - he successfully slays his utterly evil boss by proxy (the actually throat-slitting comes courtesy of Elam, played by the rapper Common), but with the quick and early death of this foe comes an unfortunate twist - Cullen is unable to get from him the name of the sergeant, who is with the Hell on Wheels gang, who actually strangled his wife. As such, it looks like Cullen will be sticking around for longer than he planned. And so we begin!
This would have been more than enough to sustain the straight-forward revenge plot of a film, but to keep building depth and tension throughout the series, "Hell on Wheels" introduced us to a few other sub-narratives to compliment Cullen's own. The first revolves around Thomas "Doc" Durant (played by the Irishman Colm Meaney), a businessman and investor (and real historical figure) who helps develop the transcontinental railroad. Doc doesn't mind playing the villain, as he says in his closing monologue, because he knows he is a titan of fortune for the United States, even if the history books won't portray him as such (it hasn't, thanks to the Crédit Mobilier scandal). Through Doc's eyes we see the mechanisms that get these sorts of projects funded and built - HISTORICAL SPOILER: it contains a lot of graft. Plenty of art will, with the benefit of hindsight, include some cheeky jokes about "the way things were" (as viewed through our cooly modern eyes), but the refrain of "some things don't never change" (to quote Elam) is a joke that's on us. Our government is still controlled and weighed down by graft and corruption, mostly at the hands of Big Business, just as it was. The racial situation … well, I'm not touching that!
The second sub-story belongs to Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), whose husband had the misfortune of being a TV character with a cough. Remember: if anyone onscreen ever shows any kind of physical weakness, that weakness will kill them. Though neither I, nor Lily, thought it would take him out so soon. Despite her delicate frame and posh London accent, Lily has a warrior spirit, and ended the episode having killed her husband's murderer, and, covered in blood, slogging through the Nebraska wilderness with Doc's precious maps, unsure of who or what she may find before her.
Not to leave the Native Americans out of this (as so many tend to do), we got a very brief glimpse of not just the hostile
Cheyenne Pawnee (standard) but also of Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), a conflicted man of Native American decent who is clearly between two worlds (the old and new). There was also a moment's pause for the Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) who sets up shop in the midst of Hell on Wheels, despite some mild protestations from the local whores. All of this speaks well to painting a more complete picture of the time period and the story outside of Cullen's mission, even though it is still Cullen who anchors it narratively and emotionally.
Bottom line? A Pilot is a Pilot, but this was an exceptionally good one in my estimation. Shows tend to develop slowly as newborns, but I thought "Hell on Wheels" provided us with a complex narrative without feeling overly "let me tell you about this one guy who did this one thing and why you should care." It spoke on its own. And that bodes well for its future.
Musings and Miscellanea:
— "The nation is an open wound" - stunning poetic context to start the series off with.
— "We opened a dark door, and the devil stepped in." - Union soldier. I think there will be further discussion about what moral men do and do not do in war.
— I am annoyed that it was Cullen's ~Yankee Wife who had to tell him that slavery was wrong. And Lily is English? Where are the good ole Southern women in this story??
— "He's got twelve toes and I've got eight. Individually we're freaks but together we're whole" - the McGinnis Brothers.
— The show has done well with the period slang and not shying away from, but not overusing, the N-word.
— I got really excited when I saw that the whores had terrible teeth, then saw that most everyone else had pearly whites. I wish, like in the "John Adams" miniseries, more of the main characters exhibited some teeth uncorrected by braces, and unaccustomed to fluoride.
— Paying yourself to build a railroad thanks to a government subsidy? "Some things don't never change."
— I'm not at all opposed to the mix of music - modern and traditional - the show has so far chosen to use. They've all been appropriately atmospheric.
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