HELL ON WHEELS

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AMC’s success with original productions
began with the Emmy-winning western
miniseries, Broken Trail .

Now, the network
is traveling east to
west to fulfill a programming
manifest
destiny of its own
with series Hell on
Wheels, tracking the
building of the transcontinental
railroad.

The TV series is
equally ambitious in
trying to forge a narrative
that explores
themes touching on
reconstruction, immigration,
slavery,
corruption, genocide
and man’s destruction of nature.

Unlike HBO’s decadent Deadwood, set in
South Dakota, Hell on Wheels is a rolling revue
of a town as the railroad moves slowly along its
course. At the center of the mobile bivouac: Cullen
Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Rebel,
whose Northern wife was raped and killed by
Union soldiers, leaving him focused on revenge.

Elam (rapper Common) is the embodiment
of the emancipated slaves, who are still being
treated subserviently as “cutters.” He shares
a criminal act with Bohannon that binds them
together against their “Yankee” bosses, led by
Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), a driving force
behind the Union Pacific Railroad.

Durant plays the heavy, bribing a senator about
his holdings in Nebraska and literally using his
hands to reshape a newspaper account of a
Cheyenne attack. Although he sees virtue in the
railroad’s goal and the legacy it may create for
him, he makes no bones about his main motivation:
$16,000 for each mile of track laid.

One of the more notable characters is The
Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), Durant’s henchman,
who also provides La Cosa Nostra-type protection
for a pair of Irish hustlers, brothers Sean
and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke).

Native Americans, at least initially, are played to
savage and spiritual type. However, Joseph Black
Moon (Eddie Spears) is converted by the resident
Rev. Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) to Christianity.

Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), the sole survivor
of an Indian massacre that took her surveyor husband’s
life, apparently will function as a frontier forbear,
carving out a role for Western women that extends
beyond Hell on Wheels’s anonymous whores.

Bell is also seen remembering more halcyon
days with her husband via flashback, a motif
from which Bohannon also recalls his wife. Like
many of the characters, he continually alludes
to the horrors of the War Between the States.
Presumably through more remembrances, the
incidents involving the Union and the “greybacks”
will help flesh out the characters.
Certainly much broader in scope than the
centered milieus in which Mad Men and Breaking
Bad
have unspooled so brilliantly, Hell on
Wheels
should lay out a larger audience for AMC
than either of those acclaimed dramas.

 — Mike Reynolds

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