Hell on Wheels: Season 1 — a review

I arrived at this television series, which aired for five seasons on AMC from 2011 to 2016, the way I arrive at most things: ass-backwards.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware that the show existed, or if I said American westerns didn’t appeal to me. I love a good western, and still read the occasional western novel, particularly those written by Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, and Loren D. Estleman. This series was an American western story, for certain, even if it was filmed in Canada and it hired on a veritable melting pot of actors from all over, including the USA, Canada, Ireland, England, Australia, South Africa and Hong Kong.

I’m not sure why I didn’t watch this one while it was on the air. When it began, I was still working in retailing management at Target. When it ended, I was working for the US Postal Service. I could have watched it. I had recorded and watched other AMC series, such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Turn: Washington’s Spies, and Halt and Catch Fire. AMC was a solid brand with me, and had a good track record of entertaining shows.

While I can’t explain why I stayed away from the series, I know why I began to watch it. Plain and simple: Star Trek.

Allow me to explain.

I first watched Anson Mount, the Tennessee actor who plays Cullen Bohannon in the series, in the lamentable only season of Marvel’s Inhumans. He portrayed the leader of the Inhumans, Black Bolt. As any self-respecting comic book nerd could tell you, Black Bolt never speaks because even a whisper from the powerful Inhuman was enough to crack mountains. So, I didn’t even get to hear Mount speak during that series’s mercifully short run. I wrote a review of the Marvel series back in December 2017. This is what I wrote about the actor back then:

(Anson Mount) has the perfect superhero face, almost out of a Jack Kirby sketchbook. The set of his mouth as he keeps it shut has a decidedly John Byrne quality, if I’m allowed to dip briefly into my artist-centric comic geek past. Since this show is unlikely to go forward, I would actively lobby for Mount to play Cyclops in the next X-Men reboot, since the franchise is finally joining the MCU.

While the X-Men still haven’t joined the MCU, as far as I can tell, I stand by my description of Mount in the review. He looked heroic, in a decidedly comic book sort of way.

So, I knew Mount’s name by the time he was cast as Captain Christopher Pike for the second season of Star Trek: Discovery. I understand he will also star as Pike for the spinoff series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, if COVID-19 hasn’t eighty-sixed those plans as well.

The actor’s performance as Pike was refreshing. Mount portrayed Capt. Pike as a principled leader—a good, heroic man. While I’m sure that’s how the character was written—-I mean, it’s got to be on the page before it gets on the screen—I have to give Mount credit for selling it, making it seem realistic instead of hokey. I have enjoyed Anson Mount as Capt. Pike and look forward to the new series.

If you’ll take a look at my blog’s home page, you can see one of those category cloud things just above the “Blogs I Follow” list. The more posts that are in a given category, the larger the font. “Star Trek” is second only to “television” in my cloud, just ahead of “Star Wars.” 127 posts about Star Trek, so far, verifies my status as a confirmed Trekkie.

Since Colm Meaney, who was Miles O’Brien on both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, also stars in Hell on Wheels, it began to seem inevitable that I would watch the AMC series at some point. That point came during my self-imposed exile during the pandemic.

The first season has ten episodes. I’ve grown to appreciate shorter seasons because it results in tighter story construction and fewer filler episodes. Plus, ultimately, it allows you to watch a wider variety of series.

It is 1865 as the series begins. The Civil War is over. Lincoln has been assassinated. Cullen Bohannon (Mount) is a former Confederate soldier whose wife and child were killed by Union soldiers in Meridian, Mississippi, while he was away. Bohannon is a character driven by revenge. He is traveling the country, hunting down and killing the men he holds responsible for taking his family from him. This leads him to the Union Pacific Railroad’s westward construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad. Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) is the stuffed-shirt wannabe business magnate in charge of completing the railroad. He seems to be a cross between P.T. Barnum and Andrew Carnegie. The American west is still wild, untamed, and the corrupt Durant is counting on the railroad to make his fortune. Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) is the wife of a UP surveyor whose entire world is suddenly upended after a Cheyenne attack.

Bohannon finds another target for his vengeance in railroad construction foreman Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine), one of the soldiers who killed his family. He also finds an unlikely ally in freedman Elam Ferguson (Common), who has his own reasons to kill Johnson. After things happen (uh. . .SPOILERS), Bohannon asks Durant for Johnson’s suddenly vacant job. And, he gets it, even though he’s already run afoul of Durant’s chief of security, Thor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl), also known as The Swede, though he is in fact Norwegian.

Hell on Wheels is the name of the mobile settlement following the railroad construction crew as it moves westward. There are camp followers, of course, such as the prostitutes, like Eva (Robin McLeavy), who spent years as an Indian captive and has a tattooed chin. We also get brothers Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke), two young Irishmen looking to make their fortune in the West. Rev. Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) is a minister haunted by his past, who takes in young Cheyenne Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) as his ward. Rev. Cole’s daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) arrives midway through the season and helps drive some of the drama. The walking boss Gregory Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw) also becomes a plot-generating character.

While I would consider this an ensemble show, its main focus is always Cullen Bohannon. Even though he took the foreman job, his personal motivation remains vengeance. When Lily Bell finally arrives at Hell on Wheels, she completes a triad with Bohannon and Durant, a relationship teeming with potential plot lines.

You could describe most of the character relationships on the series in terms of triads. Elam, Eva and Mr. Toole. Reverend Cole, his daughter Ruth, and Joseph, the Cheyenne converted to Christianity. Sean, Mickey, and the Swede. Elam, Bohannon and Durant.

I could go on. Many interpersonal relationships, each a potential story source. Many overlapping circles. As I came to know each of the characters, including bits of their backstory, I could see what the creators of the series were doing. It’s not a show just about building a railroad, or about revenge. While these remain important catalysts, the myriad story threads are about about the people who populate Hell on Wheels. The series is character-driven, with the construction of the country’s first Transcontinental Railroad as its milieu.

This series is well done. A unique take on the western genre, with a likeable (and hate-able) cast of talented actors.

Firewater’s The-World-Don’t-Care-About-Our-Plans Report Card: A

A great, violent period drama filled with characters of questionable morals and motivations. Quite a bit grittier than Gunsmoke or Bonanza, and definitely aimed at a mature audience. I like this one a lot and look forward to watching the remaining four seasons.

Just in case I scared away a few of you with the Star Trek talk: there’s not a phaser, tricorder, or pointy ear in sight. The steam-powered locomotive is the most technologically advanced thing on this series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.