TV: Hell on Wheels

I nearly turned the first episode of AMC’s new original series Hell on Wheels off after about twenty minutes–but then it got interesting.  And it’s been growing on me ever since.

I’ve been a big fan of AMC’s Mad Men since the beginning, at least partly because I grew up in the advertising business, and in the 1960s, although thankfully my dad was an ad man in Milwaukee and then Miami, never in Manhattan.  Having no personal interest in either meth dealers or zombies, I’ve never watched Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead.  But a show about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, that idea grabbed me as soon as it was announced.

The first episode got off to a slow start.  No, that’s not true.  The first episode starts with Cullen Bohannon, the protagonist–one hesitates to call him a hero, not yet, anyway–killing another man in a church.  We soon learn that Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, is systematically hunting down and killing a group of  Union men who killed his wife during the War.  His search takes him west, to the travelling railroad “town” known as Hell on Wheels.

It took half that first episode for me to connect with the characters, but they are turning out to be an interesting lot.  Bohannon (played by Anson Mount, whom I would definitely remember if I had seen him before) finds himself taking on the job of foreman of the rail crew, mostly to escape being hanged for the murder of the previous incumbent, which slows but doesn’t stop his search for vengeance.  He also finds his life entangled with that of Elam Ferguson, an intelligent and perceptive former slave who is not at all surprised that freedom is not the same as equality.

The builder of the railroad, Thomas Durant, is equally passionate about reaching and crossing the Rocky Mountains, scamming the government, and making piles of money for himself.  Surrounded by very realistic mud and squalor, he lives in his elegant rail car, dresses immaculately, and sends a steady stream of telegrams back East.  (Durant is played by perhaps the best known actor in the cast, Colm Meaney, looking a bit heavier and a whole lot meaner than he ever did as Miles O’Brien of the Star Trek franchise.)  Durant’s head of security is a man known as the Swede, although he tells Bohannon he’s actually Norwegian.  He stays busy extorting money from whoever is handy and taking a cut of the black powder shipment.  (The Swede is played by Christopher Heyerdahl, who also plays both John Druitt and–under quite a bit of make-up–Bigfoot on the SyFy series Sanctuary.)

But it’s the two main female characters who have really pulled me into the story.  Lily Bell is the English wife of a railroad surveyor, and the only survivor when the Cheyenne attack the survey camp.  Lily watches in horror as her husband is slaughtered and scalped (this is not a show for the the faint of heart), her own right hand pinned to her left shoulder by an arrow.  She then jerks that arrow out and uses it to kill the Cheyenne who shot her, taking him by surprise and driving the arrow into his throat.  Talk about a tough broad.  She’s just as tough in her own well-bred way when she eventually makes it back to Hell on Wheels.

Eva, on the other hand, is a whore.  (This show doesn’t pull any linguistic punches, either.  Prostitutes are whores, and the black men on the crew are–well, we don’t use that word anymore, but they did in the 1860s, and they do on Hell on Wheels.)  Somewhere along the way, Eva was held captive by Indians, and she has the tattoos on her face, and the total loss of status, to show for it.  No romanticized treatment of Eva’s plight here.  Eva never was a lady, but she’s as sharp and perceptive as Elam, and perhaps more of a realist.

The show is filmed in Calgary, and the beautiful open country is a constant contrast with the squalor of the railroad camp, with its bedraggled tents and muddy ground.  The bustle of the crew, the costumes, the fist fights, drinking bouts, shootings and explosions provide an impressive recreation of the era.  I’m glad I gave that first episode a chance.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl Bolen
    Dec 05, 2011 @ 19:55:48

    It sounds like a good show, but I have to pretty much give up TV until I get this WIP turned in. I cancelled my Netflix last summer because I’m pretty much working 12 hours a day. This book is due in January. Heck, I may not even have a Christmas tree up for the RWA Christmas party which is , ahem, 8 days away…



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