Sunday, May 17, 2015
Hell on Wheels: Season 1
Created by Joe Gayton and Tony Gayton on AMC, Hell on Wheels begins where the Civil War ends, dramatizing the effort to build a railroad line that will link East and West. The open wounds of the war remain, and the politicians and businessmen pushing for the line proclaim the effort will bring the country together again. That they stand to make great fortunes and accomplish this feat using taxpayer money is something they neglect to mention during their speeches. The title of the show is appropriate because while the railroad promises salvation for the nation, the characters find temptation and damnation.
Hell on Wheels is positioned somewhere between the lyrically romantic and the brutally realistic. The series contains a number of striking, beautiful shots of the untamed America west: golden sunlight, crisp blues skies, and rolling plains as Old Glory flutters gracefully in the wind as well as somber shots of crosses and gravestones. It's also an earthy show, filled with a lot of mud, dirt, blood, sweat, drool, ash, and grime. When the widow Lilly Bell (Dominique McElligot), the "Fair-Haired Maiden of the West," moves out of the luxurious train car of Union Pacific Railroad owner Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney, playing the part very much like Gene Hackman) to live in a tent, she's advised by the prostitute Eva (Robin McLeavy) to put in a wooden floor lest she get trench foot.
Other important characters include Elam Ferguson (Common), a freed slave whose father was his white owner; even with freedom, people still try to tell him who he is and what he should do, and he doesn't like it one bit. Revered Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan), who once ran with John Brown, seeks to bring the word of God to the people, and to help avert a war with the local Indians, he works with the newest member of his flock, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears). There is also Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke), Irish brothers looking to strike it rich with their picture show contraption. Another prominent character is Thor Gundersen aka "The Swede" (Christopher Heyerdahl), Durant's Norwegian head of security who investigates Bohannon's past and is not above racketeering and selling out Durant.
The period details of Hell on Wheels are handsomely produced, from the costumes to the trains, giving the show a strong realism. Inside Durant's cabin, as well as various buildings in Washington D.C. and Chicago, the accommodations are luxurious, stocked with the finest liquor, and immaculately clean. Outside, where the men work, it's squalor: mud, filth, flimsily put-together wooden structures and tents. Shot on location with the real props, the show has a cinematic quality and doesn't feel restricted by the television format.
The dialogue is for the most strong and well delivered but sometimes too on the nose. Elam begins a relationship with Eva; she's considered damaged goods because she was kidnapped by Indians as a child and now has tattoos on her chin, and while she publicly rejects him to avoid losing the business of her white clients, they begin a secret romance. That's all well and good, but do we really need Elam explaining how they're "two peas in a pod?" Likewise, in his first appearance, Durant gives a wonderful speech touting the future of the railroad and what good it will do for the country, and afterward, he smokes a cigar, the smoke pluming around him, making him look the Devil.
It's actually an appropriate comparison. Durant is the most fascinating character of the show, and he uses promises, bribes, flattery, and blackmail to get what he wants, and Meaney plays him as a wonderfully slimy bastard. McElligot is also very good as this upper class woman who believed the dreams of her husband for the West and is not afraid to get her hands dirty and be self-reliant, although there is a learning curve. Mount is solid as the de-facto lead, although his quest for revenge is a bit cliche for the genre; that said he is the victim of a terrible irony in the final episode when he finally confronts the man he believes responsible for his family's deaths.
Common is also convincingly authoritative and strong-willed as Elam, but my favorite character, at least in the early part of the season, is the Swede, the thin, pale, fish-faced Clancy Brown-look-alike who resembles a preacher from an Ingmar Bergman movie. He reveals he was a prisoner at Andersonville during the war and has a scar on his arm from where a fellow prisoner tried to eat him. I was disappointed when the Swede completely wimped out in a confrontation with Bohannon, exposing him as a petty bully.