Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hell on Wheels: Season 1

The Transcontinental Railroad helped tame the Wild West, bring civilization to the untapped wilderness, heal the rift following the Civil War, and enable America to rise to the level of a superpower on the world's stage, so we're told. As depicted in Hell on Wheels, the railroad, the pathway to America's future, was built on blood, greed, exploitation, and savagery.

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.

Hell on Wheels is the name of the ramshackle town that springs up around the construction site. Against this backdrop, Hell on Wheels contains a number of intersecting narratives.  Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, arrives looking for the Union soldiers who murdered his family and ends up getting a job as foreman for the railroad after his predecessor, a man named Johnson (Ted Levine), turns out to have been involved in his family's deaths. Lilly, a British woman from upper society, is the sole survivor of an Indian attack that sees her husband Robert killed; he was the surveyor for the railroad, and when she's lost with his maps, Durant conjures up the title of the "Fair-Haired Maiden of the West" for her, so people will be inspired to find her and more importantly the maps. See, Durant has invested everything in the railroad, and he needs a certain portion of completed by a tight deadline so he qualifies for government subsidies. Otherwise, the railroad will fold, and he's been embezzling the company to cover his tracks.

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.

Like another hit show on AMC, Hell on Wheels is violent. In the first episode, when the Indians wipe out Lilly's group, one man is still alive as he's scalped. Lilly herself, hit by an arrow, uses the projectile to kill her attacker after he kills her husband, and later, she uses a sewing needle to stitch up the wound, and this is show in a graphic closeup. Even the non-lethal violence is hard-hitting. Bohannon and Elam have a bareknuckle fight (orchestrated by Durant so as the distract the men from the fact payroll has not arrived), and their faces get bloodied, battered, and bruised. There's also the expected shootouts and gunfights, and near the end, there is an unexpected decapitation, performed by one of the least likely characters.

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.

Hell on Wheels is at its best rendering the gritty, sometimes unsavory underbelly that propped up the construction of the railroad. The show suffers some when it tries to be poetic. One episode ends on a cliffhanger as Bohannon, Elam, Joseph, and a group of soldiers are ambushed by an Indian war party, and the next episode begins by having them fight their way out, and the battle is depicted in slow motion as a sad folk song plays on the soundtrack. I can tell it's supposed to meaningful, but the strategy mutes the impact of the fight.

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.

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