AMC seems to have taken a cue from the HBO playbook. They keep producing quality television. The Walking Dead has resumed – one of our favorite current TV series – and we’ve had the chance to catch up on another AMC show: Hell on Wheels. They ran a marathon of the series on New Year’s Day, which we recorded and have been watching, and I’m here to report it’s worth seeking out.
Hell on Wheels is set on the frontier after the Civil War – western Iowa, where the Union Pacific Railroad pushes towards the Rockies. The show is about that westward push of steel, sweat, and blood, as United States sought figurative and literal unity. It’s a Western to be sure, drawing on the conventions and tropes of that genre to fine effect.
Anson Mount plays Bohannon, a former Confederate outrider who has come west for vengeance. We quickly learn Bohannon’s wife was murdered by a squad of Union soldiers during Sherman’s March, and now he’s tracking them down one-by-one. He quickly earns a place on the railroad crew as cover for his quest. Bohannon is your classic Western lead – he’s been wronged and he’s out to right that wrong, but he also has a sense of fairness and honor to redeem him.
Colm Meaney plays Doc Durant, the aggressive railroad builder. Durant has snow-jobbed Senators for subsidies to make obscene profits from the railroad (same as it ever was) and will stop at nothing. Only problem is his surveyor has fallen prey to a Cheyenne war-party, and that surveyor had the charts with the way through the Rockies. Dominique McElligot plays Lily Bell, wife of the surveyor, who manages to survive and secret away the charts. Thus you have your major driving plot points: Bohannon’s search and Durant’s railroad push.
The show’s backdrop is the laborers’ tent-town, Hell on Wheels. It’s dirty, rough, and mean. Here you have Elam Ferguson (Common), a freed slave who becomes the leader for the rest of the former slaves. You have a pair of entrepreneurial Irish Immigrants, the McGinnesses; a Norwegian survivor of Andersonville, ironically called ‘the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl, who is excellent), the railroad’s chief of security and head gangster; a flawed preacher, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) and his recent Cheyenne convert, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears).
It’s a good ensemble cast that speaks to the cultural mixing pot that was the American West. And from these characters and their conflicts we get a sense of how tough and stubborn and resilient our ancestors had to be. The show’s writers and producers have recognized this as strength, which they emphasize again and again. There’s no shying away from the ugliness of the frontier – the racism, the cultural bigotry, the greed. Hell on Wheels embraces these themes and generally attempts to approach them realistically.
Maybe this is what I’ve enjoyed most about the show so far: visually, and in terms of the narrative, there’s a conscious effort to employ those familiar conventions of the Western. A nod here to the stranger coming into town when Bohannon first arrives. A nod there during an early gunfight. The way they film the sun breaking on the aftermath of a Cheyenne raid. The memorable sequence in which the Cheyenne enter and observe the squalor of the tent town.
Quality programming. If you’re a fan of Westerns or of good historical drama, check out Hell on Wheels when AMC starts playing it again. And good news – they’ve picked it up for a second season.