History is written by the zebras in the zoo.
—Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney)
With Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, AMC has been on a roll. From zombies to meth dealers, the channel is putting out some of the best, most interesting television on the air. And so it’s difficult not to be intrigued by the idea of AMC taking on the Western with Hell on Wheels.
The first episode, premiering 6 November, is—there’s no other way to say this—slow. It introduces a number of characters and themes, but not much in the way of story. With this single episode, the show veers dangerously close to being a traditional “Cowboys and Indians” kind of thing.
But… to judge Hell on Wheels by this episode alone would be a mistake. That can be said of most series, but it’s especially true in this case. Stick with it through the second episode: it gets moving quickly in the subsequent episodes, and turns into a grim frontier revenge saga, with intriguing personalities and interconnecting storylines.
Hell on Wheels begins in the tumultuous wake of the Civil War, as haggard veterans with nowhere else to go head into the American West. Wealthy industrialists are racing to connect the coasts with railroads. Former slaves toil at hard labor, trying to earn a living. And the wave of white settlers, the encroachment of a foreign culture, floods over the Native populations.
All this is happening in Hell on Wheels, a railroad town where residents yearn for home and are haunted by their pasts. Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, his iron strapped to his side, is on a quest to avenge his wife’s murder. He’s not a godless man but, as he tells Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan), he doesn’t want, deserve or ask for forgiveness. As his search forms the series’ center, it also throws Bohannan into the lives of a diverse collection of souls.
Right away, he comes into direct conflict with Doc Durant (Colm Meany), the head of the Union Pacific Railroad. Durant is a glorified scam artist, out to milk the US government for every cent he can, and not above bribing politicians or exploiting tragedy to further his own goals. His head of security, the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), is absolutely terrifying—even to the hard men he meets in Hell on Wheels. It’s rumored that this cold, bad man consumed human flesh while a prisoner of war. Not a blustery, over-the-top villain, he can calmly talk about bookkeeping and scare the living hell out of you.
Common plays Elam Ferguson, a bitter freed slave who leads a crew of cut men, the lowest workers on the train gang. When Elam steps into a situation, he simultaneously saves Bohannan’s life, while hindering his search for his wife’s killer. The two become begrudging allies. Elam knows just how difficult it is to navigate the tense cultural waters. But this knowledge doesn’t stop his hot temper and emotional reactions from getting him into trouble. He’s just as good as any other free man, white or black, and he’ll be damned if the prejudices of others will hold him back from living as such.
Outside of a band a feisty frontier prostitutes, the primary female presence in Hell on Wheels is Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott). The wife of a railroad surveyor killed in a raid, Lily is left to wander the wilderness. In a fine bout of yellow journalism, Durant exploits her ordeal in an attempt to coerce an increased military presence from the government. No idle victim, Lily, like everyone other citizen of Hell on Wheels, has her own angle, working Durant, playing on his ego and his underestimation of her cunning. As the season progresses, Lily and Bohannan come increasingly into each other’s orbits.
As Bohannan crosses paths with these individuals, each plays a significant part in his story, but at the same time each has a tale of his own. Bohannan’s single-minded vendetta would easily turn stale without distractions, and these side stories provide just that. They also provide fertile themes. At the forefront is the March of Civilization. Hell on Wheels illustrates the many tolls of westward expansion and increasing industrialization, which wreaked havoc on the repeatedly beleaguered and cruelly displaced indigenous populations, as well as on the seemingly willing participants, workers and adventurers who had no idea what they were getting into.
If the railroad signifies freedom in Hell on Wheels, it also helps breed and accelerate greed, arrogance, and savagery, aggressions coming so fast and brutally that victims hardly know how to get out of the way. Hell on Wheels raises the inevitable question: at what price progress?