'Hell on Wheels': Race and Reconstruction in the Old West

Between former soldiers from both sides of America's deadliest war, prostitutes, immigrants, freed slaves, lost preachers, and Native Americans, there’s no shortage of stories to tell, and in just ten episodes Hell on Wheels embraces them all to varying degrees but with equal insight.

Hell on Wheels

Distributor: Entertainment One
Cast: Anson Mount, Common, Dominique McElligott, Colm Meany
Network: AMC
Release date: 2012-05-15

AMC has proven to be a powerhouse of original programming in recent years, following breakout hits Mad Men and Breaking Bad with the enormously popular The Walking Dead. But before those programs, in 2006, AMC launched the original miniseries Broken Trail, which became the second-most-watched cable movie since 1995 and garnered the network record-high ratings. It only makes sense, then, that as AMC continues to expand its original programming roster, it would want to revisit the genre that gave it the courage to create original shows in the first place.

Thus, last fall came the first season of Hell on Wheels, a drama set in the aftermath of the Civil War and centered on the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific. The history behind the show is impeccably researched; even the moniker “Hell on Wheels” for the tent city that followed the railroad along its pernicious route is accurate. Between former soldiers from both sides of America's deadliest war, prostitutes, immigrants, freed slaves, lost preachers, and Native Americans, there’s no shortage of stories to tell, and in just ten episodes Hell on Wheels embraces them all to varying degrees but with equal insight.

However, for all of its grand themes and beautiful imagery, Hell on Wheels rarely rises above the stereotypes of the typical Western. The characters are all more archetypal than three-dimensional. The great visionary behind the railroad is Thomas Durant (Colm Meany), one the few characters straight out of the history books. A former ophthalmologist turned ruthless businessman, Durant’s vision and greed ultimately keeps the construction of the railroad alive. There’s also Lily Bell (Dominique McElligot), an aristocratic Englishwoman (nicknamed the “fair-haired maiden of the West”), who loses her surveyor husband in a Cheyenne attack and later becomes embroiled in Durant’s schemes.

But the main story revolves around Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier out for blood after his wife and son were murdered by Union soldiers during the war. Bohannon rises from the ranks of the walking bosses to become the railroad’s foreman, but the head of security, a terrifying Norwegian man known as The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), suspects that there is more to Bohannon’s story than he is letting on. Ultimately, Bohannon’s quest for vengeance is such a tired trope of the genre that it’s disappointing that an otherwise richly textured show would choose it as its main narrative. Bohannon is basically the new generation’s John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, the man of few words and questionable morals with a happy trigger finger.

This isn’t to say that Hell on Wheels isn’t good. The characters may lack some creativity but they are all well acted, and the overarching theme of the price of progress is as timeless as ever. The building of the transcontinental railroad cut down the travel time from New York to San Francisco from six months to seven days, a duration simply unheard of at that time. But in addition to progress, technology always brings with it the death of other ways of life, as evidenced by the Native American warriors who try to stop the railroad’s construction because it threatens their livelihood.

The most interesting relationship in the entire series is between Bohannon, the former slave owner, and the freed slave Elam Ferguson (Common). These two men come to trust and depend on one another in ways that aren’t exactly like friendship, but aren't entirely hostile, either. Indeed, Ferguson’s struggle with becoming his own man in the wake of a life of slavery is arguably the show’s most well-developed plotline. The son of a slave woman and her white owner, Ferguson isn’t content to live the life of quiet gratitude working twice as hard for less pay as his peers, and instead, like Bohannon, comes to prove himself to Durant. While Bohannon can’t seem to escape his past, Ferguson moves forward and becomes just as ambitious as the building of the railroad itself.

A few throwaway special features populate the DVD version of the disc. The feature called “The making of Hell on Wheels” consists of little more than each department head talking about what their job on set is, which has little to do specifically with Hell on Wheels. There are also interesting but unnecessary featurettes on everything from major characters, set pieces, weapons in the show, and recaps of all of the episodes. Each of these has the distinct feeling of having been featured on prior to the DVD release and tacked on for lack of more insightful material. A “true history of the Union Pacific” would have been nice as a stand-alone feature.

History buffs and fans of “slow-burn” drama will find a lot to love about Hell on Wheels, and even though it doesn’t surprise you as much as say, Breaking Bad might, it is a well-told story and earns it place among AMC original series. Season Two premieres 12 August at 9/8c on AMC.


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