Hell on Wheels Pilot Review
Western drama Hell on Wheels debuted on AMC last Sunday to 4.4 million viewers, a resounding success for the premium cable channel that not too long ago offered only classic pre-1950’s movies and no original programming. Fast forward a few short years and AMC is fast becoming the go-to TV spot for uncompromising, gritty and original shows including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and The Killing.
Set in the aftermath of the American Civil war, Hell on Wheels focuses on a former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) bent on revenge for the rape and murder of his wife by Union soldiers. Bohannon’s quest takes him to Iowa and the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad overseen by mercenary capitalist Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney). There he takes on a job as ‘cut’ foreman, overseeing a crew of former slaves in the cutting out of the trench for the railway line.
It’s not long before Bohannon is butting heads with newly freed slave Elam Ferguson (Common), who comes to interfere with his revenge plans in a significant way in the first episode. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that Bohannon is introduced to his team by his own boss with the words “Mr Bohannon is a former master of slaves – so he’s up to your tricks.”
However, we soon learn that despite his past, Bohannon is a true story hero – a little too heroic perhaps. Yes he was a Confederate soldier. Yes he owned slaves, but he released them all a year before the war started and kept them on as paid workers on his plantation after his Northern wife convinced him of the evils of slavery. It all seems a little too on the nose in places.
“You released your slaves, yet you still fought in the war. Why?” asks Bohannon’s boss.
“Honor,” says Bohannon simply. Just in case we had any lingering doubts as to why we should be rooting for him.
However despite this minor quibble with Bohannon’s character, Anson Mount brings a surprising amount to this role. With a distractingly handsome face largely hidden behind a scruffy beard and a wide-brimmed hat, he effectively manages to bring a wealth of emotions to the surface, making me wonder why we haven’t seen more of him on TV in recent years.
Another pleasing performance from the pilot comes from Dominique McElligott’s portrayal of Lilly Bell, the wife of surveyor and cartographer Robert Bell. McElligott’s Lily is strong, smart, irreverent at times, and altogether refreshingly human. Western dramas are generally light on female characters beyond the prerequisite prostitutes and victims, and as a woman it’s always refreshing to see something real and relatable.
Another bright spot for me personally was fellow Dubliner Colm Meaney who hams it up wonderfully as Doctor Thomas Durant. I’ve been watching Meaney’s career for years now and feel he’s really at home with these slightly larger than life, verbose and very driven characters. Durant is a joy to watch, whether he’s charming a room of potential investors or rambling to himself about how history will eventually view him.
On a related but sourer note, I can’t admit to being overly impressed by the couple of wide-eyed, freakish, stage-Irish characters Mikey and Sean whose driving ambition seems to be to attempt to elicit a sense of longing for home in people they meet. Why the show feels it needs a couple of caricatures like these I have no idea, especially when it so impressed with its sense of authenticity in other areas.
Overall, Hell on Wheels‘ pilot is an impressive and ambitious first outing for the show. From the former slaves to the former native American Indian being baptized by an over-zealous preacher, there really was an overwhelmingly sad sense of the displaced struggling to find meaning in a harsh new world. Place all these individual threads against the backdrop of the psychological and physical scars of the civil war and you’ve got a potent mix of very watchable TV.
Hell on Wheels is created and produced by Joe and Tony Gayton for AMC.