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Hell on Wheels Pilot Review

By on November 10, 2011

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.

Common as Elam Ferguson

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.

Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon

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.

Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell

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.

Colm Meaney as Doc Durant

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.




  1. alexmathayes

    November 10, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    thanks a million, gazillion for taking the time and effort for reviewing ‘Hell On Wheels’. The review is impressive, accurate and most importantly to the point. I can’t wait for some more reviews on the same same show in the upcoming episodes. Overall a very good job by the reviewer.

    But, the reviewer failed to mention the 1st 2 mins and the last 2 mins from the pilot episode which really caught most of the viewers attention on the show.

    In the starting 2 minutes we get a very clear picture as to what our main character wants and during the course of the episode he learns some new facts which he himself didn’t know. Like in the end his wife didn’t actually hang herself but was forced to make it look like a suicide. The ending lines from Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant in the pilot episode made the pilot episode much more promising and interesting to look forward to.

    Good Job ChevronOne.

  2. Jennifer Griffin

    November 10, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Alexmathayes.

    Although I do agree with you on the tremendous impact of those opening and closing moments I chose to leave them out of the piece – along with certain other key plot points. I was aiming more for a review over a recap and didn’t want to spoil a causal reader who might be wondering in broad terms what the show is about, and if it’s worth checking out.

    Additionally, I didn’t feel it was within my remit to tell people what the best part of the pilot was, as people generally tend to make up their own minds about these things. (But for the record my own favorite moment was the wagon rolling over the broken sign with the words “Welcome to Hell on Wheels. Population: One Less Every Day.” 😉 )

    Although I would love to recap all the shows we cover, it always boils down to a question of time. Since creating the site in June 2011, we’ve been focusing heavily on new shows and in particular those debuting in the Fall of this year. I try to review each pilot where I can, but I can’t commit to a full recap each week.

    Thanks again for your comment. It’s the nicest feeling in the world when someone takes the time to read something you’ve written and then come back and tell you what they thought. So much appreciated.

  3. Pingback: Hell on Wheels Episode 1.02 ‘Immortal Mathematics’ Promo Trailer | Chevron One

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