With the summer months upon us, now’s the time to catch up on some of the TV you missed. Might I suggest the AMC western series, Hell On Wheels, as an alternative to the numerous procedural dramas and soaps that take up much of the summer broadcast hours? This show starts out with a great pilot that not only sets up an exploration of western expansion and the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, but it also a terrific revenge story that only builds in mystery as the series continues.
Hell on Wheels opens just after the end of the Civil War. A former Union soldier is murdered in the most unorthodox of places: He’s shot dead in a confessional. The killer is a man named Cullen (Anson Mount), an ex-Confederate soldier seeking revenge for the death of his wife. The dead soldier is one of a group of men who were present when she supposedly hanged herself. With the war over and the country is trying to unify, Cullen has been traveling around, searching for the monsters who drove his wife to suicide. His trail of dead leads him Iowa, where he’s hired on by Ted Levine’s Johnson, a former Union solder who’s a racist. Johnson places Cullen in charge of a crew of ex-slaves, thinking that because Cullen once owned slaves (he freed them after his wife opened his eyes to the inhumanity of slavery), he’ll instill a strong arm to get them to work harder. Cullen isn’t that kind of man anymore. Mind you, he’s not afraid of being a jerk, but he’s not a cruel man, either. Cullen is an interesting character. While he seems to realize that he’s at a crossroad in the history of the United States, he’s also single minded and only wants revenge.
The other principal characters in Hell On Wheels are equally interesting, if not as pulpy and exciting as Cullen. Colm Meany, channeling Gene Hackman, portrays Durant, a corrupt businessman who has invested most of his money in the construction of the railroad. Like most visionary business men, he sees the future of the country being dependent on its citizens being able to travel. He also knows that the rails will make him a fortune. Elam is a former slave who is trying to believe in the great experiment called America. Recently freed, he wants to see how fair a hard working man will be treated in the new unified United States. While others are quick to say that things haven’t changed since the plantation days, Elam (played with great strength by Common) is out to prove them wrong. As the lone, fair skinned female in the cast, Dominique McElligott plays Lily Bell, the recently widowed wife of the railroad’s surveyor. Knowledgeable in the same line of work as her dead husband (killed in and Indian attack), Lilly is pursued by Durant, but feels herself drawn to Cullen.
Although working with a lower budget than, say, The Walking Dead, the production values on this series are strong. Every penny spent shows up on screen. The acting is strong, especially Mount and Meany, and the storytelling only rarely veers into cheesy. For the most part, Hell on Wheels proves to be a real winner. The second season of the show is set to premiere late this summer, so there is plenty of time to sit down and watch the first thirteen hours of the first season. I say, give it a shot.