Monday, November 7, 2011

Hell On Wheels Premiere

Well Pumpkin Fans, I can now say what I thought of last night’s premiere of AMC’s newest series Hell On Wheels.
Ted Levine (left) and Anson Mount (right) in the series premiere of Hell On Wheels

If you ever watched the award winning HBO series Deadwood then you have some idea of Hell On Wheels.  Just as Deadwood started with the introduction of classic cowboy hero Seth Bullock who left his job and home to move to Deadwood and set up a dry goods store, our story starts with the hero, somewhat less classic, Cullen Bohannon, entering the moving town of Hell On Wheels (the rail spur for the Union Pacific railroad’s transcontinental effort).  Well, not really.  It opens with our hero at a church, then cuts to Colm Meaney (who played SCPO Miles O’Brien in multiple Star Trek series) as the rail baron who is making an impassioned speech to potential investors.  What follows is the clear cut identification of this baron as a vile robber baron as he bribes a senator to get the contracts he wants. 
Then we go to Hell On Wheels via train where we learn some important things about our hero, like he is angry at God so is sort of an atheist.  As the episode continues we learn that our hero is:
1.       Former Confederate soldier
2.       From Mississippi
3.       Who grew tobacco
4.       And owned 5 slaves
5.       That he paid wages
6.       Because he set free his slaves a year before the war when his  Northern wife convinced him that slavery was an evil institution
7.       But he fought in the War Between the States out of a sense of Southern honor
8.       He’s out to kill the men that harmed his wife and caused her to commit suicide (which he later learns was outright murder and then fails to find out the name of the Union sergeant that led the men/did the deed)
Pretty good, right?
Tom Noonan (right) as the intense preacher

Oh but there is more.  A tent revival preacher (played by genre favorite Tom Noonan [Manhunter, Wolfen, Monster Squad]) and the whores who don’t take kindly to churchin’.  Cheyenne who clearly don’t want the white man’s railroad to encroach into their territory.  A husband and wife surveyor team (the husband seeming to have contracted consumption [I have no proof it is consumption, but in these westerns it is always consumption]) with the husband killed by a Cheyenne brave and the wife wounded but killing the killer and escaping with the all- important maps.  An ex-slave who puts no faith in the white man’s promises (he disses the Emancipation Proclamation, and as the 13th Amendment has yet to be ratified, his suspicions have some credence) but who is clearly meant to be our other male lead.  We have the Rail Baron’s voice overs and soliloquies as well.  This is, like Deadwood before it, not a cowboy series but a drama series that is set in the west.  The western genre supports more than the simple shoot ‘em up, ride into the sunset works of Sergio Leonne, the success of Deadwood proved that, so Hell On Wheels is not out of its element in being a western drama.  Weren’t Gunsmoke and Bonanza, decades ago, examples of dramas set in the West rather than simply westerns?
Well, I think they were.
Would you buy bonds from this man?
Set in the year 1865 (as far as I can tell) the show seems concerned with bad feelings and dramatic tensions following the Civil War.  This will provide us with conflict, which is good.  Our hero, Cullen Bohannon, is a mix of decidedly non-PC characteristics (Confederate, former slave owner) and all too PC concessions (married a Northerner who showed him the error of his ways) and classic ‘anti-hero’ tropes (angry at God, loss of faith), which we’ve seen before.  To some degree the main characters are merely stereotypes of what we have come to expect from an AMC drama regardless of setting (The EVIL robber baron, the spiritually wounded anti-hero) and there is a real risk of Elam (the ex-slave played by hip hop artist Common) becoming a confused character, switching between his understandable anger and mistrust toward the white man, who once kept him and his people in bondage, and a more “supportive and understanding” role with echoes of Morgan Freeman’s Ned in Unforgiven. 
Bohannon (Mount, left) and Elam (Common, right) not yet the boon companions I feel sure they will become due to the laws of dramatic inevitability and trying to seem "edgy"

The language is particularly nice and feels like a mixture of modern hipster slang and original lingo from the era.  I hope it holds out.  Fan favorite Ted Levine was great in his single episode performance as the vile, but intriguing Johnson, who hires Bohannon on to the railroad and his role as the McGuffin to keep Bohannon at Hell On Wheels was not unappreciated.
Finally Anson Mount is a fine choice, I feel, for the lead.  His accent and mannerisms seem authentically southern; if not authentically Mississippi and I look forward to seeing the character develop in future episodes.  The actor is, by his own admission, a Southerner (see the official website Q&A for more details) and his bio says he is from Tennessee, so I am apt to believe him.  (Okay, I am unabashedly Southern, I admit it, so I like having a “hero” from my section of the nation)
The show combines human stories (revenge for a dead wife, revenge for a lifetime of mistreatment) with a national event whose importance should not be understated and for which we don’t have enough good television, that being the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Speaking prophetically Durant (Meaney) notes that regardless of all that is done, history will paint him as a greedy villain.  In this overly PC world in which we now live, where we must apologize for things that even our ancestors probably didn’t do (I honestly don’t know when they came over), it is all too common to vilify such an endeavor as the transcontinental railroad and what it meant for this nation, the lives that went into making it, and yes, the corruption that is the cornerstone of everyone government protect from building dams to social security.  Maybe, and I hope it is true, that Bohannon and Elam retain, in their characters, that honor that they have eluded to thus far, to keep the show palatable to people who don’t enjoy history for what it is: a tale of what was, told by people who imagine what it should have been.


  1. I'm gonna have to check this out!

  2. Please do. I would like to see it get good enough numbers to possibly have a second season...unless it turns out to suck down the road.