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Hell on Wheels Season 1: "Pilot"

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Monday, November 07 2011 and posted in Reviews

The new Western series premieres on AMC!

"This business is not for the weak of heart."

The irony of Reconstruction-era America may have been one of the most turbulent and fractious times in this country's history.  The fact is, it's easier to break something apart than it is to put back together and a fragile nation ought not be an exception.

But from the chaos came our railroads, and as Colm Meaney's Thomas Durant proclaims in his dynamic episode-closing monologue, the dominance of the global stage by the United States couldn't be possible without men like him – greedy, amoral, and nakedly self-serving.  It's a bold way to end a pilot: having an ostensible villain talk directly to the viewer about his place in history and how secure he is in the knowledge that he will be known as the villain of the piece.  Meaney gets to wrap his tongue around all kinds of intensely evil and forceful lines as he pontificates about history via jungle metaphors.  He seems to have the most fun of anyone in the cast, particularly in the scene where he takes an underling to task for planning to build the railroad in a straight line through flat land, when he should be incorporating looping curvatures, since the US government is paying him $16,000 per mile of track laid down.  Morality isn't important to a man like Thomas Durant. 

That seems to be the key word when watching Hell on Wheels, the new series on AMC, which seeks to be a morality play crystallizing the notion that westward expansion, indeed the very idea of national progress, is forged as much in blood as it is concrete and steel.  As if the scenes of our hero murdering a man in a church (the show-opener) or the tall preacher (Tom Noonan) vowing to bring salvation to the temporary shantytown that gives the show its name don't drive the point home for us, the climax of this pilot focuses on Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine) discussing morality and war over facial hair.  Johnson, basically the HR department for Union Pacific Railroad, talks about how he had crossed moral lines he never thought he could during the Civil War, while Bohannon responds that a moral man doesn't cross such lines, even in war (before acknowledging an immoral past for himself).  Mount plays Bohannon as a silent but intense gunslinger type who glowers his way through every scene, dropping such bon mots as "I wear it on my hip" when asked if he believes in a higher power.  Hell on Wheels does take its Western roots very seriously, draping itself in exacting period detail and uncompromising violence.  A bloody raid on a small colony of Union Pacific workers by a group of Cheyenne hunters not only ends with a pile of dead bodies and bloodshed, but also traffics in the popular image of the American Indian as savage, barbaric scalphunter, offering a metatextual statement on the tradition of Westerns as much as an excuse to see an arrow get shoved through a man's throat in gory, close-up detail.  There is some concern about the courage of the show's convictions, though, as in the fact that Bohannon, whom we know is pretty unrepentant about killing, is a former slave owner who freed his slaves before the Civil War started.  This little bit of character backstory doesn't seem to serve much function other than to possibly make it easier for the audience to root for him; the problem is that thinking in terms of rooting interests can only soften the story being told here and make it less impactful.  Some stories need all the shades of gray it can get.   

Tales of the American frontier and the expansion of civilization often come with healthy doses of racial strife, and that much is true for Hell on Wheels.  When Bohannon comes to the titular town, he looks for a job working on the railroad, where he meets Johnson.  Bohannon says he has no railroad experience, but Johnson hires him to be a foreman and watch over the laborers, most if not all of whom are black, when Bohannon states that he owned slaves before the war.  When Johnson introduces Bohannon as the new foreman, one of the laborers, Elam (Common) grumbles about how "not much has changed."  Race-based class distinctions didn't exactly end when the Civil War did (or the century or so thereafter), so Elam approaches his life with sarcasm and hatred, and eventually violence.  When Johnson, a brutal, hate-filled bastard, kills Elam's friend, Elam is incensed and has thoughts only of vengeance in his heart.  As he sits sharpening his knife, he all but tells Bohannon what he has planned for Johnson before pointing to a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and saying that it didn't change anything at all. 

Revenge is something that bonds the two men, and that bond comes to bear at theHOW_101_2425 end of the episode when, after their little morality discussion, Bohannon asks Johnson about Meridian, Mississippi.  In what turns out be a great, slow-burn reveal, we find out very quickly that Bohannon is traveling west with the railroad looking for revenge on whoever killed his wife, and that Johnson was involved in her death, and that Johnson knew that that's why Bohannon came to Hell on Wheels.  After spending the better part of the hour establishing its characters and setting with deliberate pacing and a keen eye toward leaving room for more exploration down the line, this turn of plot is very impactful and thrilling.  Johnson cops to killing Bohannon's wife, but blurts out some information that Bohannon didn't know about: there was somebody else, a "seargent," present at her murder, and this mystery man is in Hell on Wheels.  Before he can utter the name of this seargent, Elam shows up and takes his revenge own revenge on Johnson. 

When the plot kicks in, it sets up the lead character's mission and an overarching mystery, placing it in the larger context of Hell on Wheels.  We get a survey of all of the principal characters, and what brings them all together.  The pilot boasts a grimy look that encapsulates the sweaty dirt and grit of a frontier being encroached upon by industrial America.  The sunlight is almost washed out, and the night scenes simulate the ominous shadows and shapes brought forth by flame lanterns.  Hell on Wheels wears its influences proudly on its sleeves, but is executed with so much style and confidence that it's worth keeping an eye on.  The pilot isn't always strong, but its sprawling scope is pretty compelling.  The caution here is that it doesn't turn out the way The Killing did: an ambitious, stylish show that couldn't get it together in the writing, and ended up becoming an underwhelming mess as a result.

Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch

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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch

As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well.  You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.


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