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Hell on Wheels Season 1: "Bread and Circuses"

Written by Royal Nonesuch on Monday, December 05 2011 and posted in Reviews

If you've never seen a train spin its wheels before, check out this episode. 

Apologies for missing last week's episode of Hell on Wheels.  Some Thanksgiving-related revelry made watching and writing about the show somewhat...difficult.

Hell on Wheels sets out to capture the specificity of of a time and place, and it accomplishes that fairly well, but it still has a lot of trouble with actually imbuing its impressive imagery with any real meaning.  The show is trying hard to engage viewers with a sprawling storyline that covers a lot of different issues in Reconstruction-era America, but it comes off unfortunately distracted and, in instances like "Bread and Circuses," kind of boring.  The real kicker is that is has so many elements of being a pretty great show, particularly its cast and its characters, to say nothing of its technical winsomeness.  The writing just isn't bringing it together.
Cullen Bohannen is still somewhat elusive as a character.  Who is this guy, really?  He's complex, sure, but he's still so mysterious as to be almost inscrutable.  We know he's looking for the man who killed his wife, but beyond that, he seems to be slumming it in this foreman role, except for when he's taking it seriously and giving Elam Ferguson a hard time.  He doesn't give a shit about anything, except for those times when he does.  Ferguson, for his part, is understandable pissed at the world, but his motivations are kind of a stretch everytime he tells us what they are.  When his tattooed prostitute friend (the whore with the facial tattoos attained while in Cheyenne captivity bonded with Ferguson over fucking and exchanged stories of living in bondage to another race last week) tries to talk him out of his boxing match, Elam simply tells her that "this is something I got to do."  Why? "Because all my life, men been trying to tell me what I am.  One man says I'm his slave, another tells me I'm free."  Ok, so...boxing?  Specifically, throwing the fight until his corner man amps him up by telling him to envision Bohannen as the white plantation owner who raped his mother?  It doesn't go explained.   

For all that murkiness, the show does spend a lot of time on exposition.  Unfortunately, that exposition only illuminates things we either already know or could figure out without having it explicitly told to us.  After Bohannen fails to keep Elam "in line" over his objections to continuously not getting paid, Durant decides to have the two of them box in a bare-knuckle brawl.  He does so to distract the workers from his money troubles, which is obvious, but just to make sure we got it, Lily Bell tells Durant that she knows that's what he did.  Thanks, Lily!  Thanks Hell on Wheels writers!

There are still some flourishes of indelible craft and distinctive weirdness that continue to pepper each episode, making them just engaging enough.  When Reverent Cole and Joseph Black Moon head out to smokum some peace pipe with the local Cheyenne in an effort to broker a peace deal, we learn that the good Reverent has a daughter Ruth, whom he hasn't seen in over a decade.  Ruth shows up in Hell on Wheels to tell her father that her mother has died.  Cole barely notices her words before telling her that she can't stay with him.  Joseph suggests that she stay in the church tent while they're gone, at which point the funniest exchange of the episode occurs.  Cole, obviously unable to relate to the young woman, tells her that "If you need anything, there's bacon.  And flour and coffee.  Don't let the drunks come in here and sleep in the pews.  Don't leave the tent...unless it's on fire." 

As for Durant, he has an impressive perch above the digging laborers he employshow_105_0696 while he dines on a nice, expensive lunch with Lily as a servant waits on them.  It's form the top of those rolling hills that he decides on holding the boxing match (which, once it gets started, seems like it goes on for hours).  He threatens to destroy the bank when they refuse to extend his credit line (a manuever that works, as the payroll shows up the next day) and leaves Colm Meaney to once again pour himself a drink and deliver some of his fiery material: "Samson brought the temple down with him.  I would happily do the same."  He also gets to talk more about his favorite subject, what his place in history will be.  Without Robert Bell's surveys, he doesn't know the route to cross the Rocky Mountains, when the railroad gets there.  If he doesn't figure that out, he fears he'll be known as the guy who failed.  Eventually, Lily tells him that she happens to have her late husband's maps, and that she'll hand them over to Durant...for a price.  Lily herself is somehow still not that interesting of a character, but as long as she makes Durant react to things, she's always welcome.

The show still looks fantastic.  The show opens with a lens flare-riffic, painful looking vision ritual, and everytime it goes out into the frontier, it uses these lovely, sweeping nature shots.  The boxing match has this earthy, washed-out monochromatic quality that's appropriately grimy.  

So...good characters, setting, great look...problematic writing.  Yup, this show is turning into The Killing. 

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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