After showing us how the world will end in a zombie apocalypse, the AMC network has decided to travel back in time a bit for its next new drama series, the Western ‘Hell on Wheels’. The pilot episode premiered earlier this week. Could this be the next ‘Deadwood’, or is the show… well… mostly dead wood?
The show is set in 1865, immediately after the end of the Civil War. Some prologue text informs us that, “The nation is an open wound.” In Washington, D.C., a Union soldier goes to church to confess his sins, for participating in the atrocities of Sherman’s March. His conscience clearly weighs heavily on him. Sadly for him, there is no priest on the other side of the confessional. Instead, he’s confronted by former Confederate solider Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), who shoots him immediately dead. Cullen knows that the war is over. What he wants is revenge of a more personal nature. We learn later in the episode that his wife was raped and murdered by gangs of Union thugs. He has vowed to hunt down all of those responsible.
Cullen heads west, to an Iowa town actually named Hell on Wheels, and takes up work building track for the Union-Pacific railroad. When grizzled, one-handed foreman Johnson (Ted Levine from ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘Monk’) realizes that he was a Southerner and former slave owner, he makes Cullen a “Walking Boss” and puts him in charge of the black laborers on the line. (Johnson’s choice of words is a little more bracing.) So as not to let him seem too unsympathetic, the show makes a point of having Cullen explain that he set his slaves free prior to the war. Obviously, the intended irony here is that the Northern man is the vile racist, while the Southerner tries to treat the black men fairly.
By the end of the ‘Pilot’ episode, it’s revealed that Cullen has ulterior motives for taking this job. Johnson was involved in his wife’s murder, and Bohannan is there for his revenge. The episode also has some side stories about a railroad surveyor who dies during an Indian raid, the surveyor’s wife who runs off with his valuable maps, a preacher (Tom Noonan from ‘Manhunter’) who tries to bring some fear of God to the heathen town, and a former slave named Elam (rapper Common) who winds up killing Johnson before the man can reveal to Cullen the name of the sergeant who led the raiding party that killed his wife. Best of all is Colm Meaney, playing the conniving railroad baron Thomas Durant. The character is a grand villain, and Meaney has a blast chewing up great chunks of scenery every time he appears on camera.
The show is certainly ambitious, but I don’t know that the ‘Pilot’ quite comes together. The visual effects and the staging of some scenes (especially the Indian raid) just aren’t convincing. The series also tries to have it both ways when it comes to the character of Bohannan. He’s supposed to be a dark avenging angel, yet he’s also been softened up so that we know he’s not really such a bad fellow. For as much surface grit as the episode tries to wallow in, it seems to lack the moral complexity of ‘Deadwood’. (Nor does it have that show’s gift for foul poetic dialogue.) Still, there’s potential here. I think the series just needs to find its footing. I’m willing to give it some time to do that.