TV Review: AMC’s ‘Hell on Wheels’

11.06.11 6 years ago 12 Comments


Look, nobody’s going to question that Emily Thorne has cause to seek vengeance on ABC’s “Revenge.” Her father was pretty royally screwed over by what seems to have been a cabal of 40 or 50 members of the Hamptons’ elite.
What I do question, however, is Emily’s urgency. Yeah, for a week or two she was doing a pretty good job of giving her enemies indigestion, spoiling their marriages or bankrupting their hedge funds. But the for the past few weeks, Emily has barely been revenging at all. I can’t blame her for deciding that prancing around the beach in a bikini, going to upper crust galas and getting mixed up in a love triangle are a good deal more fun than  revenging. 
This goes and proves my long-held theory that the best revenge is carried out in unpleasant places where distractions are minimal. Drop Emily Thorne in the Hamptons and it’s gonna take her months to complete all of her required revenging. Drop her in Mississippi and she’d have slaughtered the entire conspiracy from A-to-Z before noon and then just moved on with her life as a sexy young billionaire. 
Perhaps that’s why I’m feeling comfortable with Cullen Bohannon’s ability to carry out his revenge with relative expediency.
Played by Anson Mount, Cullen is the hero of AMC’s new drama “Hell on Wheels,” a Wikipedia-infused “‘Revenge’ on Rails” masquerading as a history lesson on the construction of the Union Pacific. Cullen isn’t belabored by blue collar crushes or finding the perfect bandage skirt to match his skin tone. He isn’t wasting time decorating his green screen adjacent home or monitoring his stock portfolio. Heck, all indications are that Cullen isn’t even getting distracted by necessities like bathing. In the traveling cesspool of sin and commerce known as Hell on Wheels, Cullen’s monomaniacal. 
But clarity of purpose doesn’t necessarily make for a great show and “Hell on Wheels” makes the mistake of premiering with a truly weak pilot episode at exactly the time some critics and many viewers are eager to take AMC to task for perceived hubris and artistic abandonment. Although there are signs of improvement in subsequent episodes, that pilot is going to be really difficult for even patient audiences to sit through. And even from there, I can’t exactly tell you that “Hell on Wheels” gets good, just that it gets better.
More after the break…
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Western expansion allowed the United States the opportunity for rejuvenation and reinvention, allowing the country to expand into new land that hadn’t been soaked by Union or Confederate blood. 
Cullen is also a man in need of reinvention, or at least he will be after he avenges the death of his beloved wife, a woman so pure she convinced him to free the slaves on his farm before Lincoln emancipated them. His sainted wife wasn’t able to keep him from fighting for the Confederacy, nor to stop him from losing his land, leaving Cullen a man unmoored. Just like the roving town that gives the show its title? Why yes!
In Hell on Wheels, Cullen encounters more than a few other people who see Manifest Destiny as a way of escaping their pasts and forging new identities. The cast of characters includes the newly freed Elam (Common), Irish brothers Sean and Mickey (Ben Esler and Phil Burke), converted Native Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) and the enigmatic Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan). All of these men have dark secrets and given half the chance to monologue, they’re willing to reference the very specific historical events that shaped their individual pathologies. Whenever a character launches into dialogue that lasts more than a sentence, you can be sure you’re about to hear reference to an easily Google-able event. 
Leading the Union Pacific, initially from afar, is “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), an aggressive and savvy opportunist who hopes to profit from constructing a railroad in the most cumbersome way imaginable, all while billing the government. Doc doesn’t need to reinvent himself, but he’s darned sure that he’ll be remembered for what he’s about to do. 
“Make no mistake, blood will be spilt, lives will be lost. Fortunes will be made. Men will be ruined. There will be betrayal! Scandal! Perfidy of epic proportions! But the lion shall prevail,” Durant roars to nobody in particular in the pilot. Durant, you see, is a lion. 
It’s a lot to take in, especially since I haven’t gotten around to the Native American characters who are lurking around the periphery, pretty much aware that they’re about to be dispossessed of their land and, at least through five episodes, don’t seem to have much idea what to do to stop it. 
Part of that is historical fact, but part of it is that “Hell on Wheels” creators Joe and Tony Gayton don’t start the series with a very clear sense of purpose and everything that follows suffers from that initial blurriness. 
On one hand, the pilot has Cullen and his vengeful laser focus. The character is given an utterly badass introduction, complete with shocking violence and a stylish, billowing trench coat. As played by Mount with exactly the Clint Eastwood-esque steely glint, and understated growl, that Jim Caviezel has never been able to successfully bring to “Person of Interest,” Cullen is an amalgamation of a century of iconic taciturn Western anti-heroes. In subsequent episodes, Cullen becomes a bit more interestingly muddled as we see how damaged he truly is, but for an hour, he’s a one-man wrecking crew with a tilted hat and a Griswold. 
There’s one level of dramatic momentum that builds around Cullen.
That momentum is sapped by every scene that features the long-winded, vainglorious Durant, who wants to be Al Swearengen from “Deadwood,” but is hampered perhaps by too much bureaucratic legitimacy. If you’re the sort of US history student who gets hot at the merest hint of the Crédit Mobilier scandal, you’re sure to dig Durant’s early scenes, but otherwise they’re frustratingly lacking in urgency. 
But the Durant scenes are practically a roller coaster compared to the early sequences with the Native Americans, which have an authenticity that recalls early John Wayne oat operas in which white extras slathered on a little brown make-up and were called Injuns. And, sadly, through all five episodes I’ve seen, even with the introduction of the eternally compelling Wes Studi as Chief Many Horses, the Native American storyline never improves. 
In the pilot at least the Native American scenes interrupt the worst sequences, between the Union Pacific surveyor and his lovely bride (Dominque McElligott). Part of me is certain that these gauzy love scenes are meant as something verging on parody, a mockery of banal happiness in this otherwise dark and unpleasant world. But even the part of me that can tolerate the intellectual worthiness of this contrast in tones can’t tolerated the stilted dialogue (“This land. It’s bewitching.” “It hasn’t changed since Lewis and Clark first saw it 60 years ago.” “Do you ever wonder if our work here will be the ruin of all of this?”
“Progress comes with a cost, Lilly.”).
There are fine moments in the pilot — any scene with Mount and Ted Levine is worth your time — but they’re undone by less clearly motivated characters and perspectives which all could have been held for a second or third episode. And even those later episodes still don’t find the “Hell on Wheels” writers knowing what to do with the Native Americans, what to do with Meaney’s Durant, what to do with McElligott’s Lilly, what to do with the Irish brothers. Just as Hell on Wheels is a parasitic barnacle attached to the side of the railroad, “Hell on Wheels” as a series is carrying too many narrative barnacles of its own. 
On my first viewing of the pilot, I thought Mount’s performance was too still and perhaps too easily undermined by writing cop-outs like his opportunistically freed slaves. In subsequent episodes, though, I began to see more evidence that Mount was building a certain amount of self-inflicted damage into his portrayal of the character. Freeing his slaves doesn’t make Cullen a progressive and just because he wants or needs revenge doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have other demons complicating the process. 
The show is also struggling to give Cullen a proper antagonist to go against. Through five episodes, it isn’t Durant, who seems to be at his best in scenes in which he’s alone, which is probably never a sign of good writing. Common’s Elam was never going to be an antagonist for Cullen, but he could prove to be a worthy adversary if the writers ever find a way to concretely determine their hero’s racial attitudes, or at least find creative ways to illustrate his ambivalence. 
I sense that he’s not a long-term answer, but temporarily salvation arrives in Episode 2 in the form of Christopher Heyerdahl’s The Swede, the Union Pacific’s head security man. Heyerdahl, who I also thought was the only reason to watch “Sanctuary” (before I stopped watching “Sanctuary”), brings both menace and a marvelous sense of black humor to a role which hasn’t become over-exposed yet. In the second through fifth episodes, every time The Swede is on the screen, “Hell on Wheels” becomes an infinitely more enjoyable series, no matter which characters he happens to be sharing the screen with. It’s my fear that the series he’s in probably isn’t the one the Gaytons are most invested in, though.
Filmed largely in Alberta, “Hell on Wheels” alternates between looking gorgeous and looking distressingly low budget. Pilot director David Von Ancken and cinematographer Marvin V. Rush capture the epic scope of the landscape beautifully. But at no point in the episodes I’ve seen did I ever get any sense of the scope of Hell on Wheels itself. The town itself fails to ever become a character in the story and I’m certain it was supposed to.  It feels consistently underpopulated and the couple tented spaces — the Irish brothers’ nostalgia show, a whore house — never feel like a part of a larger whole. There’s an entire process of railroad building that also comes across as an afterthought rather than a point of interest on part with the pretty sunsets or vast plains. 
I’m going to keep watching “Hell on Wheels,” but it won’t be based on anything compelling in the overall narrative. I’ll keep watching for Mount and for Common (still more of a presence than an actor, but a fine presence) and for Tom Noonan and for Heyerdahl. I’ll keep watching because I’m honestly curious if the Native Americans are ever going to become more than antique genre composites. I’ll keep watching for a few historical signposts that I know are upcoming. And I guess I’ll keep watching… for REVENGE… though I don’t know where “Hell on Wheels” goes after Cullen takes care of his business.
“Hell on Wheels” premieres on Sunday, November 6 on AMC.

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