In the first few minutes of the new AMC series Hell on Wheels, you know you’re in for a wild ride. A tale of revenge in the middle of the untamed and gritty American West, Hell on Wheels delivers plenty of action, adventure, and violence to satiate any Western fan. It’s a serialized character-driven drama in the grand tradition of other great AMC shows, with a sensibility and style all its own.
I’m a big fan of the Western genre. From the films of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, to more modern takes on the genre like No Country for Old Men, Westerns have been a part of cinematic culture since its inception. It’s conventions and characteristics are easy to identify, and the stories that can be told are vast and far-reaching.
Hell on Wheels adds its own take to the genre, taking us a few years after the Civil War in the 1860s. It’s a time of great transition and upheaval in America, as the South attempts to deal with the concept of life without slavery, and a nation finds itself slowly coming together from coast to coast with the aid of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Of course, the joining of both sides of this massive project is still a long ways off, and like the people dealing with the aftermath of the war, there’s a lot of groundwork that must be done before real progress can be made.
Former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is out for blood against a group of Union soldiers who committed atrocities against his family during the war. He’s a stoic and sullen man with eyes as cold as steel and a will that won’t allow him to quit until each and every man responsible has met a bloody and violent demise.
Granted, it won’t be a simple task. After all it is the wild West and he can’t just Google the names of the men or use his Smart Phone to track them down. It’s his journey for justice that drive the series forward, and the people and situations he encounters along the way make this a much more difficult task then he ever imagined.
His quest leads him to Hell on Wheels, a small, makeshift town constructed for the express purpose of housing railroad workers. It is here that Bohannon finds some sense of purpose other than vengeance, and meets folks that will become both his friends and blood enemies.
Among his allies are freed slave Elam (Common) who represents the African-American experience post-Civil War; though they are free, there’s plenty animosity, prejudice, and anger toward Elam and others by the whites in the town.
Heading the railroad effort is Thomas Durant (Colm Meany) whose pomposity and over-zealousness threaten to tear apart the very project he’s dedicated his life to. Will he be the harbinger of his own destruction, or will his efforts to eventually join both sides of the railroad together be a success?
The three men are joined by a host of other characters including a reformed pastor, an Indian who left his tribe and converted to Christianity, a pair of Irish brothers, and a woman and her husband who work as surveyors for Durant’s railroad project. Their lives, struggles, triumphs and defeats are on full display, and their interactions with Bohannon and others help drive the series toward dramatic and oftentimes violence results.
The pilot has a lot of ground to cover and it does so in an even-handed fashion that opens the door to multiple storylines that will be explored and developed over the course of the series. Each character’s background, personality, and perspective allows for plenty of conflict, and with the undercurrents of race, class, and a recent war woven into each story, the tension only bubbles and boils like a pot of beans over an open campfire.
Hell on Wheels has a lot going for it. It’s a series set in an established genre, with intriguing and dark characters, and plenty of conflict and drama built in that definitely give the series longevity and strength.
The performances are solid, and the show delivers an unflinching look at life in the 1860s with all the brutality, grittiness, and violence that infested the lives of the men and women who struck out from the East Coast to find their destinies out West with the aid of the railroad.
Like AMC’s other solid series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead, Hell on Wheels will have no problem finding an audience and making itself known as yet another victory for the network. I highly recommend you check out Hell on Wheels.
Hell on Wheels premieres Sunday, November 6 at 10/9c only on AMC.
What did you think of the Hell on Wheels pilot? What’s your favorite AMC series? Leave a comment and let us know!