Pilot Review: Hell on Wheels

I felt bad for AMC’s new show Hell on Wheels even before I saw a second of footage, mainly because if any show’s been a victim of poor circumstance it’s this one. Simply by nature of its subject – a Western set amongst a territory experiencing the brutal growth of civilization – it had to be either good enough or different enough that viewers didn’t spend the majority of the time comparing it to Deadwood. And by nature of its network – the once unassailable AMC – it had to meet the obligation of being competent enough to wash the bad taste of The Killing out of our mouths. And really, it doesn’t deserve either comparison, as those are both unfair obstacles to put in the path of a new show.

So I’m making a promise in this review, and I’m not going to directly compare either of the two going forward in this review. How does the pilot episode hold up when those are stripped away? Probably not enough to stand up on its own two legs yet, but it’s an episode that at least indicates Hell on Wheels might have the framework to deliver a competent Western once it gets the pieces together.

The title of the show comes from the term given to the mobile city that surrounded the construction of the American transcontinental railroad: a ramshackle collection of temporary buildings that housed saloons, whorehouses and other services for the unruly band of individuals in the railroad’s service. Entering this environment is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier who claims to be looking for honest work but quickly locks horns with ex-slave Elam Ferguson (Common) and rail boss Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine). Bohannon, it turns out, is also looking for revenge against the Union soliders who murdered his wife, and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it.

At least, that’s one of the plots being established, which gets to one of the problems I have with the Hell on Wheels pilot: it’s a pilot episode that’s trying to establish every part of its world on its first outing. In addition to Bohannon’s quest for justice, we also see Union Pacific railroad tycoon Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) greasing the political rails necessary to turn a profit on the endeavor, a murdered surveyor whose wife Lily (Dominique McElligott) has fled with his maps, and a preacher who has recently converted a Native American (Eddie Spears) to Christianity. The parts aren’t exactly disparate – you can see the railroad running through each character – but as presented, they all feel like parts of different shows, both in tone and even the different shades of each scene’s washed-out filter.

And in all these parts, the execution was a bit hit-and-miss. All of the action surrounding the railroad construction had a nice frontier, men-apart-from-the-world feeling, establishing both Bohannon’s particular moral code and the tensions that build among the members. Scenes dealing with the political scheming are lighter on the details but entertaining in their way, mostly if you enjoy watching Colm Meaney chew some scenery and snarl at the senators and surveyors who get in his way. Unfortunately, the scenes with Lily were duds to me, both because her talk with her ill husband felt unconvincing and the connection to what was going on elsewhere was flimsy at best.

A lot of these problems I’m prepared to chalk up to first-episode jitters, but I do worry that the show might either be feeling the pressure of the obligations I mentioned above or have a reach exceeding its grasp when it comes to delivering a message. The closing scene of the pilot sums this up, where Durant is offering a soliloquy about how he will play the villain in this drama and goes off on a tangent about zebras. It’s a hypnotically delivered speech and Meaney is doing his not-inconsiderable best, but when you see he’s just going off to an empty rail car it robs the speech of context or pathos. “What is the building of this grand road if not a drama?” he opines at one part of the speech, a line that seems as much like he’s trying to convince the viewers as he is himself.

Meaney is at least good enough in the role to make me think he’ll be more convincing before too long, and the acting in the show does give me further faith in its long-term future. I’ve never seen Anson Mount in anything before this*, but I liked him quite a bit as the weathered gunslinger Bohannon. Giving off serious vibes of John Marston** in both his outfit and his stance, he’s very convincing in the cowboy archetype who’s seen so much death and chaos that he can’t be surprised or outraged by any of it, only face it with a tilted hat and a loaded weapon. Common also bears himself quite well as Elam, a man who doesn’t see the change in status quo post-emancipation but still isn’t happy taking orders from anyone. He and Mount have a nice understated tension in their scenes together, and whether we’ll get a partnership or enmity out of it remains an open question. McElligott strikes me as a weak link though – it could be because her story was too insubstantial to leave an impact, but I found her accent very grating. (Though that could be as much the fault of her “romantic” dialogue as her own talent.)

*This observation included mostly for me to proudly say that despite the many, many poor viewing choices I have made in life, I still never saw Crossroads.

**Comparing shows’ leading men to video game characters seems to be a recurring thing this season for me. First David Giuntoli shows up in an Alan Wake-style jacket/hoodie combo in Grimm‘s pilot, and now Mount pulls off the Marston look. We’ll have to see if, when The Borgias comes back, any of its characters start sporting pointed hoods and bracers with hidden blades.

And at least the show looks nice. Say what you will about AMC, but they do know how to deliver a show with a sense of atmosphere starting out, and the Canadian plains they have selected to substitute for uncivilized America go a long way towards building that atmosphere. Usual attention has been paid to the period details – right down to the (now) rare Confederate revolver on Bohannon’s hip – and the glimpses of the tent camp we’ve seen so far has the rough-and-tumble transient vibe such a place would have. I do think the show leans a bit heavily on the aforementioned washed-out color filters – scenes involving Eddie Spears’ character are almost blue – and I hope it’s one they improve in weekly production.

So, not a winning start for a show, but it’s one that I’m going to still check in with periodically. Even leaving Deadwood aside, I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns – Silverado was the first movie my parents ever took me to see in the theater – and this seems to have enough of the archetypal pieces that I’m going to be at least a little engaged in what happens. I’ve also been intrigued by comments made by those who’ve seen future episodes of a new character called “The Swede” played by Christopher Heyerdhal, who apparently has screen presence to burn and makes up for many of the show’s failings.

So, is Hell on Wheels the second coming of Deadwood? No. Is it going to reassure us that AMC really does know what they’re doing when they sign new shows? No. But what it is might at least grow into a show worth watching.

Other Thoughts:

  • Friend of the blog Cory Barker has made a particular study of AMC’s current position as a network, and offered his latest installment last week through the Hell on Wheels context. He liked the pilot much less than I did, but makes solid arguments nonetheless.
  • Phil Nugent over at The A.V. Club had a comparison I’m mad I didn’t think of myself on first viewing: when Elam starts getting the black railroad workers to start singing, you really want them to break out “I Get a Kick Out of You.”
  • I think a large part of the reason I like Anson Mount, in addition to his performance, is that he’s one of those actors whose real name is almost better than any characters he plays. Plus, as this interview with Hitfix shows, he’s apparently a very informative and open guy when it comes to his projects.
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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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