I’m a writer with a day job, which means “writer with no time to write.” Many of the folks who frequent my blog are too. So perhaps the last thing I should be doing is admitting I sit in front of the boob tube or encouraging all of you to do the same.
But once in a while, a series comes along that actually sparks my creativity instead of just giving me a reason to ignore my keyboard. Now and then there comes a show with enough solid character development and storyline to make me say “hey, I wish I woulda thought of that.”
This fall, one such series has been AMC’s “Hell on Wheels,” .
Hell on Wheels centers on Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier on a quest for revenge against the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. With Bohannon, we travel to Hell on Wheels, perfectly described by AMC’s web site as “a dangerous, raucous, lawless melting pot of a town that travels with and services the first transcontinental railroad, an engineering feat unprecedented for its time.” In addition to Bohannen’s personal quest, we are suddenly also enmeshed in the greed, corruption, politics and horrors of life on the under-construction railroad.
Six Reasons to Check Out The Show
1. The Variety of Characters and Perspectives
For me, the best way to learn a bit of history is to get sucked into a story. I’d rather experience events and time periods through the eyes and emotions of those who lived them then read about it in a textbook. Hell on Wheels does a good job of bringing the period to life from the perspectives of many characters struggling under harsh circumstances.
In a stew of hardship, anger and greed, no one comes out smelling like roses. There are no complete good guys or sugar-coated characters to make you cringe with their moral fortitude. To put it bluntly, everyone is a bit effed up. But that only makes it more interesting, and certain characters do have shining moments of kindness or of making the right choices in spite of internal conflict.
Hell on Wheels is full of the stark realities of the grueling work, unfair treatment and prejudices faced by the newly freed African Americans who worked the railroad, as well as the women who kept themselves sheltered and fed as camp whores. The horrors faced by the Native Americans who watched the railroad steamroll their way of life, and the brutality of their own retaliation, is also captured.
OK, I admit it. I grew up with a daddy who loved a good Western. Clint Eastwood was his hero. So maybe I’m a bit biased when it comes to loving Anson Mount’s gritty, rugged portrayal of Bohannon. But hey, that works both ways. I’m also easily turned off by an actor who seems to think a hard stare and a little just-got-off-my-horse swagger alone will get the job done.
Mount delivers a character who is badass enough to give me my tough-guy-taking-on-a-screwed-up-world fix, but screwed up enough himself to let me believe he could have existed.
Bohannon is a good guy who isn’t all that good. He’s pissed and he’s got his own motives. He doesn’t like the treatment of the workers that the railroad bosses are handing down, but with his own goals of vengeance first and foremost in his mind, he busts his mens’ balls anyway to keep his place in the heirarchy. He plays his part in saving the damsel in distress, and he’s dark and brooding, and what girl doesn’t like that? But he’s also one hell of an awkward, stumbling drunk.
There’s so many places Bohannon’s character can go. I’m anxious to see where they take him.
An emancipated half-black, half-white former slave, Elam walks a constant thin line, facing barely-contained resentment from the men he supervises and blatant prejudice from the men above him in the railroad heirarchy. The hardships his character faces show just how little emancipation has changed the climate for freed men – especially the repercussions he faces for his evolving relationship with Eva, a white prostitute.
Elam is wonderfully protrayed by Grammy winning musician Common. When Common is on the screen, you can actually feel the pride and struggle to find his own identity that define Elam. The moments where his character shines through the most center around his complex relationship with Bohannon. Their own basic senses of justice and a series of circumstances make the two strange allies even as their pasts and their perceptions have them at each other’s throats.
I haven’t figured out what’s up with this guy yet. But I will tell you this – he’s got a place at my Nightmare Dinner Table near Hannibal Lecter.
The Swede is no typical Western corrupt and power-hungry bad guy. Sure, he is all that, but the character has an added supersized helping of obsessive psychopath that makes him anything but stereotypical.
He’s out to get Bohannon, but even without that obsession he’s a no-holds barred freak. He’s charged by uber-boss Thomas Durant (Colin Meany) to keep Hell on Wheels under control, and he clearly loves his job.
Christopher Heyerdahl plays The Swede, and his scenes are some of my favorite in the series. He’s more than just a man who thrives on power and control – he’s twisted, disturbed, and weird. In a grim way, he’s also almost comical.
5. Strange Relationships
It is the relationships and complex interactions in this show that make it was it is. First and foremost, of course, is the adversarial partnership of sorts between Bohannon and Ferguson. Anson Mount and Common kick ass in the way they bring these two men and their feelings about each other to life.
But beyond that, there’s the Swede’s obsession with Bohannon. There’s Bohannon’s chemistry with Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), a woman who survived an attack that killed her husband and who is now struggling to make his dreams a reality and find her own place in a male-dominated world. There’s Lily’s quiet way of learning to manipulate Durant – who needs what her husband has left behind – to her own end. There’s the struggle of Joseph Black Moon, a Native American who teams with the Reverand Cole to try to end the warring between the Indians and the whites while still trying to hold on to some bond with his family.
6. The Potential for Whats to Come
There are so many intriguing paths that a second season of Hell on Wheels could take. In particular, the female characters of Lily Bell and Eva are just beginning to come into their own, and I’d like to see what they do next in this man-ruled world.
Also, Reverand Cole’s daughter Ruth, who he abandoned in his quest for a ministry, has just arrived at Hell on Wheels. The relationships between Cole and his estranged daughter, as well as between Ruth and Joseph Black Moon – who Cole has treated more like his own child than Ruth herself- intrigue me. Of course I want to know what will happen next in the strengthening alliance between Bohannon and Elam, and with Bohannon and Lily.
And perhaps most of all, I want to see what happens when The Swede totally loses his shit.
Hell on Wheels has had a solid first season. It has taken some time to bring these complex characters and their relationships to life, but that’s how it is when characters and storylines are multi-faceted. The first season has offered up an intense and sometimes painful look at history. The stage has been wonderfully set, the stories unfolded, and so much has yet to happen.
So why tell you all this now, 7 episodes into the season? Because you’ll have the perfect opportunity to catch up. On New Year’s Day, AMC is having a Hell on Wheels marathon and airing all 7 episodes shown to date.
If you don’t have plans, recuperate from your New Year’s Eve festivities with what in my mind is one of the best new series out there today, and be sure to let me know what you think!