1865. The American civil war is over. Lincoln is dead. A former soldier walks into a church confessional, asking to be forgiven for something terrible he and others had done during the war. But absolution comes in the form of a bullet, the gun resting in the hand of Cullen Bohannon. The salty Southerner is on a revenge trip, hunting down the men who raped and killed his wife and son while he was away fighting the North. His murderous quest soon leads him to Hell On Wheels, the roaming camp constructing the west-bound portion of the U.S.’ first transcontinental railway.
The Wild West is a period of great mythology, mainly because for the longest time those telling its stories preferred to create righteous heroes who hunted bad men and cruel natives. The truth was very different: grim, bloody and completely amoral. This underbelly was inconvenient to early Western movies and shows, but in recent years it has become very appealing to audiences who enjoy grit, controversy and reminders that in the real world lines blur constantly.
The seminal moment for the modern Western was the hard-nosed Deadwood. But it had a high point of entry: you have to relish heavy dialogue and unmatched levels of profanity to enjoy it. Hell On Wheels is significantly friendlier, being on a more family-friendly network. But it pushes as close to the edge as it can – not unlike how Sons of Anarchy manages to remain a PG show while still putting you in the thick of a gang of bikers.
In Hell On Wheels we meet a range of interesting characters: the revenge-set Bohannon, the deeply angry freedman Elam Ferguson, widowed surveyor Lily Bell, and the corrupt businessman constructing the railroad Thomas Durant. They are joined by a large cast, notably two Irish brothers, a prostitute wearing the tattoos of the Indians who held her captive and the Swede, Hell On Wheels’ creepy head of security.
What Hell On Wheels lacks in depth it fixes with speed. Not being too concerned with character development, the show prefers to race through the situations that develop around the characters instead. Ultimately it’s about the railroad, but told through the individual dramas of its cast. Love, murder, ambition and the human condition all come under the spotlight, cast against the backdrop of a 19th century engineering and social feat of note. On the one hand this show is as shallow as they come, as well as prone to parading its self-importance.
But the performers raise the bar, relishing the rich dialogue and controversial story lines. Anson Mount and Common, who respectively portray Bohannon and Fergunson, really grow into their respective roles, while Colm Meany as the manipulative Durant is an instant show-stealer. And if a character is annoying, the costumes and scenery provide ample distraction. This is one of those shows where you sometimes think you can smell the sweat and mud.
Headed for a fourth season, Hell On Wheels has evolved a lot. It starts as a reasonably entertaining show with some potential, then started to realise that potential before soon surpassing it. Every season is better than the previous, partly because every season becomes darker and its characters more amoral.
Along the way the story tackles those dark sides of American history: the civil war, the slaves, the Indians and the weight these and other factors lay on the people of the time. Well, it pays more lip service than anything else – this is not a heavy historic period piece. But a few exceptions aside Hell On Wheels wades deeper into the muck of the American frontier than anything before or since. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll find it invigorating.
But even if men on horses mean nothing to you, Hell On Wheels is still a captivating and interesting way to spend a few hours. And unlike Deadwood you can watch this with your grandma.
Last Updated: July 15, 2014