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Fall 2011 Review: Hell on Wheels

9 Dec

The first episode of Hell on Wheels left me intrigued but not excited.  The pilot gave me just enough to make me want more but not enough to draw me in immediately like Homeland did, for example.

The story takes place soon after the Civil War as the great project of building the transcontinental railroad commences.  Our protagonist is former southern soldier Cullen Bohannon who heads out to work on the railroad, getting hired as a foreman because as a former slave owner he may have a rapport with the black workers, who while free, are treated as barely better than slaves.  Before he heads out, he kills a priest who we find out had something to do with Meridian, a place in Mississippi, in which events resulted in the death of Cullen’s wife.  Cullen’s goal is to find everyone else responsible and kill them as well.  The northerners and southerners get along pretty much right after the war, while the former slaves bear the brunt, the scenes seem to show us.  By the fringes of the railroad, civilized law doesn’t apply.  Rather, the territory is controlled by our antagonist, railroad baron Doc Durant, played by Irish television veteran Colm Meaney.  The episode ends with a long Richard III like speech by Durant, self-identifying himself as the villain but noting that that’s what it takes to get things done, in this case to get the railroad built and of course make him as much money as possible in the process.

Before this, Cullen learns in discussion that his immediate boss had a hand in Meridian, leading the boss to pull a gun on Cullen but inform him that he knows the name of his wife’s murderer.  Unfortunately, a black member of Cullen’s crew, played by Common, slits the boss’s throat before the name of the murderer can be revealed.  Other potential main characters appear to be the wife of a surveyer who is killed by Indians, a reverend, an Indian recently converted to Christianity and a couple of Irish brothers who were on the same train to work as Bohannon, but none of these characters had a whole lot to do in the first episode.

It’s hard not to think of Deadwood when watching even the pilot, as the shows are both set in roughly the same time period and both evoke the spirit and lawlessness of the old west, where there were no legal or moral rules governing society.  The main character seemed at first view like a poor man’s Timothy Olyphant and Durant’s ending speech was needlessly over the top.  We get that you’re a villain, and I can understand a small amount of cartoonish theatrical rationalizing, but it was a bit much.  Many of who appear to be other main cast members didn’t do much in the first episode so it’s hard to evaluate them.  The show is a little bit over serious and could get buried under its own weight if it’s not careful.

That said, there’s enough going on to interest me.  I love the setting and the idea of the moving railroad town and I think there’s a lot of potential there.  I think the revenge plot has possibilities.  Honestly, it’s not so much that the show has done a lot in the first episode to keep me coming back for more as much as raised the possibilities of good things coming in the future.  I’m taken in enough by this though that I’m willing to give it a few episodes to start delivering.

Will I watch it again?  Yes, I’m going to give it another try to see if it builds intrigue and finds its footing.  I’m the first to admit I’m a sucker for historical dramas.  That said, I hope the parts get moving relatively soon and the characters become a bit more compelling.