Hell on Wheels Series Premiere Review: Plains, Trains, and Gunslingers

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Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. Fortunes will be made. Men will be ruined.

These are the promises made by the sprawling epic that is AMC's latest attempt at another hit drama. Hell On Wheels might not be groundbreaking, but it is captivating and eager to tell multiple stories of the men and women struggling to find purpose after the end of the Civil War.

Cullen Bohannon Picture

The show sets off with a shot to the head, introducing us to Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former confederate soldier seeking vengeance for the murder of his wife. Thankfully, Bohannon garners a sense of complexity besides his straightforward drive to kill his enemies. He did own slaves, but he freed them before the war even started. He did fight in the war, but it was simply for honor. There's just enough good in him to make him a hero, and just enough darkness to question some of his actions. With his fierce gazes and soft spoken nature fixed with a quick hand, this gunslinger intrigues. He's prepared for a journey that is certain to extend beyond his basic acts of revenge.

But even as Hell On Wheels attempts to break from stock characters, one of the most obvious is the corrupt businessman, Thomas "Doc" Durant. He's power hungry, money hungry, deceitful and manipulative. He cares nothing for the people around him, most obviously apparent when he learns of Robert Bell's death. All he cares about are the whereabouts of the man's maps. What's more is he knows he is the "villain" of the story, but as long as he makes a name for himself, the end will justify his means.

Luckily, Colm Meaney is a veteran actor and should breathe some life into a character that for now seems black and white. There has to be something more to Durant than just the railroad.

Of course, it is the gritty backdrop of the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad that draws all of its characters together, each with a particular purpose and struggle. The lack of color and heavy emphasis on the dirt and the grunge adds to the despair and turmoil that surround the quest for something greater. But at what cost? Despite the end of the war and the freedom of the slaves, it's obvious that the times and new changes aren't as quickly taken upon as promised.

For someone like Elam Ferguson (Common), being a freed slave sure doesn't feel like one. He still has something of a master, and the labor he toils endlessly is met with barked orders and demands.  He's angry and frustrated and he should be, but life isn't as simple as Lincoln's emancipation proclamation. It's something Ferguson quickly claims he should wipe his ass with. I'm still not sure if Common feels out of place for the part, but there's plenty of room to grow. Plus, I believe that Ferguson's budding friendship with Bohannon should prove interesting.

There's also a portion of the episode focused on the land the railroad is taking over and the Native Americans that refuse to allow the trespassing. Plenty of bloody scalping and arrows to the throat are right around the corner to support their opinions. Clearly, the volumes of topics that can be discussed and played out seem endless, as are questions about the people involved.

But it's Bohannon that manages to lie at the center of the story and draw all others around him together. He remains to be the most interesting of the bunch and the knowledge that a sergeant was mixed up in his wife's murder is perfect fodder for keeping him tied to the railroad and seeking bloodshed.

It's a bummer Ted Levine's character only lived long enough for the pilot because behind that grizzled beard and voice, he was able to chew up his scenes. I enjoyed each of his moments with Bohannon and the contrast to each other. One a confederate who freed his slaves, the other a union soldier who blamed black people for his problems. I wish there was more time for the characters to play off each other, but he was worth every moment he lasted.

It's not doubt that Hell On Wheels will draw comparisons to HBO's Deadwood and exploration of the "west" and the people that lived through it. However, the two shows are wildly different and at times the dialogue here can feel out of placed and even forced. Take, for instance, Lily Bell's comments about "bewitching" that merely made me laugh instead of see her view of the open plain and future drawn out for them. Or even Thomas Durant's long set-up speech at the end of the episode to which he seemed to be talking to no one but himself. I understand that he will allow himself to be the villain of the story and hardship and betrayal is set to come, but why say all of that? Showing is always better, especially if no one is there to listen.

Hell On Wheels does attempt to head in a different direction than Deadwood and there is a feeling of experiencing the people who are living in a time of rebuilding and reconstruction. It's a promising landscape and saga that I hope proves fulfilling. Sure, the premiere was rather slow, but it picks up speed in the next few episodes.

Overall, there's something to be said for trying to bring back the Western and I'm interested to see where the show goes. Let's just hope it's a train worth taking and not one that will end up far off the tracks.


Editor Rating: 4.1 / 5.0
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User Rating:

Rating: 4.2 / 5.0 (45 Votes)

Sean McKenna is a TV Fanatic Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter.


Great show I see this show lasting for years to come it is just a dam good show for real i watch Walking Dead then I watch Hell on wheels these are the two best shows on tv. Forget those other shows like Xfactor and Glee and Modern Family those shows dont have a dam thing on Hell on Wheels I know this show will win a lot of awards and I know Common got to win a ton as well. If he keeps doing what he does the oscar is in sight. So please continue your positive role model image for the kids. Great job again.
helico rc


@Keotaman, Chewing up his scenes means that he did an excellent job. You're getting your metaphors confused. Anyway, I just finished watching the pilot and I really enjoyed it, but I agree that some of the dialogue feels forced. Not only that, but Common's casting was terrible. He looks nothing like a civil war-era slave. I'm pretty sure he's 65% white, 35% black. That bronzed skin of his made him look very out of place. Common isn't a bad actor or anything, but they should have gotten someone like Boardwalk Empire's Michael Kenneth Williams who has the threatening, intimidating menacing look and voice. Common just comes off as a pretty-boy. I know there is much time to get used to him, but I don't think I ever will.


I really enjoyed the pilot. It was a little slow, but character building takes time. I hope it's a slow build into some great scenes. Living in the west (grew up near Tombstone) I've heard/lived this. It's great to see a western on TV. It brings back so many great childhood memories.


I usually enjoy westerns but this wsas much too heavy handed for my taste.
I would sooner see a "real" story about the hardships of building the railroad, without the cliched villians and stereotypes shown here..


I had high hopes for this; sadly, only about ½ way reached. As for Levine chewing up his scenes, I disagree - he did them well and I enjoyed his character, why would you say he was killed off for doing a good job?
Not enough track, train & camp girls, but otherwise pretty good. I like Chief O'Brien, but too much Durant too often will kill this series. Best taken in smaller bites, eh?


I am not a western fan. So I wouldn't be watching it.


Hated to see Levine go so fast too. Hope he gets his own show someday. Good actor. Pilot was well done. Didn't over do cussing and though violent showed just enough to be believable. Now if they let the hero do more than just scowell and growell it should last. Sure hope so.


Loved the show. Nice to have a western back on tv.


The story line is good, but the noisy soundtrack makes it hard to hear what the characters are saying. Too much noise!


I loved the pilot! Hopefully the rest of the series will be as rewarding. Very realistic violence too. I'm typically not big on blood and guts, either, but it was tastefully done.

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Hell on Wheels Season 1 Episode 1 Quotes

Daniel: You released your slaves and still fought in the war. Why?
Cullen: Honor.

Sean: Do you not believe in a higher power?
Cullen: Yes, sir. I wear it on my hip.