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.
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.
Sean McKenna was a TV Fanatic Staff Writer. He retired in May of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.