TV Review: Hell on Wheels – Season 1
Goodbye Cinema, Hello TV, an article written by Filmophilia’s very own contributor Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir, has inspired this online film magazine to expand its horizons and cover TV show reviews. If you’re thinking like we are, then expansion can only mean good things, (a better world if you will), as we bring to you more information in the realm of both the big and small screen. Of course, our film coverage will not suffer as we continue to bring forth relevant, up-to-date movies news, reviews, and information, every day. So to kick start this new development, we present the first TV Review in Filmophilia’s history.
Let us be nostalgic for a second. Remember that gun-slinging show that despite shooting its way to a critically acclaimed reception, still found itself amongst a list of quality TV shows cancelled due to that taboo word, ratings? The year is 2006 and followers of Deadwood found themselves yelling out in agony after HBO’s decision of cancellation. The void of the stylish, well-done Western series was apparent. Yet few have decided to take on the mission of reclaiming the western genera, which has seen so much graveyard-bound TV in recent years. Now, five years later our hope for a western was restored at the announcement of the new series Hell on Wheels.
Named after the settlement around a construction site for the transcontinental railroad, Hell on Wheels houses all that you would expect, (and want to see), in a western town: Workers, prostitutes and businessmen all play a interconnecting part in the race to build their train line (in this case, the Union Pacific) of 1865. Ruthless and cold hearted, Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) is perfectly casted as the overseer of the town in both physical and financial capacities. His encampment includes former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), ostensibly looking for work but is secretly hunting the Union soldiers who brutally murdered his wife and young son. Swift and clever, Bohannon brutally procures a position as a “walking boss,” where he begins making allies and enemies with such intriguingly defined characters as the former freed slave Elam Ferguson (Common), the beautiful widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), the camps’ Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) who hides as dark a history as Bohannon himself, and Durant’s sadistic chief of security, Thor “The Swede” Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl).
In ten quick episodes, series creators Joe and Tony Gayton have laid the foundations for a dark and complex western society, teeming with tension just waiting to burst. Small in size, the camp of Hell on Wheels is comprised mostly of tents, a saloon and the luxury rail car belonging to Durant (which if you remember is awfully similar to that of the town in Deadwood). With such tight corridors, action is bound to occur and as hundreds of Westerns before it suggest, it is not long before violence and sex is upon us.
Prepare to be entertained at the very least. Its hard to find a dull moment, especially when the screen is inflicted with tomahawks and arrows. While the acting, surprisingly, is not that bad, especially from rapper-turned-actor Common, it is nothing to bow down to. Very few have eye-grabbing moments of brilliance, so don’t expect the show to be an award winner.
To the show’s credit, each new character seems to be one that you want a multi-episode story arc to focus on. The large cast of instantly intriguing characters, all with their own compelling stories, highlights the magic of this western. There are times when the show takes us deep inside these characters in a very sincere, period-accurate, non-condescending way, one that’s mindful of modern sensitivities without trying to pander to them. The half-black, half-white Elam — superbly played by Common, (given prior expectations), is a character you are immediately drawn to as the internal conflict between past and present becomes more apparent. His awkward bond with Bohannon, a former plantation slave-driver, was one of the strongest elements in the show’s first season; when Bohannon lost to Elam in a bare-knuckle fight and then taught him how to shoot a pistol, it was as if we were observing the Confederate South’s grudging acknowledgment of African-American autonomy being enacted.
Historically, the show is regarded as highly accurate intertwining the fictional story with historical events as it takes place in America. Therefore, we find the show accessible to our time as it constantly tries to connect present-day resentments to the nation’s past. Each episode uncovers a new layer of intrigue, as it effectively opens up subplots that you want to see more of. The show’s fascination with God, spirituality, sin, redemption, and the possibility of an afterlife is just one nexus point for this as we explore deeper into the bridge and divide between morality and religion.
Final Verdict: The timing is right. There is no other Western out there. The setting could not be any more intriguing. The building of the transcontinental railroad, pushing American innovation and tackling racial issues as it deals with a dirty past. There’s so much potential here and you can just feel its originality just waiting to be unleashed. However predictable and, at times, clumsy the show is, give it room and it will grow. As long as the network gives the actors better dialogue, continues to treat its characters as complex and impulsive people, and allows its directors, cinematographers, and editors free rein to experiment, Hell on Wheels can develop into a kind of cult success. So far the show has amassed a following. But expect it to continue to rise as it inspires fierce fan loyalty, setting itself up to runs for a long time.