Lindsey Tries to Appreciate Westerns, TV edition: Hell on Wheels

This review covers only the pilot episode of the AMC Western series Hell on Wheels. Read on to see if this post-Civil War drama made me appreciate its genre, and whether this first episode made me want to continue watching the series!

Hell on Wheels is a Western TV drama following Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). The year is 1865, and Bohannon is a former Confederate soldier who has journeyed west to join the crew constructing the Union Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental line. He gets hired on as the supervisor of a “cut crew” made up of emancipated slaves, whose task is to dig up the land to prepare it for the laying of the tracks.

Anson Mount and Common star as Cullen Bohannon and Elam Ferguson (Image via Collider)
Anson Mount and Common star as Cullen Bohannon and Elam Ferguson (Image via Collider)

It’s not just work Bohannon’s looking for on the railroad, though. He’s heading west to seek revenge on Union soldiers who he believes killed his wife and son. He’s been given a name by the railroad foreman of one man involved in his wife’s death, so with revolver in hand he chugs along (yes, that was a railroad pun) in search of vengeance.

Created by Joe and Tony Gayton, this series was reportedly inspired by an episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience that covered Westward expansion through the growth of railroad lines.

Though I’m a few years late on discovering this show, as is typical of my TV-watching habits, I’ve been wanting to give it a try for quite a long time. I’ve seen commercials for it while watching other shows on AMC and was attracted to it for a couple of reasons: its 19th century setting, and its handsome, bearded leading man. (Don’t lie, fellow 20-somethings. You’ve had a crush on Anson Mount since he wooed Britney Spears in Crossroads, too.)

(Image via Collider)
(Image via Collider)

I recently got wise to the fact that the first two seasons are available on Netflix, and so the time came for me to give the pilot a watch.

The episode opens with high intensity. A man is shot in a church confessional. Atmospheric music and very grey cinematography (even in the beautifully smoky, fiery, banjo-filled opening credits) add to the grim appeal of the series, but despite this opening mood, the episode isn’t consistently dark. Like most historical fiction, some romance and straight drama are mixed in to balance the episode’s more violent moments.

The episode is interesting in terms of its historical accuracy. Though Anson Mount’s character is made to have freed his slaves a year before the war began in order to make him easier for the audience to like, there’s plenty of period-appropriate racism in the show’s characters. Slurs and hatred aren’t condoned by the series, though — it just wouldn’t reflect the period accurately if those things weren’t included, which is a harsh truth of American history.

And like the mix of violence with straight drama, the show again seems to striving for balance here. I can’t speak for how the series has progressed over the past three seasons, of course, but in this episode there’s definitely an attempt to offer complex and diverse characters, which is much more than can be said for the majority of television programs.

Common stars as Elam Ferguson. He was the first actor to be cast in the series. (Image via celebuzz.com)
Common stars as Elam Ferguson. He was the first actor to be cast in the series. (Image via celebuzz.com)

I’m most interested to see where they take the character of Joseph Black Moon, a Cheyenne man who has converted to Christianity. He’s baptized in this first episode, which offers a great opportunity to explore the complexity of feeling the need to conform to the world around you, while also feeling a pull toward your heritage. I really hope they haven’t wasted this character’s potential by now, the third season of the show having aired last year. (Please don’t spoil it for me if they have, haha.)

Did it boost my appreciation of the Western genre?: YEP. This gripping pilot episode introduces the potential for fascinating characters, both in the dynamics between them and in their personal characterizations/growth. I will definitely continue on with the series. I appreciated the pilot both as a Western and as a piece of period fiction.
The score: No score since it’s TV — I’d rather wait until I see the whole season to score it. But I enjoyed the pilot a lot.

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