When Deadwood unceremoniously ended after three seasons in 2006, lovers of gritty period Westerns were left with little TV to satisfy their need for foul-mouthed crime bosses and man-eating pigs (Real Housewives of New Jersey being the obvious exception). That’s partially why the anticipation for Hell on Wheels has been so high. More significant, though, is that HoW is AMC’s latest, and anything that channel puts out in this post-Mad/Bad world is going to be treated like it has the potential to be one of those. Of course, as we all now know, it could also be a flop or a maddeningly inconsistent show that nearly drives you away before pulling you back in only to drive you away again.
HoW opens in D.C. Words on the screen tell us that it's 1865, the war is over, and the "nation is an open wound." The first person we meet is a zombie from The Walking Dead stumbling into a church. Who is he? Doesn't matter, because after confessing his part in wartime atrocities he gets a bullet through the head from a bearded man in the confessional booth especially interested in what happened in Meridian, Mississippi. This preacher impostor is Cullen Bohannon, an ex-Confederate soldier played by a scowling Anson Mount who grunts at a Jesus statue on his way out of the church. This dude is bad
Next we meet another bad dude. He's Thomas Durant, a real-life railroad magnate played by Irish actor Colm Meany who’s trying to sell a bunch of guys in Rick Perry collars on investing in the Union Pacific Railroad. He throws around words like "destiny" and "empire" with such ferocious sliminess that his less-than-noble motives are clear. And yet, with the room clear of the suits, he tells one remaining senator that "it's all horse shit." Then the senator explains for everyone unsure of what’s happening: "So you'll be paying yourself to build a railroad with government subsidies." Uhh, duh. We're a minute into this show and it’s spelling things out for us like Sesame Street (see “open wound” line above).
Back to Bohannon and he’s on a train. Completely by chance, the two guys across from him are reading (or trying to read, at least) an article about a man gunned down inside a confessional. Weird! He did that! Our hero — or antihero, we're not sure yet — befriends the two men, Irish brothers with an annoying pluckiness. The article leads to talk of religion, which leads to one of the brothers asking Bohannon if he believes in a higher power. It’s a softball lobbed at him so he can say, "I wear it on my hip." It’s lines like these that establish him as an unrepentant lone gunman in the Eastwood tradition. The duster and squint further drive it home.
Bohannon’s train soon reaches its destination, a sorry excuse for a town called Hell on Wheels, where vagrants, cast-offs, and whores romp around in dirty clothes and dirty faces as they build a route across the nation. Bohannon is now one of them, given the job of overseeing a group of newly freed slaves after telling the camp’s one-handed boss, a former Union solider who throws around N-words as quickly as he throws back shots, that he used to own a few himself. Elam Ferguson, played by an uncommonly unkempt Common, is one of the former slaves living a life that’s not so different from his old one.
The flood of characters continues as we briefly meet a preacher who declares his intentions to build a church right next to a whore house. And this is where the Deadwood similarities start to get to be too much. A brooding, quiet hero who's good with a gun; a preacher with designs on building a church amid rampant sinning; ambitious, business-minded immigrants; a powerful villain who loves to hear himself talk. The creators of the show have denied the Deadwood similarities at every turn. Their most frequent defense is that the dialogue is dramatically different on the two shows. And yeah, we'll give that to them. No one on HoW sounds even as sophisticated as Al Swearengen’s farts. But while the shows may sound different, the characters, superficially at least, are bizarrely similar.
Enough with the Deadwood comparisons, though; there are more characters to meet! It's a couple in a field surveying land one state over. They're cute and in love and the guy’s got a cough, which means he’s a fortnight away from dying on a dirty cot. Back in HoW, Bohannon is playing poker with some unsavory characters with an uncomfortable level of interest in female slaves. Bohannon tells them he set his slaves free a year before the Civil War because his wife, a Northerner, convinced him of the evils of slavery. Oh good! We’re learning something about mystery man here. But also, oh bad! We know the man both owned slaves and fought for the South in the Civil War, which makes this detail feel like a ham-handed attempt at humanizing a guy whose bad deeds far outweigh his good.
Out in Nebraska, our cute couple Robert and Lily are banging in a tent. Good thing they got that in, because in the morning Indians show up with plans to kill. In what amounts to the most exciting few minutes of the pilot, a group of white men are hacked apart with hatchets, scalped, and, in the case of a cat-eyed Indian who attacks Robert and Lily, stabbed through the throat with an arrow. All that’s left after the attack are Lily and a stash of valuable maps that Durant wants to get his hands on.
Back in HoW, Elam Ferguson, the former slave with a millionaire rapper’s teeth, watches as the one-handed man’s horse kicks his friend in the face and kills him. When Bohannon visits Ferguson in his tent that night, it’s clear the former slave plans to turn one-hand into no hands, or maybe something worse. Bohannon tries to convince him not to before delivering the most absurd line of the episode: "You got to let go of the past," he says, TO A FORMER SLAVE. It’s probably not going out on a limb to say that was an unreasonable request, especially, as we’ll soon learn, coming from a man on a mission like Bohannon’s.
Later that night, as Bohannon shares a drink with one-hand, the old man admits that he loved war, but it led to him crossing “lines of morality that I didn't think myself capable of crossing.” It’s essentially the same confession the zombie made in the opening scene, and sure enough, Bohannon asks him about Meridian, Mississippi. But old one-hand saw the question coming. He figured out that Bohannon was hunting down those who served alongside him and that he was next on the revenge list.
Outside with a gun to Bohannon’s head, one-hand starts revealing information that people only reveal when they’re reading scripts. Your wife didn’t kill herself, he tells Bohannon, the sergeant did. By the way, the sergeant is out here, too, he adds in an attempt to set Bohannon up for a season’s worth of searching. But before Bohannon, blindsided by this revelation, can find out the sergeant’s name, Ferguson appears from behind and turns one-hand into no-breath. What timing!
The episode ends with Durant talking to ... the camera? He goes on about a lion and a zebra and his role in history. It’s all very disorienting, and yet another example of the show going to great lengths to spell everything out for the viewer. This is clearly one of our biggest complaints about HoW, along with its surfeit of groaners and classic Western archetypes that play more like tired Western clichés. But, and this may sound crazy after this long list of complaints, it’s not all bad. There is believable violence and a willingness to show it. There’s compelling acting, especially from Meany. There’s an opportunity to explore a relationship between Bohannon and Ferguson that isn’t paint-by numbers Western. There’s a new, supposedly promising character coming named The Swede. And most important, there’s time.