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Seitz: The Failures, Successes, Possibilities, and Danger Signs of Hell on Wheels

Robin McLeavy and Common on Hell on Wheels.

Like a lot of people, I watched the first few episodes of AMC's Hell on Wheels, Joe and Tony Gayton’s drama about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and then checked out. It wasn't awful, but a lot of it was weak, and even in its better moments it seemed not to have found its tone yet. The pilot and the next couple of episodes seemed stranded between grubby naturalism and slick, empty mythmaking. In one scene, the show would feel like a wannabe McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Deadwood, muddy and lyrical and depressive. In another it would echo Sergio Leone or early Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales especially). Yet another scene would feel anachronistic, glossy, and weightless. When I finally did catch up after the New Year, what I saw made me wish I'd been watching the show in real time. Hell on Wheels didn't turn into a great drama, but it settled into a distinctive groove, growing more relaxed and confident by the week, dealing with painful historical subjects and unique personal crises that most TV, even Western-themed TV, often ignores, and indulging in some of the most deliriously cinematic montages this side of Breaking Bad. Some scenes and moments were flat-out amazing — so unlike anything else on TV that they made me want to forgive or forget the just-okay dialogue and production design and hit-and-miss performances.

Last night's season finale — which cut between vengeance-obsessed lone wolf hero Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) chasing one of the men he believed raped and killed his wife and a dance party celebrating the completion of 40 miles of track — encapsulated the show's flaws as well as its promise. The gathering-of-a-misfit-community scenario is such a durable Western trope that it's tough to mess up, but here the editing was choppy and the staging of important action was undistinguished (few of the dancers looked comfortable dancing). And the dialogue — never the show's strong suit — was so full of clunkers that I'm having a hard time singling out the worst line; it's probably a toss-up between the former John Brown follower turned man of God, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan), telling Bohannon, "Choose hate, it's so much easier," and the ex-Pawnee concubine turned prostitute Eva (Robin McLeavy) telling her ex-slave boyfriend, "I love you, Elam, and I'm tired of being a tramp."

Then came that cinematic Hail Mary pass at the end, another terrific montage. Scored with a 21st century alt-country remake of Woody Guthrie's “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” it cut between the fugitive Bohannon riding out of town after murdering the wrong man; the newly minted bounty hunter Elam (Common) practicing his shooting; railroad workers dismantling the tent that once belonged to the corrupt security chief Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl); and the tarred, feathered, and humiliated Swede wandering a road and coming upon a "Wanted" poster emblazoned with Bohannon's scowling mug. The juxtaposition of that song and those striking silent images — Swede's aghast face, incriminating papers burning in a campfire, a locomotive's smokestack blasting smoke into a cloudless sky — elevated the sequence beyond mere narrative summary. It was pothead lyricism of the sort that young directors embraced in the Vietnam-through-Watergate era, when movies were torn between honoring Western conventions and flipping them the bird. If Dennis Hopper were still with us, I wouldn't have been surprised to see him step out of the locomotive's cab at the end, bearded and long-haired and babbling about the Rapture.

I was heartened to learn that AMC has renewed Hell on Wheels for a second season, because to paraphrase McCabe, this show has poetry in it. The most familiar elements and situations, such as Bohannon's Eastwoodian vengeance obsession, the Englishwoman-abroad primness and dignified coquettishness of Lily Bell, and the robber baron smugness of railroad boss Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meany), make the series feel less special than it is. From the start, Hell on Wheels was rapped for being anachronistic, too much an example of present-day artists looking at the past from a position of comfort and superiority. But the show openly admits the thorniness of that perspective and weaves it into the storytelling; one could even argue that the intrusion of modernity into our imagining of the past is the show’s true subject. That's why there are so many modern pop songs on the soundtrack, many of which sport lyrics that seem to comment on the action with irony or empathy. Deadwood used to end its trip into the 1880s by playing a modern recording over its end credits; on this show the music is right in the middle of things, announcing its 21st-century mentality with the stridency of Bob Dylan's Alias character in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Neil Young on the soundtrack of Dead Man.

And yet there are still 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 show is set during the post–Civil War era, when North-versus-South grudges still burned bright, and it shows white characters — including ones we’re supposed to care about — casually throwing around the N-word and referring to Native Americans as “injuns,” “savages,” and “heathens.” Aside from Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), who has an unusual degree of autonomy for a woman because of her porcelain beauty and her late husband’s connection to the railroad, the show’s females are mostly disempowered, and the writers constantly make us aware of the ethnic and racial pecking order of the Old West (sometimes hamfistedly, as when a bigoted Irishman informs Elam that the Irish are “the niggers of the British empire”). But in light of the setting, this seems mostly honest rather than exploitive. The racial and ethnic tension feels lived-in, and it’s illustrated mainly through workplace politics and the acquisition of money. The show doesn’t put the prostitutes on display, and the language with which they describe their jobs has a day laborer’s bluntness. They’re just trying to make a buck like everyone else.

For all its clumsiness, Hell on Wheels is also one of the most politically and historically conscious series ever to deal with the Old West. It’s constantly trying to connect present-day resentments to the nation’s past. The legacy of slavery is a huge part of that, and the half-black, half-white Elam — superbly played by Common, whose unselfconscious toughness recalls Woody Strode — is a nexus point for dealing with it. 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 seeing the Confederate South’s grudging acknowledgment of African-American autonomy being enacted through two stubborn individuals.

Elam’s affair with Eva — who was enslaved by Native Americans and whose tribal tattoos make her a pariah even among prostitutes — was even more affecting. Her initial refusal to sleep with him certified that in the Old West, black folks were near the bottom of the social heap. But later she realized he was a kindred spirit and sought him out. Their affair, which started out furtive but became public, supplied some of the first season’s best moments. The postcoital scene in which Elam recognized Eva as a fellow ex-slave and professed his love for her spoke highly of the show; not many violent genre series are willing to show tough, bitter people behaving so tenderly. Fewer still are willing to show a black man and a white woman in love, connecting sexually and intellectually and speaking frankly to each other about their place in the world. (Eddie Spears’s character Joseph Black Moon is Elam’s Native American counterpart — a Cheyenne who’s being absorbed by white society; when he and Elam joined Bohannon on a raid against Cheyenne who were sabotaging the railroad, the image of them riding together had a grim charge, because we were seeing deep grievances being put aside in the name of commerce.)

The show’s fascination with God, spirituality, sin, redemption, and the possibility of an afterlife is unusual, too. Many cable shows — notably Six Feet Under and Deadwood — dealt in religious language and concepts, but on TV such elements often seem purely theoretical, the work of 21st-century agnostic humanists dealing in metaphor. Not here. When Lily tells Eva that she has nightmares about the brave that she killed in the pilot episode rising out of the earth and grabbing at her ankles, and Eva tells her that it’s the spirit of the dead warrior trying to drag her into the spirit world as revenge for the humiliation of being killed by a woman, the show isn’t asking us to snicker at their superstitious nature; as far as these woman are concerned, that ghost is real, or could be real, and the reverent way in which the show photographs landscapes, skies, water, and fire implies that they might be right. When Reverend Cole becomes a violent drunk again, and barely restrains himself from slapping his daughter after she calls him out for being a rotten father, and he raises his hand to the sky and cries out to Jesus, we’re not supposed to translate his distress into the modern language of twelve-step programs or therapy. He really is calling out to Jesus for help, because he needs it — and because this is the kind of show in which people’s prayers (and good deeds) are answered in the form of life-saving inspirations and sudden twists of fate. 

The show’s depiction of Cheyenne spirituality is likewise matter-of-fact, right down to a “Sun Vow” ceremony that really does lead to a revelation. Bohannon’s revenge obsession is conceived in theological terms, too. When he kills the wrong man in the finale, Anson Mount’s horrified, shamed expression goes beyond present-tense shock and into something deeper: spiritual torment. It’s as if he’s totaling up all the people he’s killed, remembering all his snide rejoinders to the Reverend, and figuring he’s irredeemable, a stain on the world. When people on this show tell each other, “I’ll see you in Hell,” they mean it. When the bigoted Irishman miraculously survives a shot in the neck by Elam and returns to renounce his bigotry and beg Elam and Eva to forgive his sins, he says that an angel reached out and diverted the bullet; like a lot of Hell on Wheels characters, he’s a tormented and cruel person who’s been given a second chance, not randomly, but through some kind of cosmic, possibly divine intervention.

I’m looking forward to season two of Hell on Wheels with a mix of anticipation and dread. The show has so many virtues and so many problems that I could see it rising to meet its potential or spiraling into crude lecturing, pointless busyness, and fashionably graphic violence. And I don’t think I can ever forgive it for introducing a potentially fascinating character — the Swede, a brutal but oddly charming camp lawman who could be moved by a slideshow of Irish landscapes — and turning him into a spluttering, wantonly vicious, and seemingly incompetent villain. Even at its best, Hell on Wheels flirts with awfulness, and too often it succumbs.

But there’s potential here. As long as the show gives the actors better dialogue, continues to treat its characters as complex and impulsive people rather than as Western archetypes, and gives its directors, cinematographers, and editors free rein to experiment, it could become the kind of cult success that inspires fierce fan loyalty and runs for a long time. It's already got a built-in, organizing metaphor, the building of the railroad — an enterprise that, like America itself, is predicated on relentless forward motion. That, plus memorable characters and bursts of wild lyricism, ought to be enough to sustain it until we can see that golden spike driven into the ground.

Photo: Chris Large/AMC