I think it's time I consigned my dislike of Westerns to the past, because I've enjoyed almost every example of the genre I've seen in the past few years. It represents a period of history I'm still not very interested in, but modern-day filmmakers have breathed life into what always felt like a cliché-ridden genre to me. And that goes for AMC's latest TV drama Hell On Wheels, which joins the cable network's pantheon of successes—be it critical (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) or commercial (The Walking Dead, The Killing—kind of).
Set in the post-Civil War era, the show concerns former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and his quest to avenge the brutal death of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers. This takes him to the town of "Hell On Wheels", a tent city moving with the construction of the transcontinental railroad being built by Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney)—in an illogical zigzag pattern from east to west, because that'll require more money from the US government's treasury.
Hell On Wheels evokes the 1860s marvelously; so much so that you'll be tempted to cough up some dust during a few scenes, or swear you can feel the heat from the unrelenting sun on the plains. But more than the sheer pleasure of entering a convincing world, I appreciated the simplicity of this setup. It's just a simple revenge tale at heart, with a gunslinger making his way across America as part of the Union Pacific Railroad team—trusted to look after the "niggers" because he kept slaves before the war. While we don't really get to see the circumstances of the tragedy that fuels Cullen in this pilot, I'm sure more details will emerge as a clearer picture take shape. But for now, taking his story at face value, he's a character that's easy to get behind—not least because his attitude's so progressive for the time's he's living through (Cullen freed his black slaves before it became illegal to keep them).
Like all good pilots, Hell On Wheels keeps things simple and remembers to include exciting, inciting moments while explaining its backdrop and sketching in its characters. An opening assassination in a priest's confessional; a violent attack by a Cheyenne tribe who're angry the white man's railroad is passing through their sacred lands; and the unfair beating dealt out to a thirsty black worker who crept away to have a drink. The actors all make a good first impression, too. Mount has an ominous intensity as the enlightened Cullen, Meaney's enjoyably despicable and greedy as "Doc" (the only character based on historical fact), ex-rapper Common proves memorable as the freed slave Elam Ferguson, and Dominique McElligot is enjoyably plucky as frontier woman Lily Bel. For good measure the pilot throws in brilliant character actors from Thomas Harris adaptations--Tom Noonan (Manhunter) as a preacher and Ted Levine (The Silence Of The Lambs) as a one-handed railroad foreman. To be honest, not everybody gets material that's worth their time, and the characters are largely Western archetypes, but it's too much of a pleasure watching actors of that caliber chew the scenery and bask in their own facial hair.
I had a good time watching Hell On Wheels begin its westward journey, despite the fact there's nothing revolutionary about the formula it's opted to use. The situation's very easy to grasp, the production oozes quality, it's full of great actors, and the core idea of following the adventures of a mobile community (comprised of freed slaves, immigrants, ex-solders and lowlifes) really appeals to me. Maybe the writers will start to struggle with the restrictive idea of a man avenging his wife's death over a TV series that might last years, but I wouldn't be surprised if Cullen's goal plays a less prominent role over time—once the other characters step forward with stories of their own.
written by Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton / directed by David Von Ancken / 6 November 2011 / AMC