Hell On Wheels
Genre drama is the name of the game this season on television and AMC seems to be at the head of the pack. Last Sunday the network released its newest addition to an already groundbreaking roster, Hell on Wheels. After HBO’s Deadwood ended, many fans bemoaned its absence and a void opened in the TV world for another western to step in to. The question is: Can AMC continue to produce shows that live up to its impressive track record, and can the network bring a show that fully inherits the genre’s legacy? Unfortunately, Hell on Wheels looks like AMC might have run out of steam, and it appears the western may be going the way of the buffalo.
Hell on Wheels opens up with a bang, literally, when Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) plants a lead kiss on some poor, guilty soul in a confessional booth, initiating the audience into Bohannon's vengeful quest. You see, Bohannon is your typical lone cowboy relentlessly seeking out those responsible for his wife’s untimely and supposed grisly death. He’ll go to great lengths to dole out his righteous brand of justice, including traveling across the country and getting work as a foreman in the train track laying business. Which is precisely what he does, of course.
Hell on Wheels is jam-packed with possibly provoking characters. Colm Meaney plays Thomas Durant, a real-life robber baron entrepreneur who in the 19th century was vice president of Union Pacific and aided in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Out of all the characters in this first episode, Meaney’s Durant seems the most possessed and fully formed, his monologue at the end of the premiere was devilishly brilliant and intriguing with its breaking-down-the-fourth-wall approach. Dominique McElligott’s Lily Bell, when she jams an arrow into an Indian’s skull, also shows potential. But other characters such as Common’s Elam Ferguson, Tom Noonan’s prairie preacher, even Mount’s Bohannon initially feel like sketches that, we can only hope, the show will fill in with subsequent episodes.
But this is perhaps the biggest problem with the opening show; the characters and the plot line don’t feel original enough to spark interest. Bohannon, we’re led to believe, is a hard-nosed killer, an unstoppable force raging through the mangy ranks of the Old West underbelly, a man with a vengeful mind and an even steadier trigger finger. But what we get, at the end of the episode is a would-be avenger held at gunpoint by the drunk, racist foreman. We are all familiar with the archetype of the western anti-hero, but Bohannon seems to fall flat, giving a performance that neither instills fear nor empathy. Where he’s supposed to be reserved and brooding, Bohannon comes off as shy. Where he’s supposed to be steadfast, he’s unsure.
However, a lot could be said about the appearance of Hell on Wheels. The previews, with their metal soundtrack, were badass. The scenery is beautiful and panoramic, and the directors make full use of the expansive environment. The costumes are delightfully grunge and the make-up shows an extreme attention to detail. Common’s neck beard should win some award, and the war paint on the Indians alone is enough to get any visual aesthete’s juices flowing. But this is the type of production value we’ve come to expect from AMC, and the quality that keeps the network’s audience coming back. Not to mention the violence.
So perhaps Hell on Wheels is the perfect follow up for The Walking Dead. If there’s anything that pairs well with violence it’s more violence. Whether or not it will live up to the network’s reputation for innovative drama is another question that has yet to be answered. Hell on Wheels may have given us a taste of the Old West but we're not sure if it was enough to bring us back next week, begging for more.