Sometimes it feels like TV has been making revisionist Westerns longer than it was making the Westerns they re-envisioned. Gunsmoke alone was on TV for two decades, and the straight-ahead genre survived (with some tweaks, as in Kung Fu) long after the Western’s ’50s and ’60s dominance. But lately TV has done best by Westerns, or quasi Westerns, that play with the form: by adding layers of filth and Shakespeare (Deadwood), by putting it in space (Firefly) or by adapting its visual tropes to a modern crime story (Breaking Bad).
Hell on Wheels, debuting Sunday on AMC, is not one of those shows. What is the opposite of revisionist? Visionist? If so, that is what Hell on Wheels is. It does not rethink the Western genre. It doesn’t even think the Western genre too heavily. If you are looking for originality, this railroad drama is not the train you want to board. But if you’re a viewer in the market for a straight-ahead Western drama with some basic-cable violence and darkness, you may find it a serviceable visionist Western.
The premise is as old-school as it comes: a lone gunslinger is looking for revenge on them what done him wrong. Cullen Bohannon (an intense, beardy Anson Mount), is a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, as you will have guessed from his name. (One assumes he has a friend back home named Col. Beauregard Culpepper.) His wife died in the war, in what we are left to infer was a brutal assault by Union soldiers. It’s now 1865–the war barely over, Lincoln just buried–and he is setting out from Washington, D.C. with a plan to kill the men responsible. Having checked all the names off his list that he can on the Eastern seaboard, he lights out West, to join a work crew building the Transcontinental Railroad for Union Pacific.
What he finds in the Great Plains is, well, a Western, with some concessions to 2011-era, basic-cable gray morality. Cullen gets a job as a crew boss, winning the approval of the work camp’s crude, cynical overseer Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine), because the workers are largely freed slaves and, Johnson tells the Southerner, “I imagine you know your way around a nigger.” (We learn that Cullen owned slaves but, presumably so we won’t lose sympathy for the protagonist, he freed them, under the influence of his late Northerner wife.)
The work crew is a reminder that the war did not solve many things, least of all the status of the black workers, who are all but treated as slaves by their racist bosses. As Elam, one of their unofficial leaders, rapper Common gives one of the series’ best performances, showing his incandescent bitterness at going from slavery to servitude. But the way the series addresses the issues around race–like most other topics it deals with–can be painfully hamhanded. This is a series that cannot have Elam talk about his disappointment with how little the Emancipation Proclamation improved without having him literally pull out a clipping of the document. And Wheels hammers the parallels between the two men’s grievances like a railroad spike: “You’ve got to let go of the past,” Cullen tells Elam, who answers, “Have you let it go?”
But the show’s treatment of post-slavery is complex compared with how it handles the Indians, specifically the Cheyenne. They menace the railroad and launch a vicious attack on a survey expedition led by Englishwoman Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) and her husband, who–well, spoiler alert here, I guess, but let’s just say that the actor’s name is not played up in the credits.
Now look: I do not want to make the p.c. argument that Native Americans should not be portrayed as violent in a Western, particularly a tribe that was at war with the expanding U.S. But we encounter them as people only sparingly and in the ways you’d expect: fighting, or having mystical visions, or–the most prominent story–wrestling with being assimilated into Western culture and religion. (That last, at least, sets up a potentially interesting storyline for Tom Noonan as a pacifist preacher with a violent abolitionist past.) Hell on Wheels doesn’t make the Cheyenne villains. Worse, it makes them boring.
Playing with all these elements and factions, like the pieces on a didactic boardgame (Oligarchy: The Game of Crony Capitalism!), is Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), the scheming head of Union Pacific, who is simultaneously Wheels’ most interesting figure and its biggest problem. “Most interesting” because his scenes are animated by a story of corruption, by the idea that the very infrastructure of the young country was literally shaped by venality. (He berates an underling for routing the railroad in a straight line over the plains, because a needlessly curvy route would allow him to gouge more money out of the government.)
And “biggest problem” because he isn’t able to convey this convincingly through his interactions with the major characters. Meaney plays Durant as a preening businessvillain out of a 19th-century muckraker tract, all sneer and no charisma. This serves him fairly well when he gives long–very long–speeches on his dreams for the railroad or the necessity of ruthlessness, which are the best pieces of writing in Hell on Wheels by far. But the series tends to have him soliloquize, stagily, to empty rooms (without even the benefit of a head in a box a la Deadwood’s Al Swearengen). When he interacts with any other character, he’s so palpably oily you wonder why anyone would spend five seconds with him without checking their pockets.
The obvious comparison is with Deadwood, with which Hell on Wheels can’t fairly compete, and yet at times Wheels seems to actively court the comparison. Granted, some parallels are unavoidable: a mining camp and a railroad camp are going to develop the same kind of temporary society and economy, including opportunistic entrepreneurs and, yup, whores. But a major storyline of Wheels is so similar to Deadwood it’s, to be charitable, audacious: Durant finds himself suddenly needing Lily for a resource essential to his plans–information about the railroad’s planned route–in a way very much like how Al Swearengen had designs on Alma’s gold claim in the first season of Deadwood.
On the other hand, Wheels often seems to distinguish itself from Deadwood, mainly by being much less ambitious. You can tell at a glance, literally: the show’s palette is familiar TV-western, sort of sepia and sunny at the same time, like something that would have aired on Lonesome Dove-era CBS. The show is often dark — in that familiar cable way of being violent and having bad people succeed — but it’s never weird or jarring in any distinctive, human way. (Long story short: if you were looking forward to Hell on Wheels because you still painfully miss Deadwood, do not watch it–it will make you bitter and sad. Rather, more bitter and sad.)
And Mount, though he utterly looks the part, doesn’t help. His Cullen is all broody, drawling surface; he can be compelling in a given scene, but not in a way that suggests there’s much more to him than what you see–a man who’s had it rough and wants payback–nor that makes you need to know more about him.
Which, I’ll admit, may be a very smart approach for AMC. Before Mad Men was ever a gleam in Matt Weiner’s eye for period detail, the channel had a smash hit with the Robert Duvall Western Broken Trail. It may be right to assume that it can find an audience that wants a Western that it is exactly what meets the eye, nothing more.
And after a lukewarm pilot, it does at least deliver that credibly. The relationship between Cullen and Elam becomes intriguing, as each grudgingly sees him self and his resentments in the other. (The quickly flirtatious relationship between Cullen and Lily works less well— again suggesting a prominent Deadwood story arc, but less believably.) There are some fine little stories worked in around the edges; the second episode introduces Durant’s head of security, “The Swede” (a Norwegian), a coldly menacing giant who we learn is a survivor of the hellish Andersonville prisoner of war camp.
Deadwood fan though I am, over five episodes, I found parts of this series I could get invested in. You might find even more. Just don’t go in expecting more than heck on wheels.