The best thing AMC’s new “Hell on Wheels” has going for it is that it’s better than “The Killing,” a prime example of potential squandered by infuriatingly bad storytelling.
While it may not be as frustrating as “The Killing,” “Hell on Wheels” has an equal share of potential and problems that could exhaust viewers.
“Hell on Wheels” is epic in its scope — it’s about the construction of the transcontinental railroad following the Civil War — but is singular in its execution. We’re offered various perspectives (freed slaves, tycoons, immigrants) on this time period, but the show is still mainly about the protagonist, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount).
This is the biggest misstep. Mount’s acting isn’t superb — he’s mimicking Clint Eastwood’s strong, silent type but lacks the charisma — which doesn’t help sell the story of a Confederate soldier seeking revenge on Union soldiers who murdered his wife during the war.
The pilot episode gives the industry-standard dump of information about the other players: Thomas “Doc” Durant (a solid Colm Meaney), the callous business man running the railroad’s construction; Elam (Common), a freed slave laborer; Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), a surveyor’s wife who finds herself in serious danger after a Cheyenne tribe attack. The next few episodes improve … slightly.
The second episode introduces a character known as the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), a Norwegian in charge of maintaining order in the construction camp by any means possible, i.e. hangings and his gun named Beauty. He’s the enjoyably nasty villain whom everyone will love/loathe.
The “vengeance-obsessed drifter gets caught up in more than he expected” angle gets room to breathe in later episodes, and the railroad storyline offers plenty of history to fictionalize for an interesting narrative, but there’s a skillful execution missing that could take “Hell on Wheels” to another level.
Westerns don’t need nuance and thoughtful metaphors to be successful; a noble hero, a reprehensible villain and a good gunfight go a long way in regards to conflict. But “Hell on Wheels” has only a few healthy moments of tension, and those only occasionally involve Cullen.
Throw in that “Hell on Wheels” will unavoidably be compared to “Deadwood,” a viscerally violent western that’s proficient at subtly executing powerful themes, and the flaws simply become magnified.