Hell on Wheels: A Western Worthy of Deadwood?

Let's just get this out of the way: I've never seen Deadwood. I know that may be considered a punishable offense in some circles, but I just never got around to it.

From what I understand, Deadwood was a show that strove to take the romanticism out of the western genre and replace it with a gritty, "reality" based look at the formation of the infamous South Dakota town, and it is the foremost example of gritty Westerns on television in the past twenty years. I was raised on a steady diet of John Wayne movies as a child--while other kids were watching The Goonies or Die Hard, I was watching The Quiet Man and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon--so I am intimately familiar with the basics of the genre, even if I haven't seen Deadwood. There are certain things you can always expect from a Western. The little things: gunslingers, cowboys, evil tycoons, hookers with hearts of gold, saloon fights, and lots and lots of liquor . . . but there are always bigger things at play, too. At the heart of every Western ever made is that same struggle between civilization and the wilderness, civility and lawlessness, order and chaos.

In that sense, AMC's Hell on Wheels is no different from anything that has come before.

The anti-hero of Hell on Wheels is ex-confederate soldier and former slave-owning plantation master Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a man bent on avenging the death of his wife. Mount, who is taking a well-earned break from his standard role of professional pretty-boy (he infamously starred as Britney Spears' love interest in Crossroads), is almost unrecognizable as Bohannon, the scraggly bearded gunslinger whose only God is the piece that hangs at his hip. His quest for vengeance brings him to Hell on Wheels, a lawless traveling town that famously followed the construction of the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad. Heading up the construction of that railroad is Thomas 'Doc' Durant (Colm Meaney), the owner of the Union Pacific railroad who is being subsidized by the US government. Meaney gives off an air of doughy Irish menace as a self-proclaimed villain. And then there's Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), the wife of sickly Robert Bell, who is surveying the land for the future railroad, and who is the only woman in the male dominated cast. Also in play are the bitter, freed slave Elam (Common), Irish immigrant brothers Mickey and Sean (Phil Burke and Ben Esler), the traveling preacher Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan), and his Christian-converted Native American servant Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears).

All of this, mind you, we kind of have to figure out on our own. Hell on Wheels just kind of drops you in and lets you figure it out for yourself, and that's both good and bad. I like that the show wants its viewers to pay attention and figure things out, but the pilot also walks a dangerous line in terms of story. At times, the pilot felt disjointed. The most egregious example of this comes when we transition from Colm Meaney bribing a senator straight to young lovers Lily and Robert Bell kissing in a beautiful field, with no explanation. It's clear by the end how the two scenes fit in to the scope of the show (Lily ponders at one point that the land is so beautiful without people in it), but it is nevertheless jarring the first time through. Similarly, we're never given a concrete explanation for the title of the show, simply a sign that reads "Hell on Wheels: One Less Every Day," and a brief mention from Doc that implies "Hell on Wheels" is simply a term for the front lines of railroad construction.

However, while the show would probably benefit from a second viewing, it's not actually necessary. Hell on Wheels is a Western that even someone completely illiterate in westerns could follow. Even though at some point the show will probably transition away from it, right now the central structure relies on Cullen Bohannon's quest for vengeance. Even someone who is completely unfamiliar with anything else that is going on in the show could follow that plot. Revenge is a universal throughline. In fact, it's one of the reasons that ABC's Revenge has been so successful. That show is meant to be serialized, but in actual reality, you could probably pop in and out of it and be none the worse for wear because what matters in that show, what drives it, is the revenge itself. Similarly, to enjoy Hell on Wheels, you only really need to know two things: 1) The construction of the railroad is bringing progress, and thus corruption and greed, across the country, and 2) Cullen Bohannon is going to kill every single Union soldier who took part in the death of his wife.

Bohannon is actually a classic western anti-hero. He does bad things for the right reasons. In that sense, the show is actually not pushing any new buttons. Bohannon is crafted to be scary but likable. He's a Confederate soldier who owned slaves, yes, but he freed those slaves a year before the war, and he only fought out of honor. This is maximum crafty, right here. His wife was murdered, he fought on the losing side of the war, a war he only fought in out of a sense of duty, and he is nice to black people: he's the perfect underdog. Plus: he looks like a young Aragorn. I'm just saying.

I find Hell on Wheels intriguing. It's a little bit rough around the edges, and it's certainly not revolutionary television, but it is extremely competent. The performances are solid, the atmosphere is excellent, and the scope of the show certainly gives it a vast potential. There is some intelligent writing going on here, even if it that writing isn't pushing buttons or say anything new; it's at least saying it well. There's something to be said for the ability to string words together, and the pilot had several moments that intrigued me. During the opening scene, just before he is murdered by Bohannon in the middle of a church confessional, a nameless ex-soldier says, "We opened a dark door and the devil stepped in." I kind of feel like that's the show's mission statement. The pilot ends with a monologue from Doc. He says it's the lion who drives history, the lion who rips people apart and drags them along. He says this as the camera pans along the unfinished train tracks, and we're left with this transitory image. The world is changing. The railroad is opening a bunch of doors, and the devil is most definitely going to step in.

What did you guys think? Are you in? Sound off in the comments.