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Ambitious 'Hell on Wheels' Goes West, But Sometimes Heads South
November 6, 2011  | By Ed Bark


 From unclebarky.com

Everyone gets railroaded to some degree in Hell On Wheels, a truly gritty but not always galvanizing saga of how the west was run over by the Union Pacific.

Paired with AMC's resident evil hit The Walking Dead, this is easily the best western series since HBO's Deadwood. Then again, there really hasn't been a weekly western since.

The network sent the first five episodes for review. Some are pretty terrific, but Hell on Wheels (Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on AMC) also shows signs of losing steam by the halfway point of its scheduled 10-episode first season. It remains visually first-rate, though, and by no means goes entirely off the rails. Fans of the genre, of which I'm one, can at least keep the faith that Hell on Wheels' somewhat flabby midsection will lead to a down-the-stretch restoration of muscle tone.


It all begins in 1865, with the Civil War barely over and Abraham Lincoln newly dead. Ergo, "The Nation Is An Open Wound," viewers are informed in onscreen graphics before the series' central character, revenge-obsessed former Johnny Reb Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), makes his presence felt.

Bohannon's wife was ravaged and then murdered during the war by a group of Union pillagers. So in the tradition of Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High and Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith, he's bent on tracking down and killing every last one of 'em.

One of his bullets finds its mark early on before Bohannon heads to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and its makeshift tent city of Hell on Wheels. The city follows the progress of the east-to-west transcontinental railroad, whose unscrupulously greedy mastermind is scenery-eating Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney).

Meaney's deportment and pronouncements -- "Is it a villain you want? I'll play the part" -- recall the old Jon Lovitz "Master Thespian" character from Saturday Night Live. But if Meaney's Durant is overcooked, then Ted Levine's bad-nasty RR construction foreman is done just right.


Sporting an unkempt beard and missing a right hand, Levine is virtually unrecognizable from his Monk days as sour-tempered Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer. His new character, Daniel Johnson, is a hard-drinking, ramrodding racist who also happens to be -- well, let's not reveal too much other than to warn viewers not to get too used to him.

Sunday's opening episode also includes a side trip to Nebraska Territory, where a young railroad surveyor with an increasingly bad cough is mapping out a way through the Rocky Mountains. His devoted wife, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), is picturesquely by his side and worried sick about him. But an Indian massacre is on the horizon, and it's a grisly bone-chiller that leaves just one traumatized, bloodied survivor. You won't need more than one guess to determine who that is.

Back at the railroad construction site, the steely-eyed Bohannon is put in charge of a contingent of former slaves headed by Elam Ferguson (the hip-hop artist called Common). Their relationship is both contentious and respectful, while also being more than a little too black and white.

"You got to let go of the past," says Bohannon, who used to own slaves but freed them a year before the war after his wife convinced him this was evil.

"Have you let it go?" Ferguson replies. This prompts a prototypical steely glare but no retort from our antihero. It's a pat scene. Too pat.


Other residents of the movable Hell on Wheels town are enterprising Irish brothers Sean and Mickey McGinness (Ben Esler, Phil Burke), who might remind some viewers of the pair of plucky Irish siblings from Lonesome Dove. Far more interesting is the whore Eva (Robin McLeavy), whose time in Indian captivity has left her with a Mike Tyson-esque tattoo -- but on her chin.

Episode 2 introduces another instantly intriguing character, the intimidating Thor "The Swede" Gunderson (Christopher Heyerdahl). Having survived war imprisonment at Andersonville, he's now Durant's uncompromising head of security -- as well as a new and formidable antagonist for Bohannon.

There's also an assimilated Indian named Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), who's been Christian-ized by the Rev. Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan). Cole is still in the process of conquering his own war demons, while Joseph's father, Chief Many Horses (Wes Studi), remains dismayed by his son's embrace of the white man's ways.


Hell on Wheels strives to stir all these pots with plotlines that at times are contrived. There's a curiously out-of-sync explosion near the end of Episode 4 and a big boxing match in Episode 5 that's meant to be pivotal but instead comes off as another black-white seminar -- albeit with fists flying.

Through it all, Mount's Bohannon also loses some momentum during a narrative drive that downshifts and at times even idles.

AMC executives say they wanted to launch a weekly western because the network's all-time most popular attraction is still 2006's two-parter Broken Trail, which starred Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church.

Hell on Wheels is a big and ambitious stab at the genre, with a lot going on and much to recommend. But as time goes on, It will need a little more coal, fire and giddyap. Fewer preachments also would help.


Read more by Ed Bark at unclebarky.com

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