AMC's Gritty 'Hell On Wheels' Celebrates the Anti-Hero
Tortured by his past, spun out of control by his rage, and now hunted, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is Hell on Wheel's central tragic figure. He's a shell with no family, no country — and early this season, he's going rogue.
And that's appropriate because he's a character on AMC, home of celebrated anti-heroes Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Don Draper (Mad Men). The cable channel has delivered some riveting television by showcasing very flawed leading men.
Like those two other AMC shows, Hell On Wheels, premiering tonight, Sunday, at 9 p.m. ET, has a distinct big-screen cinematic style, with the blackness and moodiness of an old frontier painting. While the Hell On Wheels story arc doesn't gain the heights of the other shows, it succeeds in painting a complex, often contradictory vision of the American West.
Season One followed the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Its treacherous encampment — called Hell on Wheels — is rife with speculators, con men and prostitutes. Its mobile residents have been stricken by sickness, criminals, inhospitable weather and even more inhospitable natives. And yet they continue to go on.
As the camp moves west across Nebraska on its way to the Rockies, the real-life inspired Thomas "Doc" Durant, (Colm Meany) struggles to finance and run the whole operation. He's facing either wild success when he gets there, or complete financial ruin.
But the center of the story is still Bohannon, a former Confederate officer whose merciless journey of vengeance was to find and kill the Union platoon responsible for the murder of his wife and son while he was at war. Last season, he hunted them all down, but finished with one tragic mistake — the murder of an innocent man.
"I looked him right in the eye, and choked the life out of him," Bohannon mutters with no remorse in the second episode, as he confesses the tale to another ex-Confederate who's also on the run. Wanted for the murder, Bohannon has fled the railroad camp where he may have had a shot at personal redemption as a crew chief.
As easily as that prospect emerged — along with his glancing interest for the widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) — it veered wildly, like the track of the railroad they're digging through the wilderness.
Bohannon's tragic character now seems irretrievable. Utterly corrupted by his own hatred, he has no other way of being in the world.
Most Hell on Wheels characters usualy find any prospect of honor or comfort snatched away. That is most apparent in the story line of Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) who had a quest to preach — to both the pioneers and the natives — that peace, not violence is the answer to their differences. Now defeated and discouraged, he's surrendered again to his demon, alcohol.
Noonan's performance is stellar, and he's a worthy contributor to what can be considered of the strongest casts on television right now.
Accolades also go to the tall and sunken Christopher Heyerdahl, and his character, Thor Gundersen.
Gundersen is a Norwegian, but the camp residents call him "The Swede." The moniker punctuates their impulse to stereotype everyone, even though they're all a mix of southern blacks, Irish, English and whomever else has come to America to remake themselves — and the raw land — into something new.
Last season The Swede was an extreme, puritan enforcer in Durant's camp, ready to act by any means necessary. That worked until he went too far and the camp fought back, literally running him out of town, covered in hot tar and feathers.
Now humiliated, Gundersen is allowed back into the camp, but as a lowly muckraker and grave digger. The Swede is now an eerie presence, a ghost prophet in the barren landscape conjuring apocalyptic visions with bits of biblical prose that portend darker times ahead. The Swede's tragic foreshadowing, of course, historically came to pass: The natives were oppressed, almost exterminated, the land is now usurped and criss-crossed by interstates and Best Buy's.
As Hell on Wheels's railroad expands west, the series offers a retelling of America's wandering of the virgin but extremely dangerous new world. These aren't the wholesome, bountiful pioneer days as pictured by the series Little House on the Prairie or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
The Hell on Wheels vision of the unspoiled west isn't a Garden of Eden but more of a Hell on Earth. It's muddy, gray, dirty, full of dead bodies and animal carcasses. It forges its visitors in pain and suffering as they ride their black machine, laying iron down across the terrain.
Hell on Wheels proves very well, as does the contemporary-set Justified and Longmire, that the cowboy genre isn't dead yet, and there are a number of new ones reported to be in development at all the major networks.
While we don't have a noble character like Robert Duvall's Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove to rally around, we have Bohannon. This is, after all, AMC territory — grim and conflicted — and there is lots of it to explore as the tragic railroad company lurches west.