AMC's success with original productions began with the Emmy-winning western miniseries, Broken Trail, which focused on Robert Duvall and Thomas Hayden Church as an uncle-nephew team driving a herd of horses from Oregon to Wyoming, while protecting a cache of human cargo.
Now, the network is traveling east to west to fulfill a programming manifest destiny of its own with series Hell on Wheels, tracking the building of the transcontinental railroad. (Check out a preview here.)
A major undertaking in the just-ended Civil War era, the TV series is equally ambitious in trying to forge a narrative that explores themes touching on reconstruction, immigration, slavery, corruption, genocide, and man's destruction of nature.
Unlike the town at the center of HBO's decadent Deadwood, which was physically set in South Dakota, Hell on Wheels is a rolling residential revue as the railroad progresses slowly along its course. At the middle of the mobile bivouac: Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) a former Rebel, whose northern wife was raped and killed by Union soldiers, leaving him focused on revenge. Noting that he doesn't deserve redemption, Cullen, like many Western protagonists on the range before him, is a laconic, loner, only dispensing glimpses of his haunted existence.
Elam (rapper Common) is the voice and embodiment of the emancipated slaves, who are still being treated subserviently as "cutters." He shares a criminal act with Bohannon that binds them together against their "Yankee" bosses, led by Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), the real-life driver of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Durant portrays the heavy -- bribing a senator about his holdings in Nebraska and literally using his hands to reshape a newspaper account of a Cheyenne attack. Although he sees virtue in the railroad's goal and the legacy it may create for him, Durant makes no bones about his main motivation: $16,000 for each mile of track laid. To drive home that point, he provides a face-down lesson to a fired underling in the economics of circuitous, rather than straight-line, construction.
One of the more intriguing characters is "The Swede" (Christopher Heyerdahl), Durant's henchman, who also provides la cosa nostra-type protection on the plains for a pair of Irish hustlers, brothers Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke), looking to make their own fortunes out west.
Native Americans, at least initially, are played to savage and spiritual type. However, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) is converted by the resident Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) to Christianity and now serves as the liaison with the white men who are destroying his peoples' world.
Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), as her name suggests, takes a purer look at the western quest, noting the land that hadn't changed much since Lewis and Clark's exploration 60 years earlier. The sole survivor of the Indian massacre that took her surveyor husband's life, she apparently will function as a frontier forbear, carving out a role for Western women that extends beyond the town's anonymous whores.
Bell is also seen remembering more halcyon days with husband via flashback, a motif from which Bohannon also recalls his wife. Like many of the characters, he continually alludes to the horrors of the War Between The States. Presumably through more remembrances, the incidents involving the union and the "greybacks," will help flesh out the characters.
Speaking of skin, this being basic and not premium cable, the sex is covered and, refreshingly, the blood doesn't squirt when scalps are bared and Lily removes an arrow from her shoulder.
Certainly much broader in scope than the centered milieus in which Mad Men and Breaking Bad have unspooled so brilliantly, Hell on Wheels, as it attempts to get the rails underneath it, should lay out a larger audience for AMC than either of those acclaimed dramas.
Two episodes in, I'm still on board, interested to see how the storylines develop and if Joe and Tony Gayton, the writers and series' executive producers, can hammer a stake that will make the show connect fully.
Hell on Wheels debuts Nov. 6 at 10 p.m. on AMC.
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