Hell on Wheels is an AMC series that tells the story of life after the Civil War and the birth of the railroads. It is the story of a nation crawling to its bloodied feet, hollow-eyed and rootless. After four years of sowing nothing but death and destruction, harvest-time has come. There on the screen is life in the raw. Not just “gritty”. Downright dirty, muddy, murky, against a backdrop of breathtaking grassy plains, hills, and mountains. The struggle for reconstruction is set up on the block of scrutiny with no pity or misty-eyed emotionalism, where life asks no quarter and gives none.
The main character, Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, is a man on the ragged edge of existence in body and soul. The only fuel that stokes the fire of life in him is revenge and an occasional bottle. He moves across the screen as one of the damned, with only a dim and distant hope of salvation. In the muck of the railroad camp dubbed Hell on Wheels, men struggle to plant the rails of the future. They face the Cheyenne who do not realize the emerging power of the iron horse, or that they and their way of life are the first of many sacrifices upon its altar.
Musician-actor Common, as Elam Ferguson
Black men working for the railroad learn that freedom on paper must be fought for in the dirt against those who would keep them forever in bondage.
The church pitches its tent in the mire right along with the brothels. Hymns are heard among the come-ons of the whores, and along with the curses and crudeness of men building an iron highway — a shining road to a civilization they have long left behind.
Colm Meaney plays the on-site corrupt railroad baron, Thomas “Doc” Durant, whose interest in his part in building the transcontinental railroad comes second only to his self-interest in acquiring vast wealth. Yet, Durant is such a fascinating character, and Colm Meaney portrays him with such intensity and inner drive, that the viewer is drawn into his schemes and near-disasters, and he even becomes a grudging sympathetic character.
Dominique McElligott plays Lily Bell, widow of a famous surveyor, who falls in love with the freedom and wildness of the American West (though the series is shot in Alberta, Canada). After surviving a massacre, she is loath to go back to the fettered woman’s life in the big city, or to her family in England, and proves herself to be every bit as resourceful as the men with whom she has been thrown. Yet she still retains her cultured poise and dignity. In the railroad camp she walks among the filth and the taunting whores as if she were on parade on 7th Avenue.
Musician-actor Common plays Elam Ferguson, son of a slave woman and a white master who taught him how to read and write and put him on display. Elam becomes a “walking boss” among the black crew. As he sees his people’s fingers slipping on the brass ring of freedom, he digs in his heels and will not be cowed, even as he struggles to overcome his ingrained slave mentality.
Tom Noonan plays the Reverend Nathaniel Cole, a man who found faith and redemption after participating in the Bleeding Kansas massacres. He is now set upon the path of bringing the good news of salvation to all who will come to Jesus, including the Cheyenne. As he presses his plea upon gunfighter Cullen Bohannan, he questions why Bohannon won’t bow the knee and ask forgiveness. The ex-Confederate soldier looks at him with haunted eyes and says, “Because I don’t deserve forgiveness.”
Though some reviewers have described Cole as a wild-eyed fanatic, he doesn’t start out that way. Cole is introduced to us as a sincere minister of the Gospel with a dogged determination to bring the light to this very dark corner. At the beginning, his biggest personal problem seems to be in his distance and coldness as a parent, even as he strives to bring peace to a troubled land. But, after watching several more episodes, in which he sees nothing but blood and hate triumph, we find that he allows the darkness to overcome him instead.
Eddie Spears plays Joseph Black Moon, son of a Cheyenne chief who has become a believer and Christian convert. His faith in Christ is unshakeable, but finds some of his new brothers and sisters not quite as compassionate and loving as the humble Jesus. Though the spirit of Christ is evidenced in his own quiet compassion and willingness to work, he is squeezed between two violently opposing forces, the whites who want revenge against some renegade Indians led by his own brother, and his chieftain father who wants him to come home. Eventually he must make a stand and a choice.
Eddie Spears as Joseph Black Moon
Wes Studi as Chief Many Horses stands his ground in the path of the iron monster threatening his family, his land, and his way of life. Offered a good life free of hassle if he will only accept the removal of his people to a reservation, he insists he has a good life. In a debate with a visiting senator and Durant, the chief could have taken home the trophy in logic, sending Durant away from the table in a huff and the senator left with nothing but threats of bringing American military might down upon him.
Christopher Heyerdahl plays “The Swede”, Thor Gunderson (though he’s Norwegian), a cold-blooded, strange man who looks and acts more than a little psychotic. He is a thorn in the side of the ex-Confederate avenger, Cullen Bohannan, and sets out to find the secret of Bohannan’s past, and possibly an end to his future. The Swede’s shadow falls upon more than one plot as they thicken along the way.
All in all, the characters in Hell on Wheels are deeply drawn, and the story is well-written. The acting is so good you forget these are actors and are pulled head-long into the time and place. Not all the story is revealed in the first episode and leaves a bit of mystery and anticipation for the next. I’ve only just discovered this series on streaming video, and have only seen a few episodes, but it’s holding up well . . . so far.
As I said, it strives for real people in a bloody page of our own history. It doesn’t dress them up or clean them up. It’s also not as simple as good guys versus bad. It’s people brought to the breaking point and beyond, and the heights and depths to which they will go in dealing with it. At one point Cullen Bohannan advises a friend that the path he is embarking upon is a “slippery slope”. And so it is.
Hell on Wheels (somewhat like Lonesome Dove in its depiction of raw savagery and human nature laid bare) is a series that is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. So watch at your own risk. You’ve been warned.