This was one I fully meant to watch last fall and then that got blown straight to hell (pun intended). Thanks to my friendly corner Redbox kiosk, I immersed myself in the first five episodes over two days and then the next five over three days and a) it’s about damn time I caught this and b) I kind of love that my first exposure to it was a break-free marathon of the entire first season.
As y’all know, I’m a fan of marathoning a handful of episodes of a new show whenever possible because it lets me jump in and make an informed decision about whether to keep it or dump it on the DVR (cases in point The Vampire Diaries and Once Upon a Time). DISH willing, when season two kicks off in August–jumpy claps–it will be DVR’d.
So, like my fellow TV Goodness gals, I was a Deadwood fan, and I take my Westerns very seriously. Hell on Wheels is a new and different post-Civil War retelling of the American Midwest as the transcontinental rail line was coming together. It’s dark, it’s brutal, it’s funny, it’s gritty, and very, very well done. It’s also chock full of familiar Canadian character actors, and it’s filming in Alberta, which pretty much makes it win-win-win for me.
I’ve been a fan of Anson Mount for a while (yes, I watched The Mountain way back there–shut up) but Common was new to me, as was Dominique McElligott. Colm Meaney and Christopher Heyerdahl are known and awesome, and with Sanctuary wrapped, I was thrilled that Heyerdahl, who worked on the first season of HoW alongside season four of Sanctuary, went right into another series regular role. It was an added treat that Ian Tracey (who played off-his-nut Adam Worth opposite Heyerdahl in Sanctuary) was also along for a handful of episodes.
The gist of the story is that Mount’s character, Cullen Bohannon (such a great name) came home weary at the end of fighting the Confederate side of the Civil War to find his home ransacked, his son dead in a fire that burned his barn and also killed his adoptive former slave mother, and his Yankee wife hanging from the front porch. He quietly buries his kin and then sets out avenging them by going after the Union soldiers who killed them.
That quest leads him to Hell on Wheels, the migrating tent city that’s home to the gritty rag tag team building the railway.
In tone and look, HoW is very similar to Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years, which ran in syndication 15 years ago and starred a pre-Will Eric McCormack and pre-Dan Paul Johansson. Seriously, if you have never seen it, you will NEVER think of Eric McCormack just as Will again. He was that good, and I’m so glad I had seen the show before Will & Grace.
A little history: LD:TOY was a reboot of the Lonesome Dove series (based on the mini-series). In its first year, it was sort of a kinder, gentler post-Civil War Western, and then when it was renewed for a second season, the gloves came off. It was dark, brutal, gritty–and awesome–and unfortunately, destined to end after two seasons. Like HoW, it shot in Alberta so you had an amazing company of actors filling the weekly rotation.
But I digress.
One of the refreshing things about HoW is that is culturally diverse, reflective of the Native culture and the mix of immigrants who landed in the States in the 19th century only to get chewed up and spit out by a long and brutal war. Representing the freed slaves is Elam Ferguson, who’s half white/half black, educated by his white slave master father as sort of a parlor trick, and struggling to fit into the new world order.
When he rises through the ranks of the rail workers to become a walking boss and uneasy ally to Bohannon, it doesn’t come easy, and he takes a few lives to get there. Empowered by a gun and the love of Eva, a former Indian slave turned prostitute, he starts to question his path.
Lily Bell (McElligott), the widow of the rail’s surveyor, who was killed in an Indian attack which she survived, and Thomas Durant (Meaney), the owner of the rail line, are there representing the upper echelon Irish, and the brothers McGinness show us the other end of the spectrum.
Native American Joseph Black Moon goes against his bloodline when he chooses to be Christian and then finds all his familial ties severed when he has to kill his rampaging brother and his father, though understanding that it had to be done, cuts him loose.
There’s also an undercurrent of lawlessness and morality, from Bohannon and from the preacher, Reverend Cole (a pitch-perfect Tom Noonan), who shed his own blood as a Union soldier and has now gone completely off the deep end since being unable to broker a peace for the Indians. We also had a pass-through of Ty Olsson as a Union soldier all too happy to recount “victories.” The Swede (played by Heyerdahl, and who, hilariously, has to remind everyone he’s Norwegian) survived Andersonville in ways he can’t discuss, but it’s made him brutal.
We also get touches of the fantastic–Ferguson shoots at point blank range the menacing co-worker who instigates his hanging and the man not only survives to walk back into town but claims the intervention of an angel, begs forgiveness for his former path, and actually gets it.
As the season closed, Bohannon thought he’d taken care of everyone who’d killed his family until the startling realization that his bloodlust for closure had led him to kill an innocent man. He runs as the marshals descend on the town and that’s where we left off. Also brewing is a maybe something with Lily, who’s last conversation with him had her begging him not to kill the man his family loved. He watches her from the edge of the bandstand where the town has gathered to celebrate the 40-mile marker and she sees him and looks away for a moment and when she looks back, he’s gone.
The show is just impeccably well cast–whoever saw Mount and Common in these roles gets a cookie. And the Alberta landscapes are as much a part of the story as the people. I can’t wait to see where we go next.
Hell on Wheels returns to AMC on August 12th. You can pick up season 1 on DVD and purchase episodes on Amazon.
You can follow production through Anson Mount, Common and Ryan Robbins (another Sanctuary alumni) on Twitter, as well as the show’s official feed.
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