We’re kind of fond of Hell on Wheels around here, and Sunday night, the series is wrapping its second season with a back-to-back airing of episodes nine and ten. Which is awesome, because twice the show! Which is not awesome because it’s getting spanked in the ratings, and with such a short season, may have missed its window for gathering enough viewers for a shot at a third season. We want it to come back next year, so we’ve compiled a handy list of reasons why you should check out the show, and watch the finale.
Maybe you’re not into Westerns. Maybe you’re not into shows on AMC. Maybe you’re not into American History. All valid reasons. And to them I say: you really are missing something quite special, and I think you’d be pleasantly surprised if you sampled an episode (or all eight so far this season, or even theÂ ten before that–season one is on DVD). So, why should you watch?
Intricately woven storylines
Each episode has no fewer than a dozen speaking roles–and the story arcs crisscross around each other in fascinating, sometimes startling ways. On the face of it, the inhabitants of Hell on Wheels are survivors of a broken nation after the Civil War, looking for a place in the world. They’re bound by the need for work, and they come together to create a new family in a new nation. They’re ethnically and geographically diverse and for better or worse, are stuck with each other.
Given the mishmash of where everyone is supposed to be from, the dialects are all over the place and the actors are spot on in portraying the various regions each character hails from. Last week’s episode had a terrific scene that revealed that Bohannon’s “street” Southern has been a bit of a ruse. During a dinner with the Durants, he sits up a little straighter, enunciates a little clearer, and switches from shoveling his food with the fork in his right hand to using both his fork and knife in their proper positions. We weren’t the only ones startled. Lily looks across at him and literally wonders who she’s been in bed with.
What I know about the Civil War came mostly from high school and college courses, the John Jakes novel/ABC mini-series North and South, and various and sundry Westerns (I’m not proud of this), but it would seem that HoW has painstakingly recreated the barren state of the country in the late 19th century as the railroad ventured West.
It’s gritty, dank, and threadbare and then across the tracks, opulent and ridiculously wealthy. I was always aware of the Chinese role in creating the railroad but knew nothing of the intricacies of the men and women behind the East Coast expansion toward California. It truly was blood, sweat, and tears. And HoW pulls no punches in the portrayal of the men on the rails, the men writing the checks and spinning the deals, and the men and women keeping the tent cities afloat.
The show films in Calgary, which has been used to great effect in other Westerns, and it’s just as spectacular here. It’s a character in the show as much as the people are. The cinematography is really, really amazing. I’m always surprised when they can still capture vistas like that in North America. (The recent Hatfields & McCoys went to Romania to shoot without power lines).
Ridiculously pretty (and talented) boys and girls
Let us be shallow for a moment. Have you seen this cast? Anson Mount, Common, Robin McLeavy, Dominique McElligott, and Chris Heyerdahl (creepy as hell here, yes, but exotic looking nonetheless) are just a few of the talented folks inhabiting the parade of characters. Last week, that gorgeous dame Virginia Madsen sashayed into town to stir up trouble. And these lovely ladies and gents aren’t just pretty faces. They can actually walk and talk and chew gum, and speak whole sentences, make you laugh, buckle your knees, and break your heart.
Heart and soul
Sometimes on shows that are so sweeping, you don’t get a chance to know everybody. The creators of HoW have taken the time to craft rich characters with struggles and successes who we’ve come to care about. We miss them when they sit out an episode.
I want to know where they’re going to be after this week’s finale airs. Take a chance on the show, and I’d bet you will, too.
The two-hour season finale of Hell on Wheels airs Sunday on AMC beginning at 9/8c.
[Updated May 2020: The entire series is available on Netflix].
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