I grew up on Westerns, so it doesn’t take much to hook me. But people under 50—those who can’t remember when Westerns ruled television and box-office cowboys rode off with big gate receipts—apparently need persuasion. That’s a synonym, in this post-“Sopranos” era of TV drama, for style—which is a euphemism for high production values, graphic violence, a catchy upbeat anachronistic soundtrack, some edgy elements, and more graphic violence.
The violence in AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” is on a par with HBO’s “Deadwood,” though this old movie channel has opted to eschew nudity and dial down the language. “Hell on Wheels” is also not as funny as “Deadwood” could be at times. But after the series drew 2.4 million under-50 viewers to its premiere, 35 percent of those viewers drifted off before the first season ended.
I guess you have to like Westerns. And in fairness, the season finale drew 3.8 million viewers, total, making it AMC’s second highest rated original series, behind the zombie apocalypse saga “The Walking Dead.”
“Hell on Wheels” averaged 3 million viewers over the course of the first season, and there’s certainly much to like about this gritty, grimy Western, starting with the star. Anson Mount really has a believable Western hero presence—a kind of Clint Eastwood outsider with a past, a man of action rather than words, an essentially good man with a rattlesnake’s fangs and some sidewinders to dispose of. As one of his eventual victims admits, “We opened a dark door and the devil stepped in.”
In this post-Civil War drama about the building of America’s transcontinental railroad, Mount plays Cullen Bohannon, a former confederate soldier who’s been systematically tracking and killing off the union soldiers under Sherman who went beyond the line of duty in wiping out Bohannon’s family while he was off at war. His quest to find more of them has led him to seek work on the railroad crew and to interact with locals in the makeshift town that moves as the railroad advances—a rough-and-tumble little ramshackle town known as Hell on Wheels.
The historical accuracy and detail on the small level is pretty impressive. Whores have bad teeth, the railroad president fires his project engineer because the man keeps building straight lines instead of meandering, and the railroad gets paid by the mile. Uniforms are a patchwork, tents are torn and dirty, people vomit after too much drinking, and workers need to be roused in the mornings because they’re all hung over. And racial slurs are used routinely. Adding to the realism is some impressive scenery and cinematography, with the series shot on location in Alberta, Canada.
In “Hell on Wheels,” the Union Pacific and Central Pacific are both trying to make their 40-mile quota first in order to win the government contract, so that’s the bigger picture. Add the intrigue surrounding railroad boss Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) to Bohannan’s revenge plot, then bring in an unlikely alliance—even friendship—between the former slave owner and a former slave (Common) working under him on the railroad “cut” crew.
Throw in a sideplot involving a feisty young woman (Dominique McElligott) who was married to a consumptive surveyor and is now trying to survive on her own following an Indian attack, and you’ve got enough “story” to satisfy most viewers. That’s not even counting sideplots involving two Native Americans (Gerald Auger, Eddie Spears), the sadistic and cadaverous-looking “Swede” (Christopher Heyerdahl) who provides more tangible menace than the railroad boss, or the obligatory comic relief, provided in this case by a pair of Irish brothers (Ben Esley, Phil Burke) who want to make their fortune with whatever gimmicks they can come up with—like a slide show of Ireland with one of them singing. And of course there’s a preacher, but this one (Tom Noonan) carries his steeple with him . . . and he once rode with John Brown. You know. The defiant abolitionist who lies moldering in his grave?
While the actual construction of the railroad doesn’t get much play past the he writing is sharp enough, the characters are developed enough, the plot is interesting enough, the acting is solid, and the lead actor has the presence to carry the show. But it all comes down to style, really, and “Hell on Wheels” has it. It’s yet another winning drama from AMC.
Ten episodes are included on three discs, with bonus features as well on the third. They’re contained in a slightly oversized Blu-ray case with a plastic “page” to hold two of the discs. Only the titles are provided—no annotations to jog your memory: Pilot; Immoral Mathematics; A New Birth of Freedom; Jamai Je Ne T’oublierai; Bread and Circuses; Pride, Pomp and Circumstance; Revelations; Derailed; Timshel; God of Chaos. Then again, the average viewer isn’t going to skip around. You start with one episode and keep going until the tenth.
Sometimes the themes—greed, racism, forgiveness, charity, and the rugged individualism that’s been a part of Westerns and pioneer movies since the very beginning—get heavy-handed or else they’re glossed over a bit, falling victim to the “sexier” violence style that the show has to offer. But "Hell on Wheels" hooks you and keeps you coming back for more, building with each episode.
“Hell on Wheels: Season 1” comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode, and considering the open-air filming, it looks pretty impressive. Black levels are inky, skin tones are natural, and colors seem nicely saturated—whether it’s blonde hair we’re talking about, or mud. In 1080p “Hell on Wheels” is a winner, with the episodes presented in 1.78 aspect ratio and transferred to three 50GB discs.
The audio is a lively English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that distributes the sound well across the sound field. The clanking of metal on metal, the gunshots, the shrieks and screams, the music, the dialogue—everything comes through cleanly and precisely, with a fullness of tone. English subtitles are provided.
There are quite a few bonus features, but they’re all short and designed to air on AMC as promos and teasers. The longest is “Recreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels” (16 min.), which is a pretty low-key turn-taking affair that showcases a different crew member sitting at a table talking and then shown in the field at work. Then there’s “Crashing a Train: From Concept to Camera,” which runs a scant three minutes.
After that there are a bunch of “featurettes” that bear the AMC logo and were obviously broadcast. Included are seven “making of” featurettes—About HOW, The Guns, The Wardrobe, The Meaning of the Railroad, Building the Train, Locations & Sets, Dirty Medicine—which run a total of 34 minutes; 10 “inside the episode” featurettes, one for each, which run a total of 53 minutes; and seven character featurettes that collectively run under 10 minutes. There’s not a lot here except on-set clips that fans might like to see. And that’s basically what “behind-the-scenes footage” involves. It’s 24 minutes of raw film, no voiceover or organization, showing the filming. There are a lot of silent shots using steadicams, some crane shots, make-up touch-ups on the set (blood, scars), and a few in which an actor receives direction.
Rounding out the bonus features is the trailer.
“Hell on Wheels” is both an edgy new Western and a throwback to the Spaghetti Westerns of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It has style, and these days, style is just about everything.