This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Phil Nugent, who’ll review the show week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff talk about Hell on Wheels.
Hell on Wheels debuts tonight on AMC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Phil: At the center of Hell on Wheels is a man trying to run away from an terrible past and escape his own unspeakable memories. I refer to Anson Mount, who in 2002 was nominated for a Teen Choice Award for best screen chemistry along with his co-star, Britney Spears. In the new series, which is set in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, Mount plays Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate veteran who takes a job as a "walker boss" overseeing men laying track during construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, while nursing his own secret, bloody agenda. This is Mount's "Kurt Russell is Elvis!" role, his chance to wipe away his teenybopper days with the announcement that his balls have dropped and his game stepped up, and the good news is, he's up for it.
Cullen Bohannon is the kind of man who, when asked if he believes in a higher power, assents that he does, while patting the gun on his hip. With his dark clothes and dark beard (with faint traces of gray) and taking-care-of-business manner, Mount achieves the right look and manner for a hero (or antihero) of a violent epic set in a parched, unforgiving landscape. At first, it's not readily apparent whether he has much to express beyond that look, but the performance really starts to click when Bohannon tries to talk sense to a black worker and former slave (played by Common) who's planning revenge against a white man. Bohannon himself is on a mission of revenge, and as a former slave owner, he understands that the man he's arguing with has no reason for assuming that he has the best of intentions towards him. In most of his dealings with people up to this point, Bohannon has cultivated a poker face and a cagy manner, but here, aware of how mealy-mouthed he must sound, he has the grace to look painfully embarrassed.
The makers of Hell on Wheels sometimes have their own reasons for being embarrassed. The show was created by Joe Gayton, whose screenwriting credits include the first of the unfinished-business-in-Vietnam M.I.A. movies, Uncommon Valor, and his brother Tony, who in recent years has specialized in gaudy revenge fantasies. (He wrote The Salton Sea and, with Joe, the Dwayne Johnson vehicle Faster; in an earlier life, he directed the 1987 documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out, in which such local luminaries as R.E.M., the B-52's, Pylon, and the Reverend Howard Finster lined to up to sing the praises of "one of the most Zen places on Earth.") With Hell on Wheels, they clearly want to craft a hard-nosed Western drama fit to walk in the path of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Cormac McCarthy, and, more recently, Deadwood, and they've got many of the right materials to work with. But they're also seasoned Hollywood pros, and they can't always resist the temptation to put their thumb on the scales.
So Bohannon has been made a Confederate veteran, so that he can have a noble loser's aura and wrap himself in the whole "Southern honor" thing, but he's also a repentant slave owner who, having been made to see the evils of the peculiar institution, gave his own slaves their freedom before the war started. In the pilot, his principal antagonist and opposite number is a repellant, hideously maimed railroad overseer played by Ted Levine, because Tom Noonan was busy. (He is, in fact, busy playing a Baptist minister in this very show, as if Christianity needed any more bad press.) Hiring Bohannon, he brightens up at the news that Bohannon was once a slave owner, figuring that it'll make him the right man for the job, because "I imagine you know your way around niggers." Levine's character throws the n-word around constantly, and with relish, which is fine; the problem is that too many people around him act as if that would have made him an unusually appalling case in 1865.
Once Levine realizes that he and Bohannon won't be hanging around the campfire trading racist jokes, the two of them have conversations that go like this: "Where is your wife now?" "She's dead." "Did the war take her?" "Something like that." As in The Outlaw Josey Wales, the Civil War in Hell on Wheels threatens to become something that just happened offscreen, a backdrop to the blameless hero's acquiring a personal wound that he didn't deserve and has every right to avenge. Because of his exemplary racial attitudes and need to win justice for his wife, Bohannon can stride with a clear head and strong purpose through a wide-open country where the legacy of slavery and the war to end it have left everyone else bitter, lost, and confused.
Still, Hell on Wheels is strongest when Mount is front and center and there are ugly feelings swirling beneath the surface. At other points, the pilot scarcely works at all, or only works partway. A scene with a pair of young lovers enjoying each other's company while taking in nature's bounty is like a misplaced reel from Days of Heaven. A couple of Irish brothers who seem to be meant to provide likability and comic relief fit in about as well as Bert and Ernie would have fit into Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. (The funniest moment in the pilot comes when Common tries to get the other black laborers to sing along with him while they're pounding railroad spikes, just because it's impossible not to expect them to break into, "I Get No Kick from Champagne".) An Indian attack that begins with men slipping through woods so thick with whitish flowers that it's like a snowscape in summer is a visual marvel, an idyllic scene that turns to horror when the arrows start flying, but we don't know any of the characters involved well enough to care about what happens to them. Still, the show at its best is compelling enough that you may root for it, hoping that it can pull its sprawling plot threads together in a way that will make it all add up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
The pilot is most Leone-like not in the violent action but in the scenes with Colm Meaney as the bloviating financier whose baby is the railroad. (He's called Thomas Durant and, like Deadwood's Al Swearengen, is loosely based on a real historical figure of the same name.) Meaney is first seen pitching the railroad to investors, with a rousing speech about how the project will "heal the nation" by connecting East and West." Shortly thereafter, he's confessing to a politician he means to bribe that he thinks his own sales pitch is "twaddle and shite." At the end of the episode, he's alone in his train car, still speechmaking, talking about how he knows that history will judge him as a villain who only did great things out of greed and a desire for personal gain. He says that he doesn't disagree with his assessment, but adds that he will, by God, do the great things that other men cannot achieve.
Meaney is so magnetic here that you never want him to turn off the spout: he's like "Mr. Choo-Choo", the capitalist villain railroad boss in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, crossed with a balloon from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I have a feeling that Hell on Wheels may be, at its heart, a simple show masquerading as a more complex one, and that the Gaytons wish they had grander, deeper, more disturbing ideas about the shape of history and the death of the West than they really have. If so, it's a sly grace note to include as our master of ceremonies a character whose feelings about his place in history may be more complicated than he wants to admit, even to himself.
Todd: Hell On Wheels has a fair share of problems—particularly in tonight’s muddled, messy pilot—and nobody’s going to call it great TV. But there’s something compelling about it all the same, and after watching five episodes in a row, damned if the thing didn’t have its hooks in me. Yes, it’s no Deadwood—but that’s the greatest TV series ever made, so what would be? But what is there is an intriguing look at Western archetype and myth, an examination of things that weren’t really true, even if we wanted them to be, that very slowly (and I mean slowly; you’d be forgiven for thinking tonight’s episode was a half-assed Clint Eastwood remake for as faithful to the genre’s basic beats as it is) lets the air out of the idea that the West was populated by basically good men who did bad things for the greater good. It’s a show that’s afraid of letting its lead be a true antihero. (He’s a former Confederate… but he freed his slaves before the war! Ice cream and cake for everybody!) But it’s also a show that’s interested in how our modern sensibilities perceive this time.
Not everything here works. There’s a subplot with some Irish brothers that refuses to be interesting, no matter what happens, and one character switches his or her affections so rapidly that it beggars belief. Plus, the show's handling of the period's racial issues is rarely deft. But down at the bottom of this is something weirdly compelling, a series that’s as interested in the mythic sweep of history as it is with showing us how that history was written out in real time. Best in show is Christopher Heyerdahl as a terrifying authority figure arriving in next week's episode. Runner-up is Colm Meaney as Thomas “Doc” Durant, who at first seems to be the show’s riff on Al Swearengen but becomes something slightly more complicated as it goes along, a man obsessed with the future’s perception of him who seems to be making edits to his Wikipedia entry all the while. This isn’t perfect, but I’m in for a season.