Hell on Wheels: How the Western Was Won

It was an ambitious and risky endeavor when the pioneers of train travel attempted to completely connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States by rail for the first time. The first Transcontinental Railroad constituted one of the most significant American technological feats of the 19th century. The idea of bringing a Western to television seemed equally as perilous. Now, I’m not going to tell you Hell on Wheels has transformed the TV landscape, but I believe it represents the revival of a genre that was considered all but dead.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the lead character is so badass. He’s like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen wrapped up together in a Southern cigarillo. At its heart, Hell on Wheels is about the struggle of Cullen Bohannon: a former Confederate soldier who journeys to the Union Pacific Railroad’s westward construction in search of work, and who’s hell bent on avenging the murder of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers. He’s a fractured man, prone to drinking, with a dry demeanor that’s as slow as molasses, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t found myself cheering him on every episode. Anson Mount, who embodies the tortured gunslinger to perfection, has been nothing short of brilliant. I know you might be thinking: “Hey Michael, didn’t Bohannon own slaves? How can we root for someone like that?” Good question, hypothetical person! How did HoW transform a slave-owning protagonist into a guy you’d want by your side if things got a little hairy? Easy: It made its villains even worse. The Union soldiers responsible for the death of Bohannon’s wife also raped her and burned his son alive. That’s just such a slap in the face of despicability; you can’t help but feel sympathetic toward the guy.

But Bohannon isn’t the only compelling character we’ve met on this show. On the contrary, Hell on Wheels features a veritable motley of lost souls who are trying to forge their path along with the railroad. There’s the corrupt industrialist, the crazy preacher, the black man fighting for respect, the tattooed prostitute, the pretty widow, the pair of Irish, fortune-seeking brothers, the Norwegian enforcer (although everyone calls him the Swede), the converted Indian who’s torn between two worlds, and the native Indians who are determined to preserve their land. *deep inhale* Did you get all that?

In Sunday’s season finale, “God of Chaos,” several of the story threads that weaved throughout the first season came to a head. The opening scene was a flashback to Bohannon’s tragic homecoming, when he discovered his wife’s hanging body. In case you’d forgotten for a second why he’s been so desperately seeking revenge, the scene offered a timely reminder. Hell, it even made me feel like picking up a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson and practicing my best “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech (and I’m Canadian).

To lighten the mood after such an emotional scene, the show checked in on Thomas “Doc” Durant, who was informing the camp’s resident prostitutes to spruce up a bit for their celebration of reaching the all important 40-mile mark (that’s when the money train of government subsidies kicked in), and to make themselves as presentable as possible for the potential investors who’d be attending.

I don’t know about you guys, but down the line, I could definitely see Durant becoming a character I love to hate. Think of every Western movie you have ever seen with a power-hungry and corrupt mayor, and then swap “mayor” for “railroad investor.” Durant is a mean-spirited, vindictive SOB who will stop at nothing to see his railroad built. Colm Meany deserves a lot of credit for his sophisticated yet gritty portrayal of Durant; he steals nearly every scene he’s in.

One thread that began to unravel was the Swede’s mission to bring down Bohannon. As the head of Durant’s security team, the Swede never really trusted Bohannon (especially after Durant elevated him to foreman); the Swede has been the sinister yin to Bohannon’s begrudgingly benevolent yang. He pieced together the string of murders Bohannon had committed and sought out the final Union soldier he thought to be on Bohannon’s list. The soldier, a sergeant who was discharged before the massacre at Meridian, understandably didn’t want to go back with the Swede (who would want to face the Bohannon-ator?). But the Swede convinced him that no matter how far he ran, Bohannon would track him down (fair point).

As is the case with almost every AMC show, I’ve often heard Hell on Wheels accused of being “slow.” You’ll hear no argument against such claims from me if you’re talking about the slow burn of the relationship between Bohannon and Lily Bell; the recent widow of Durant’s head surveyor and Bohannon have been making eyes at each other all season long. And the less-than-quick pacing has had its charms. Standing in the pair’s way has been none other than Thomas Durant. After he and Lily formed something of a partnership to see the construction of the railroad through to the end, he tried to get rid of Bohannon by informing him of the Swede’s plan to bring Federal Marshals to arrest him. But really, Durant doesn’t stand a chance. Lily and Bohannon share a much closer bond. They’ve both been devastated by the horrific loss of loved ones, and are connected by grief in their respective attempts to find a new life.

This unexpected relationship rekindled something in Bohannon’s heart he’d long thought to be dead. So he revisited Reverend Cole, giving Cole another chance to steer him away from the dark path he had been walking. The reverend is not the best person to talk to about these things. Remember this?

Cole, a.k.a. the worst holy man EVER, gave Bohannon some top-notch advice: “Choose hate. It’s so much easier.” This guy should really stop preaching.

As the dance was just getting underway, everybody’s other favorite character had more problems to deal with than just the destruction of Bohannon. The Irish brothers, along with the rest of the shop owners, had finally gotten fed up with the pricey toll for the Swede’s “protection.” And what do you do when you want to send someone a message in the old West? You bust out the tar and feathers and run them out of town! Am I the only one who felt a little sorry for the Swede after this development? In the early episodes of the season he was so menacing, manipulative, scary, and downright creepy.

He went from imposing and authoritative:

To this:

(That humiliating beating definitely downgraded his reputation for being terrifying amongst the camp.)

And finally to this:

Okay, never mind, he’s still scary.

I’m sure the Swede blames Bohannon for everything that’s happened to him, and I have an inkling of suspicion that he’ll try to hunt Bohannon down until one of them ends up dead. Lots of possibilities for Season 2!

Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed with how Elam Ferguson’s (Common) final scenes of the season played out. He was more concerned with making something of himself than he was with settling down and starting a family with Eva. In the end he lost her to Mr. Toole (and really, what purpose was there for the guy even surviving? It just felt like a forced excuse to let Elam continue his new position with Durant). One thing’s for sure, though: Elam is definitely learning how to shoot.

My favorite part of the finale was near the end, when Bohannon was storming around camp, dead-set on his warpath (thanks, preach!). The scene ended with Bohannon strangling the man he thought was responsible for the rape and murder of his wife, only to discover discharge papers after the deed was done. His haunted look skyward conveyed more than words ever could (thanks, preach!).

As all this craziness was going on, there was a still a dance being held (where it seemed Lily and Durant had been spinning around for hours). But as Lily suffered through her three-hour soiree, she kept a vigilant lookout for Bohannon. And sure enough, before he rode out into the great beyond, Bohannon stopped by and shared a remorseful look of longing with her.

Hell on Wheels is a Western in the truest sense of the word. It is a sprawling epic with plenty of guns, knives, arrows, scalping—combined with the subversive wounds left in the Civil War’s wake. For all the disjointed storylines and slow pacing, the fascinating characters more than make up for the bumps along the ride. I’m looking forward to where this show is headed in Season 2, and I think it’s just beginning to pick up steam.


… What did you think of the first season?

… How do you think Bohannon and the Swede will work their way back into camp?

… This isn’t really on topic, but did any of you catch the Walking Dead promo? What was that 15 seconds of crap about?

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