Hell on Wheels Season 1

Starring: Anson Mount, Common, Colm Meaney, Dominique McElligott, Robin McLeavy, Christopher Heyerdahl, Eddie Spears

Director: Various
Released: 2011

Mood: If you want a Western TV series that asks nothing of your brain and goes down easier than a cold lager on a hot day.

If you live in a rural area, you know the pain of rural f*cking Internet. It was this tedious, inconsistent, insufferable daily misery that inspired me to stop pretending I could watch Hell on Wheels on Netflix, and just buy the damn series

  • Fun Fact: The last movie I watched, between episodes of Hell on Wheels, was Seraphim Falls, directed by David Von Ancken – who also directed the very first and last episodes of Hell on Wheels. This is now TOTALLY UNSURPRISING since I’ve learned that Amazon owns IMDb, so it knows literally everything about my Western obsession. And I the bastard was right; that movie is awesome.

Hell on Wheels looked like good quality production, and the fact that it contained more than three seasons was a huge selling point (looking at you, Deadwood). Apparently I also spent about half of what my dad paid for the series a year ago. 

I guess sometimes it pays to show up late to the party. 

This is no Deadwood. It’s so, so far from that calibre of Western content. But I did start season two the moment I finished this first season. It’s like MSG. It’s not a real food, but it works some inexplicable dark magic to keep you hungry for more

Hell on Wheels’ first season opens in 1865, in the ‘mobile town’ of Hell on Wheels. Like a traveling circus, Hell on Wheels was the name given to the camps that followed the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad by its three arms – the Western Pacific, Central Pacific, and Union Pacific railroad companies. 

The camps had everything you’d find in a small town: doctors, churches, booze, women, the works. And they had to pick up and move often as the railroad progressed across the country. 

This is the perfect cocktail for a Western story. The Civil War just ended. You’ve got all these men of different races, immigrants, emancipated slaves, and former soldiers from both sides, busting their asses all day, then getting into it at night. You also have the hazards: working conditions, weather conditions, corrupt politics, and attacks by Native Americans who for some reason don’t want noisy-ass trains at all hours outside their homes. 

The co-creators said they were inspired by a PBS documentary on the railroad construction, and the gritty day-to-day details that no one knows. Their idea was to write this Western that showed all that juicy stuff and more. 

Well, they did that. Hell on Wheels’ first season is like a really well-shot Western soap opera. It opts for good TV over historical accuracy or deep characters, but it’s so full of action and so easy on the brain that you just keep watching. 

To be clear, by ‘historical accuracy’ I’m referring to the modern dialogue and convenient, easily resolved storylines. The costumes were well researched, the sets and scenic shots are on point, and the level of grit and grime and gore is fantastic.

illustration of a fancy moustache

The central figure is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier out to avenge his wife’s murder. That’s a good hook – and it gives him LOTS of reasons to get into brutal fights, get disgustingly drunk, and to smolder. From his first moment on camera, he does a lot of smoldering. 

But whereas Seth Bullock was a smoldering lawful good in Deadwood, Bohannon is a crazed chaotic neutral. He’s the worst kind of bad boy that you just know is going to hurt everyone around him and himself. 

Mount does a great job of the character. Supposedly he played Red Dead Redemption for a month to prepare for the role, which is about the right amount of research to put into Bohannon. Shoot first, think later. Or better yet, never. 

I think the problem is that Bohannon has no one to offset his anti-hero persona. 

I was sure we’d get a really solid story about the former slaves. But all of the Black men other than Elam (Common) are filler. While Elam is probably the strongest and most likeable character in the show, at least so far, the stuff he does feels unoriginal. Like it’s really good acting, Common is excellent in this role, but the plot is nothing new.  

With Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), they almost gave him too many struggles that appeal to modern, socially conscious audiences. He’s disappointed his father (Wes Studi, brilliant as always) by becoming a Christian. But he’s also into an ignorant preacher’s daughter, and will they or won’t they? But he also has to choose between these rude white people and his white-killing brother. 

Then you have Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), who showed IMMENSE promise in the first episodes as she survived the wilderness on her own, then used her shrewd intellect to force her way into a position of power with the Union Pacific. But she starts making these weird moves that keep her from being good or bad or even interesting. 

I thought Eva (Robin McLeavy) would end up being my favourite. She, too, started out strong, and McLeavy brings this unique brand of sharp-tongued sweetness. But she’s only in a handful of Elam’s scenes, and then she’s abruptly handed off to one of the most racist assholes in camp and it’s like… what? 

Honestly, the most interesting character is The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl). This guy is SO F*CKING CREEPY, you can’t look away. He’s dark, he’s twisted, his hair is somehow repulsive, and he quivers with repressed anger like a dog that seems super well-trained until the day it snaps. Heyerdahl excels in evoking the haunted eyes and unpredictable mental stability that reflect The Swede’s past. 

His scenes are always fraught with tension, so when he appears on screen you can’t help but lean forward to watch the shit hit the fan. 

Heyerdahl is a Canadian actor who actually speaks Norwegian – he’s directly related to the famous Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. So he’s kind of perfect for this role. And shockingly kind-looking when his hair isn’t slicked down into nasty little points! 

  • Fun Fact #2: Hell on Wheels is produced through a partnership between a US and a Canadian studio, and is filmed in different parts of Alberta. 

Despite the fact that the characters are only skin-deep and there are no outstanding moustaches, I want to see where this goes. There are a lot of strong elements in Hell on Wheels, like the cinematography and array of stories for short attention spans. I WANT these characters to do more and be better!

And unlike Deadwood, you don’t need subtitles to grasp the dialogue. Shady railroad investor Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) does go on a few good drunken monologues, but you can easily follow what he’s ranting about.

Hell on Wheels season one wasn’t love at first sight, but I quickly said yes to the second date. Now all I can do is hope for better storytelling… and at least one good moustache!