Hell on Wheels Reviewed: Can Someone Just Act Normal and Not All Mythical?

What you're watching.
Nov. 2 2011 9:47 PM

Hell on Wheels   

Why can't anyone on this show act normal and not all mythical?

Still from AMC's Hell on Wheels.
AMC's Hell on Wheels

Chris Large. © 2010 AMC. All rights reserved.

The building of the First Transcontinental Railroad is a great subject for a cable drama; however, on the evidence of the first five episodes of Hell on Wheels (AMC, Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), it is not precisely a good one. The series' primary setting is the middle of this continent in the middle of the 1860s, not long after the Surrender at Appomattox Court House. But with an early title blaring that “the nation is an open wound,” the setting is, first and last, a sovereign republic of metaphor. Not content to exploit their subject’s inherent themes, the series' fraternal creators, Joe and Tony Gayton, have adhered them promiscuously, pasting neon Post-it indications of symbolic import in a way that obscures moments of straightforward drama.
 
Out on the prairie, a fair lady observes that the land “hasn’t changed since Lewis and Clark first saw it 60 years ago”—and then promptly witnesses a raid by natives. Elsewhere, characters divest themselves of con-artistic monologues about Manifest Destiny, rumbling speeches about Reconstruction, paeans to the vast possibilities of America, lilting tributes to the frontier, and homilies on the Promised Land delivered beneath looming crosses. Less frequently, they express recognizable human emotion. 
 
The hero is Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount with a grizzled animality and gaunt humanity that help the character to shoulder the burden of history. Bohannon fought for Confederacy. He was a slave owner, but he freed his slaves before the Civil War began, guided by the influence of his wife: “She convinced me of the evils of slavery.” She also did needlepoint, as we see in a dewy-eyed flashback to the days before Union soldiers raped and killed her. Bohannon has been serving revenge to the perpetrators on the toasty side, and his quest soon leads him to the frontier of the industrial age—to the mobile tent city that followed the railroad's westward progress from Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The path was long and winding, as dictated by Thomas Durant, who was the vice-president of Union Pacific Railroad and who owned a swath of Nebraska across which the railway uselessly switched back and forth, much to his personal enrichment. Played by Colm Meaney, Durant is a pioneer of corruption, an avid propagandist, a beastly exterminator of brutes, and a fat little florid orator who hogs all the ripest lines. "What is the building of this grand railroad if not a drama?" he asks at one point. He's practicing a sales pitch, maybe, and presenting a mission statement for sure.

The players in this drama are figures in a panoramic diorama. In its world of mud and sepia, feral whores face down lank preachers, Irish immigrant brothers seek their fortunes, Scandinavian-born enforcers looms as creepily as The Seventh Seal's Grim Reaper, and noble savages keep on keeping on. Second billing goes to Common, who plays Elam Ferguson, a former slave working for Union Pacific. The actor does a lot of good simmering and dutiful glowering, and his character's relationship with Bohannon is the richest one on screen. The performance is just good enough to distract you from the fact that Ferguson less resembles an individual than an archetype addressing a few centuries' worth of racial grievances.

None of Hell on Wheels' juicy eruptions of pulp or sporadic glimpses of soul impedes the myth-belching progress of a story about the little engine of empire that could. The shots are heavily styled in a way that is variously enrapturing and distancing, taking cues from landscape paintings, Mathew Brady photographs, and revisionist Westerns—all to the end of toying with the old myths of the New World. But you can hardly see the world for the myths, and the show seems bent on encouraging a sophisticated audience to set its intelligence aside in a sophisticated way.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?