Sucked in by The Walking Dead and then The Killing, I’ve become an AMC fan. I missed getting hitched to Breaking Bad (started before I got hooked) and Mad Men (too soapy), but basically, anything AMC spins, I’ll try at least once. When I saw that Hell on Wheels was available in stunning hi-def, I had to see this epic post-Civil War western’s end (I missed the last few episodes). And while it was well-acted, fast-paced, and entertaining as late night television, it’s even more spectacular on Blu-ray.
Confederate soldier Cullen Bohanon (Anson Mount, Safe, Conviction) rides angry, seeking out the men responsible for his wife’s death in the embers of the world left behind by the Civil War. He discovers that many of his questions can be answered through Union-Pacific Railroad construction, and gets a job as a foreman there. And through that interaction with the Hell on Wheels, the rest of our story plays out.
Bohanon will battle and later befriend Elam (Common), a freed man whose struggle with race and power continue even after he’s been let go from his slave’s visible chains in his pursuit of work and a tattooed white prostitute (Robin McLeavy). Both of them run up against Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), who runs the railroad-building process, and his henchman, “the Swede” (Christopher Heyerdahl), who enforces the “rules” of the settlement with fear and murder. Mixed up in their interactions are Lily (Dominique McElligott), the widow of the railroad’s designer; the movie-loving McGinnes brothers (Ben Esler and Phil Burke); and Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) and his Native American convert (Eddie Spears).
The drama here is driven by Bohanon’s quest for justice for his wife, especially the search for Harper (Ian Kilburn), but it’s also the ongoing search for a new life that each character hopes for in this new frontier. There are those who take and those who are taken from, and the show’s quest is to determine if any of the lessers, the broken, can rise up to defend themselves and the things they care about. Along the way, we’ll hear discussions about slavery and freedom, religion and true faith, power and abuse, and change with or without progress.
It’s must be stated that there’s something going on religiously here, as well. The Native Americans portrayed must determine whether the culture presented to them, the religion of the Reverend displayed, is worthy of their attention and if they must change before it. The Reverend has his own problems, though, as he’s obviously not been the father he should’ve been, and we’re witnessing a visual discussion of speaking faith versus living it.
Still, my attention was always drawn to the dynamic between ex-Confederate and ex-slave. Mount and Common play their roles to the hilt, quite powerfully, and their characters are the ones who will bring me back to the second season. The ethics of slavery, of power, and of vengeance are mixed up in the absolutely stunning story that unfolds here, and we would do well to consider how our own relationships reflect those same issues as we navigate a world with an ever-changing moral climate. Our “new frontier” is constantly changing, and we can either be those who help it change or get run down by the change itself.