The emancipation proclamation, the end of a devastating Civil War, and the draconian politics of building a transcontinental railroad sound like an auspiciously boring and taxing premise for a new drama series if you lived in a world without pioneers like Deadwood, Mad Men, and now Boardwalk Empire as your proverbial Lewis and Clark blazing the trail.
Thankfully AMC’s new drama Hell on Wheels creators’ Joe and Tony Gayton follow the map plotted by the aforementioned television dramas; creating a multifaceted world of savagery, politics, and the ‘manifest destiny’ personified.
Colm Meany (Layer Cake) stars as willing villain/railroad magnate Doc Durant, a man who could intimidate the monopoly guy into selling Boardwalk at half price. Then we have Anson Mount’s (Tully) mysterious Cullen Bohannan, an ex-confederate soldier we are introduced to blowing a remorseful confessor’s head off after hearing his confession about some vague horror that happened during the war.
He secures a job at the railroad through tough warden Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs) supervising the ‘cut crew’ due to his slave-owning background. Working the crew and resembling Denzel in Glory is Common (Smokin’ Aces), a bitter ex-slave whose destiny becomes intertwined with Cullen’s untold agenda through a series of half-revelations and mortal acts.
Truth be told, I love the setting. This was, as edified in the pilot’s opening, a volatile time for a nation reeling from a fight with itself over denizens now expecting equality. Add in the imperialistic salvo attached to forcing a transcontinental railroad adorned with human remoras clamoring for a piece of the endless government subsidies, and we are all set for a feeding frenzy; just as long as the show can create its own identity from the template of prior show successes.
We’ve seen the mad frontier rush with Deadwood, the dark eloquence of business in Mad Men and the catawampus politics of Boardwalk Empire. AMC, despite a few ugly skirmishes amongst their own tribe, maintains a foresighted frontier spirit by allowing the type of programming that promotes ballsy, well-written and desperately humane characters on a television show. Not that brutality and wanton avarice are requirements for greatness these days, but as Doc Durant says “What is the building of this grand road if not a drama? This business is not for the weak of heart, it is a thorny brutal affair.”
The historical bullet points are no mystery, the who, what, where, and when regarding the railroad are known. How will this train of dire consequences take us is the real question and what could derail this show if inadequately answered.