Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hell On Wheels: A Review of the AMC epic Western

Anson Mount: The Glare

            "Hell On Wheels" is the name of the shanty town at the end of the railroad tracks. It's 1868 and The Union Pacific is spear-heading construction of the rails using teams of newly freed blacks and Irish laborers. The "town", a hodge podge of tents and important wooden buildings like the saloon, the casino and the whore house, get up and move every couple of months as the tracks continue their extension across Nebraska.  Coming East from California is the Central Pacific's railroad.  It is being built by an army of Chinese workers.  They have already crossed the Sierra Nevada and are headed for the Rocky Mountains.  Railroad men of various ethnic identities are digging, tunneling, blasting, dying and being ruthlessly exploited by a small cadre of robber barons who pull strings from distant offices in St. Louis, Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York City.
            Nearer to hand are a tier of middle managers working from Denver and Omaha.  At the very tip of the spear, right where the tracks are being laid into the mud and rock, is Cullen Bohannan.  He is played with great conviction by actor Anson Mount.  Bohannan is at various times Chief Engineer, common laborer, independent contractor and Head Of Railroad Police for the Union Pacific.  His knowledge and drive make him indispensable to builders of railroads.
            Bohannon was a Colonel in the Confederate Army.  While he was fighting battles distant from home, his family was murdered by pillaging Yankee soldiers.  Bohannon has a long and violent history.  He has a rage for revenge and a relentless drive to build railroad tracks better and faster than the competition.  This obsession with the track is Cullen's way of sublimating his grief and wrath.
            Here you have the setting for an epic Western television series.  "Hell On Wheels" is uneven but when it's good it's fantastic.  Even when it's not good it's not bad.  It's just slow and a bit broad, with bouts of over-acting and a little taste of corn.  Much of this over-acting is done by veteran actor Colm Meany, who plays Charles Durant, the putative owner of the Union Pacific.  I use the word putative because in the course of the plot, ownership of rail stocks switches hands, and is otherwise manipulated without scruples.  Colm Meany's Durant is a smarmy con man and ruthless survivor whose railroad is the object of numerous baits and switches, shell games, pyramid schemes and hand-buzzer jokes.  He can simultaneously occupy a jail cell and rule a business empire.  He's a man who wears a fine frock coat and beaver hat but he doesn't mind walking in the mud and he'll pick up a rifle or pistol if the occasion calls for it.  Overdone?  Yes, but entertaining as hell. 
Colm Meany's Durant: always a scumbag,occasionally an ally
            Anson Mount is an actor well suited to play a Western Hero.  He's got one of those faces that wears a look of passionate indifference.  This only sounds paradoxical until you see how he has mastered the skank-eye glare with which he regards his enemies.  He has murdered those Yankees directly responsible for killing his family.  He drinks, gambles and whores with the ruck and muck yet he earns their absolute loyalty because he gets the railroad built.  He is fair with his men.  He does the same work.  He is right where the track ends, where it is being built yet another mile across the plains and headed towards the mountains.  He wears a gun belt, jeans, boots, a leather vest and a straight brimmed black hat.
            "Hell On Wheels" is gripping.  It has a raft of finely crafted villains.  "The Swede" is a murderous yet subtle psychopath who never seems to die.  Just when we think he's been disposed of, he reappears.  Our celebration has been premature.  Hang him, burn him alive, throw him off a bridge, run him through with a spear: the monster keeps returning, with his huge eyes and his way of saying "mm.hmm" with his finger tapping his cheek.

The Swede cleaning off the gore

Swede, aka Thor Gundersen, a very scary man

            This is testament to the power of the series' dramatic engine.  A drama is only as good as its villains.  "Hell On Wheels" provides us with a lot of villains, and no two are alike.  We are disturbingly drawn by these evil characters into dark places of the human soul.  Our nerves are grinding, our teeth crunching as we wait for the awful monsters to meet justice.  We NEED that emotional release.  We can't wait for The Swede, or Durant, or Governor Jack Campbell, or smirking Sidney Snow to get what they deserve.  We wait with our breath held, wanting to squash those bastards into the puke and piss of Main Street Hell On Wheels.  The story runners keep us hanging on, coming back for more.  Some day Cullen Bohannon will draw his long pistol, fix his skank-eye glare of steely calm on his target and blow the fucker to pieces!
           I give "Hell On Wheels" four muskrats, one for each of the seasons so far produced.  There is a fifth and final season coming this year.  Perhaps The Swede will be diced, sliced, sauteed, pureed, dried and ground into powder, then released into the vortex of an EF Five Tornado, to be absolutely sure that he doesn't turn up somewhere else.  If he had been with The Donner Party he would have walked grinning down the Western Slope all chubby and with grease dripping from his lips.


  1. We love this show too. We have to record it so we can skip through the commercials to see if "The Swede" is gonna get it this time.

  2. A wonderfully engaging show. Wishing that Mount and the other fine actors would find another good story to tell together when He'll On Wheels is over.

  3. I LOVE this show, best of westerns in a modern era, the writers have done a lot on research as I have done the same, hitorical reference is that Thomas Durant and John Cambell were real men in that time, Cullen is a conglomerate mixture of heros and villians who gets the job done, I just hate that the Swede got away with killing Lillie Bell, Cullen's true love, I have been sure for all of these times that somehow he would find his way to her, but NO! They are sticking him with Naomi, the trickster! I think that more mention of Lilly should have been brought out!

  4. If you like my reviews, check out Thank you for commenting on this essay. I think Anson Mount has one of the world's greatest "skank-eyes". When he fixes that glare upon an enemy, said enemy should tremble.


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