TV Review – Hell on Wheels

howWhen Hell on Wheels was first announced, I was all in. This was the channel that brought us Breaking Bad and Walking Dead. A western about a Confederate soldier seeking revenge for his murdered wife had to be awesome. I was anticipating tight writing that would keep me on the edge of my seat.

So, yeah, that did not happen. I watched three episodes and then threw in the towel. Like trying to keep up with Longmire, I just got bored. It was slow, and Cullen Bohanon (the lead character) was kind of a tool. Mostly, I think I just didn’t really get it. I couldn’t be bothered to give a crap about a western without loads of gunfights and cowboy swaggering.

Well, I guess I should have checked my inner John Wayne at the door, because my wife came back and watched the whole show on Netflix, and told me it was great. I was just finishing Orange is the New Black, and she wanted me to get ready so we could watch Hell on Wheels as it started the third season, so I conceded and started the show over.

Color me surprised. This was not the show I thought it was. It’s not a Clint Eastwood shoot-em-up with lots of showdowns and gritty cigar-chomping. It’s more like a morality play full of symbolism, character development, and some intensely deep storytelling. If I was bored, it’s because the first few weeks were just setting up the rest of the show.

Cullen Bohanon is a shockingly deep character. Every time you think you’ve got him figured out, he pulls out some new angle. He’s a drunk hell-bent on revenge – but he’s also a hero willing to sacrifice his own needs to protect those weaker than himself. He’s angry and prideful, with a deep-seated death wish. He’s also wiser than he has any right to be, and yet routinely ignores what he knows are good decisions to take the path of the routinely idiotic. To quote the show, ‘Bohanon only thrives on narrow escapes from his own recklessness.’ Sums it up pretty well, and as an added bonus, that’s a pretty bad-ass line.

The characters around Bohanon are just as fascinating. You’ll meet Elam, the half-black son of a slave woman and her owner. There’s Lily Bell, the woman forcing her way into a man’s world. And Eva, the woman rescued from years of captivity among the Cheyenne, just to be forced to earn her living as a whore. The owner of the railroad, Thomas Durant, is a single-minded despot who knows he will be remembered as a villain even as he reshapes the future of the American people.

Then there’s the Swede. He deserved his own paragraph, because he is basically in the show to be like an evil Jiminy Cricket. He’s the evil opposite of Bohanon – scheming where Bohanon is reckless, cruel where Bohanon is merciful, cowering where Bohanon is proud. But both are hardened killers, and the Swede (who is actually Norwegian) exists to serve as the show’s moral compass, by basically pointing as far away from moral as is humanly possible.

The story in Hell on Wheels is compelling, once you give it enough time to get going, but you’re watching this show for the characters, not the story. The story is the vehicle that drives the people. You won’t be wondering what happens next, exactly. It’s more like you’re asking who does what. How will the Irish brothers adapt to the harsh realities of life at the edge of civilization? Will the preacher be able to save the Indians?

Hell on Wheels is a show about people who just don’t fit anywhere. Bohanon is a Confederate working on a Union railroad. Elam is a black man trying to belong in a white man’s world. Eva is the prostitute who can’t stay with the Cheyenne, but is an outcast among her own people for the marks the Indians put on her face. Even the Swede is an interesting study in dichotomy – far from home, with a ridiculous accent, obsessed with cleanliness in a town of filth.

Hell on Wheels is not Bonanza. It’s not The Rifleman. It’s not even Deadwood. If you’re looking for a hard-hitting western TV show about bold men and horse-riding tricks, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a powerfully intellectual show that frequently devolves into being a little bizarre for the sake of the symbolism it is attempting to convey. It poses difficult questions and challenges the viewer to consider who he is (or, in my wife’s case, who she is). It’s the kind of show you can watch for an hour, and then sit for the next two hours talking about it, to try to understand what you just watched.

Which is not to say there’s no violence. Holy crap, is there violence. People get gutted, shot, stabbed in the neck, lit on fire, and dismembered and fed to pigs. There is a ton of killing. Hell, the first episode ends with a dude getting his throat slit ear to ear, and that’s tame compared to what comes later. Brutal brawls and deadly shootouts pop up with frightening regularity, but they’re not scheduled. They happen when they need to happen to move people forward, not just because the fans love to see dead bodies.

There are a few downsides to all this intelligent television. For starters, it’s slow. I began to be interested in the characters, and enjoyed watching them grow and change, but Hell on Wheels is never in a hurry. You may have to sit through some serious pontificating before you get to the next Indian massacre.

Worse than being slow, in my opinion, is that sometimes the story in Hell on Wheels takes some odd turns and unbelievable twists in the name of pushing characters forward. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but there are multiple times that I thought, ‘now wait just a damned minute.’ Things happen that are hard to swallow, if you’re looking for a consistent story, but they do make more sense when you remember that you’re watching a character study fraught with symbolism. It still bothers me sometimes, though.

The third season of Hell on Wheels starts this Saturday, so if you hurry, you can get all caught up on Netflix. But don’t feel bad if you find the show a little boring from time to time. I know I did. I’m glad I went back to it, but I’m still not going to call it the best TV on TV.

6 Responses to “TV Review – Hell on Wheels”

  1. fightcitymayor says:

    I dunno, Deadwood was such an end-all be-all that anything that comes after it that remotely treads the same territory is immediately suspect. I tuned this out for the same reasons you did (unforgivably boring & sterile) and have never been back to give it another try. I also can’t stomach Chief Miles O’Brien in any other role than guy-that-pushes-buttons-in-the-transporter-room.

  2. Dude says:

    I have started on season 1 and at episode 4, so fare it is very boring. :(

  3. pamela ciceri says:

    I love the show and I love bohanon. I watched each season .

  4. Lorraine says:

    I wasn’t able to watch all the shows because of the time it came on I had to work early and didn’t have nf but I saw some of them and fell in love with Bahanon my kind of man need to see more of him

  5. Kristy Treece says:

    I think Bohannon is so sexy never miss it but to many commercials and still dont know if liam is dead love the show

  6. Brad davenport says:

    This show is AWESOME , once it gets it set up. Absolutely love it!!! Great show!!!!!!!