Our TV shows are always foreshadowing a widening of the cultural rift, which is less about North vs. South than it is about hipster vs. kountry and celebrity vs. prole. All over reality TV, our rural cousins are shooting hogs, pawning guns, hillbilly handfishin’, digging for gold, catching rambunctious raccoons and turtles and gators, while proudly throwing around terms like “redneck” and “white trash” and otherwise expressing some 21st-century territorial anxiety that, in a coded way, expresses contempt for the high-tech, high-design, high-wattage cutting edge. A clamor for class warfare reaches a new boil every day, and never more so than in an approaching election year.
The national psyche would have snapped, if not for the meds. Demographers and political wonks are still eager to draw lines on a map and crunch data to figure out what’s happening to society, but as someone who watches gobs of television for a living, I expect our next civil war to be fought in the virtual space of the screen. It would be mostly indifferent to maps and instead become a war of media subterfuge.
With all that in mind, maybe there is something more alluring in fast-laning our Civil War history trip straight to the Reconstruction Era, the decade or so after the war ended in 1865. “Hell on Wheels,” AMC’s gratifying if brutal new Sunday night drama, is about the deep wounds the Civil War left behind and the fresh hurts that followed its immediate aftermath. Thrillingly, it’s also about the building of the transcontinental railroad, the ultimate national metaphor.
More ambitiously, “Hell on Wheels” is a western at heart, even if that heart is stone cold. It is filled with Indian rampages, sinister criminals, vigilante justice, pioneer courage and gritty subsistence in the face of rapacious wealth, and then all of that is layered in with postwar anger and racism. This immediately makes the pilot episode one of the more appealing offerings of the fall TV crop, if only because it isn’t about fairy tales or stewardesses.
The western is a much-missed genre that the movies occasionally attempt to recapture with varied success — “True Grit” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” are some memorable recent examples. But where TV is concerned, the western rode off into the sunset more than a generation ago, trailed by a prancing Laura Ingalls Wilder. Had it not been for big miniseries (“Lonesome Dove”) and the occasional medicine woman, I’m not sure today’s TV viewers would know how to enjoy a western, except in a secondhand way, via baby boomer nostalgia.
A little like HBO’s irrepressibly dark “Deadwood” (and with some notable envy for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”), “Hell on Wheels” comes on strong — violently so — yet stylishly conceived. Although it is short of perfect and has some issues to work out beyond its first five episodes, it is a worthy addition to the network that brought “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Killing” to dedicated viewers in search of a show that’s a cut above.
Anson Mount stars as Cullen Bohannon, a steel-nerved Mississippian and former Confederate officer set on locating and murdering the Union soldiers who raped his wife during the latter days of the Civil War, a trauma that Bohannon believes caused his wife to hang herself. In the opening scene, Bohannon finds one of his targets sitting behind a confessional booth at a Washington, D.C., church. He puts a bullet between the veteran’s eyes.
Then Bohannon heads west to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Union Pacific railroad crews are hammering ever westward. The project foreman (a racist bully who, it turns out, could be Bohannon’s next target) hires Bohannon, a former slave owner, to walk the construction line, which is populated by freed slaves and Irish immigrants.
As Bohannon, Mount has a difficult time making his character work past a Clint Eastwood sort of seethe. He’s fine in the part — which turns out to be grueling work — but he lacks something intangible as a star.
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“Hell on Wheels,” which is written and executive-produced by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, has not only earned passing marks on its American History homework (nothing in it should seem unbearably off-base for tolerant historians), it also earns decent grades in Cable Drama 101. The show’s title refers to the movable slum that was populated by Union Pacific’s workers, hucksters, preachers and whores; the makeshift town accompanied the construction site as it progressed toward the Rocky Mountains. The first episode introduces us to several compelling residents of Hell on Wheels whose stories eventually meet up.
The show’s standout is the rap artist and actor Common, who plays line worker Elam Ferguson, a freedman who sees the Emancipation Proclamation as an empty promise. Bohannon and Ferguson make a combative pair, capable of cooperation and mutual scorn.
Another standout is Dominique McElligott as Lily Bell, the wife of a talented surveyor, Robert Bell (Robert Moloney). The couple travel ahead of the railroad to map out routes, whereupon Lily gazes out at the rolling Nebraska plains and asks her husband: “Do you ever wonder if our work here will be the ruin of all this?”
Ambivalence about the ultimate outcome of Manifest Destiny is with us to this day, every time we fret about pollution or bemoan the ribbon-cutting of another exurban Wal-Mart. Almost on cue, the Bells’ survey camp is attacked by Cheyenne warriors, who kill Robert. Lily makes a harrowing escape, carrying her husband’s valuable maps in a leather case.
If you can handle its gore and overall depressing atmosphere, “Hell on Wheels” is about as palatable and relatable as historical drama gets. Colm Meaney (of the latter-day “Star Trek” franchises) has “Hell on Wheels’s” hammiest and only purely historical role as Thomas “Doc” Durant, a conniving Union Pacific railroad financier who coaxed the federal government out of some $60 million worth of subsidies.
No glossing-over happens here — Durant is drawn straight from his unflattering Wikipedia entry, encompassing a lifetime of greed and deceit. Meaney’s monologues on capitalism in “Hell on Wheels” verge on a melodramatic fatalism that echoes “There Will Be Blood.” These sinister reveries do help shape the narrative, but they also give the show a clumsiness that it doesn’t need.
There’s much more to plug into. There are the McGinnes brothers from Ireland (Ben Esler and Phil Burke), hoping to send a fortune back home by opening a “magic lantern” tent theater in the Hell on Wheels encampment, where they show slides depicting comforting scenes of the homeland to a captivated audience. Eddie Spears plays Joseph Black Moon, a Cheyenne tribe member who is baptized by Rev. Cole (Tom Noonan), an Indian sympathizer with a mysterious past.
And still better characters await, as in the second episode, when “Hell on Wheels” introduces us to its best villain, the creepily watchable Christopher Heyerdahl as “the Swede,” Durant’s cruel enforcer.
Five hours into “Hell on Wheels,” I had ample confidence in the epic sweep that the series intends. It never jumps its track, but there are a lot of bumps and kinks to be pounded into shape. So much of the dialogue is clearly meant to be growled rather than spoken, which gets tiresome. Also, the tone of the show begins to seem oppressively gloomy after a while. I don’t doubt that building a railroad after the Civil War brought out the worst in everyone, but I also found myself wondering if what we’re seeing here is too fascinated by the filth and rage of it all.
Still, viewers may find something cathartic and fascinating in the way “Hell on Wheels” seeks to show a microcosm of a wounded nation mending itself by laboriously hammering a permanent Frankenstein scar of tracks across its midsection. No matter how much these people hated one another, and in spite of their astonishing wealth gaps and class skirmishes, and with horrific work conditions that would pulverize us today, they did in fact build a railroad.
Infrastructure, it seems, really is the cure for what ails ya.
Hell on Wheels
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.