Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“Hell on Wheels” shines as newest western

By Kevin Romani

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Courtesy of AMC

In just four short years, AMC has established itself as a leader in dramatic television. The basic cable network has given HBO a run for its money as the most synonymous station for great and compelling series. HBO’s famous motto over the years – “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” – is very apropos, as the premium channel has offered countless memorable programs over the years. AMC’s tagline – “Story matters here” – is similarly fitting for the channel, as their relentless dedication to substance has propelled it to this high level of quality.

AMC’s maiden voyage into original programming waters was with “Mad Men.” The series has been awarded the Best Drama Emmy every season it has been on the air. “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead” and “The Killing” all followed, and have all received their own accolades, respectively. This month, AMC premiered “Hell on Wheels,” a western set in the backdrop of the early stages of the Reconstruction Era. After its pilot episode, it appears AMC has found itself yet another successful series to build its reputation within the television industry.

“Hell on Wheels” was created by brothers Joe and Tony Gayton, who are serving as first time show runners of a television series. The series stars relatively unknown Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannan, musician turned actor Common as Elam and Colm Meaney as ‘Doc’ Durant.

This new series focuses on the creation of the Union Pacific Railroad shortly after the end of the Civil War. Bohannan is a cold blooded killer who finds himself at the work site for the railroad on a search for those who killed his wife during the War. Bohannan is a southerner, and fought for the Confederacy. Prior to the War, Bohannan was a plantation owner who also owned a few slaves. He released his slaves from their service prior to the end of the War, after his wife revealed to him the cruelties of slavery. Bohannan fought on the Confederate side not to protect the southern way of life, but for the “honor.”

Bohannan is the classic western archetypal anti-hero. Similarly to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character from the Sergio Leone “Dollars” trilogy, Bohannan is a morally ambiguous man who will stop at nothing to achieve what he wants. Eastwood’s character was after money, whereas Bohannan is after revenge for the death of his wife. He has little to say, but when he does share his thoughts they leave a lasting impression with the audience. Bohannan kills at will, yet has some semblance of a heart. His favorable treatment towards the former slaves who are working on the train gives him some redeemable qualities, but not enough to make him a completely good natured person. Bohannan’s character is certainly the one worth watching on “Hell on Wheels,” as there is nothing more compelling than a well-written and sympathetic anti-hero.

If one word could summarize the mood of the pilot episode and what is to be expected in further episodes of “Hell on Wheels,” it would be lawlessness. The period after the Civil War is reputed to be remembered for having little sense of order and established law. This was especially pertinent to the western part of the country, as America’s pursuit of “Manifest Destiny” led it to new found territory where normal rules did not apply. The cast and crew compared this sense of lawlessness to that of “The Walking Dead,” which features a world overrun by zombies. Similarly, greedy and murderous men plague the American western frontier, and they have nothing in their way to interfere with them achieving their goals. Murder, extortion and bribery are just a few of the unethical activities that are seen in the pilot episode alone. This chaos leaves the series with a sense of unpredictability from episode to episode, which will benefit the entertainment value of the program.

Along with FX’s “Justified,” “Hell on Wheels” may help lead to the reemergence of the western on television sets. A return to this genre has already taken place in film, as pictures like “3:10 to Yuma” and “True Grit” have received recent success both financially and critically. The western is the quintessential American genre, as archetypes and subject matter from the genre have been seen in American film and television for decades. Movies like “Die Hard” and “Dirty Harry” may take place in more contemporary time periods with contemporary issues, but the essence of both pictures is undeniably that of the western. It will be interesting to see if audiences react favorably to both of these new series and welcome the idea of the western as a television series.

As AMC’s tagline suggests, story truly does matter to them. This belief is confirmed once again with “Hell on Wheels.” The pilot episode offers a beautiful depiction of the western landscape, and was well produced on all technical levels. But it is clear that the creators of the series have their primary focus in the narrative, as the premiere episode provided the foundation for several interesting plot lines. “Hell on Wheels” follows “The Walking Dead” Sunday nights at 10 p.m.

Kevin Romani can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kevin Romani on Twitter @Kevin Romani.

 

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