Lunchtable TV Talk: Hell on Wheels

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I remember seeing TV ads for Hell on Wheels when it was first being introduced on AMC many years ago. I must have been in the US on holiday, and nothing about the show appealed to me except maybe the presence of Colm Meaney (I’m a Trekker, right? No one can resist Chief O’Brien!). That was not enough to induce watching. It was a couple of years later that I picked it up, more in boredom/lack of things to watch than anything else. I was not immediately captivated, but I did immediately think that Hell on Wheels was not quite like anything we had seen before.

Ostensibly about the competition around and westward expansion of the railroads in post-Civil War America, the story, without delving too deeply into any of the details, hinted at stories of war and post-war, the end of slavery, immigration (and the haves/haves-not among immigrants, including the Chinese who came to work on the railroads), manifest destiny, religious persecution, Native Americans (both from the perspective of racist white men and those who had lived among them and understood the nuance and difference among their cultures and tribes), and so much more. I found myself most deeply engaged in the show because it did touch on so many things, overlaying a light dusting of sensitivity and thought provocation to what was nevertheless a sort of… adventure tale of one man running away from his past and his grief (with every mile of track he built, the further he got from the past) and all the mistakes he made on that run.

It didn’t moralize or dig deeply into the issues it touched upon, which was probably more a strength than a weakness. However, touching on all the things it did, many people found it unsatisfying because it could seem at times to lack focus. Be that as it may, the loose storytelling and casual mention of the wide range of things one would encounter on the western frontier, for me at least, evoked the sense of boundlessness – both opportunity and danger – that seemed to fire the imagination of most people who moved west.

Populating that vast landscape, a set of vibrant and diverse characters, memorable in their imperfection, roamed and also seemed to run from checkered or unhappy pasts. The aforementioned Meaney as villain Thomas Durant; the lead, Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a Civil War veteran and former slave owner who initially sets out to seek revenge on Union soldiers who had killed his wife, but as he struggles and suffers, eventually makes new mistakes and also manages to let go of the past and his anger; the troubled whore-turned-madam, Eva, with her Indian facial markings and lost love with former slave (and one-time series regular, Elam Ferguson (Common))… and no one more entertaining, horrifying or even tragic than “The Swede”, Thor Gundersen (the incomparable Christopher Heyerdahl).

It seems strange to say that a show I never even wanted to watch is something I will most miss, even if I am absolutely sure that the show is ending at the right time and on a high note.

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