‘Hell on Wheels’ Presents a Dark Vision of the American West

“Hell on Wheels” is a darkly themed western in the style of “Deadwood” with a lack of sympathetic characters and a decidedly downbeat view of the winning of the American West.

Some spoilers follow.

The show is going to follow the adventures of Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, who goes west and takes a job on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. His quest is to find the men who raped and murdered his wife and to kill them. He has already paid back a couple of men back east.

Bohannon, perhaps to give him a more accessible character, was inspired by his northern wife to free his slaves and hire them as employees before the Civil War. And yet he fought for the Confederacy out of a sense of honor.

Elam Ferguson, a former slave, is a worker on the railroad who is angry with his lot in life and the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation has not changed his life noticeably for the better. Yet he develops a strange bond with the former slave owner Bohannon, even going so far as to save his life when one of the men who murdered and raped his wife almost kills him.

Lily Bell sees her husband slaughtered in an Indian massacre. She has doubts about what the railroad will bring, mainly people to spoil the pristine beauty of the West. But her husband had a dream of uniting the nation, so recently divided, and it will soon become her dream. In the meantime, she has escaped from the massacre with some maps that are much needed by another man.

That man is Thomas Durant, played by the incomparable Colm Meaney. Durant, at least on the surface, is a stereotypical 19th century robber baron. He can make pretty speeches about uniting the nation with a ribbon of steel. But he tells a United States Senator whom he is bribing that he is all about making money on the backs of his workers. He is also not above ripping off the government, who is paying a subsidy for every mile of track laid.

And yet, a soliloquy at the end of the episode shows him to be a more complex man than one might think. True, he is willing to do evil to build the railroad. But he considers himself a lion among the zebras and tells the audience that it is such men who make history, who builds things like the railroad. It is an interesting premise and certainly one that bears exploring.

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