by Sam Mantell
I sat down to watch Hell On Wheels, On Demand yesterday. I was feeling pretty good; I had gotten a lot done so far that day, and watching Hell On Wheels would be constructive, and I’d write about it and that should bring me to Monday Night Football, and that should be a full day of obligations filled.
I was infinitely more exited for Hell On Wheels 102 than I was for Walking Dead 102-204. Since Hell On Wheels premiered, my faith in AMC’s streak of quality programming has inflated slightly. In my opinion,it suffered a real dip with The Walking Dead Season Two thus far. To be honest, I wasn’t real thrilled with Season One, but the housemates and I did a little Walking Dead streak on Netflix the Saturday and Sunday before the Season Two premier, and it was fun to feel the fever. And then, that night, Season Two premieres and WOOooaaauhhhhmmm…..lame.I think all of us feigned enthusiasm for the next episode. We did it for each other. And then the second episode was going to come on and it was an awesome day of football and we can’t wait to see some zombies get decimated and Shane finally have it out with Rick and WOOHOoooooyyeaaahhh….what the fuck?! Why is everything still way it was? Where are the zombies? Where’s Sofia? Oh, good question. By the way, we’re gonna have this be the same question for the next five episodes!
And here we are, deep in to the second season, and Rick is still struggling with, literally, every single word he says. Be a MAN Rick, Jesus! Shane still hasn’t beat his ass, like we know he’s going to. I swear to God if Rick beats Shane in a fight I’ll stop watching the show. There’s no way. The similarities between the current story line and the actual, physical zombies in the story are striking. Both get really excited for a few minutes while they smell blood, but the scene usually ends without satisfaction. And as has been the case with t
he last few episodes, both are barely there at all. Now, if that analogy holds up, then we should be in for a real onslaug
ht of storyline, just as soon as it breaks out of that barn of of the doctor’s and gets into everyone’s shit. That could be exciting! But, since they show us the most exciting scene of every episode in the “Exiting look at next week’s episode” we know the most that will happen is Glenn threatening to do the BLATANTLY OBVIOUS and tell his folks there’s a massacre waiting in the barn. And why doesn’t he step up to the plate? For poon, that’s why. Glenn apparently didn’t watch any Scorsese before the apocalypse.
Now, given all that hatred I just showered upon The Walking Dead, you can imagine how much of my interest in Hell On Wheels stems from wanting something else to entertain me. Yes, I could just stop watching Walking Dead, instead of sitting here bitching about it, but that would leave my Sunday night TV lineup less populated, which I’m not real keen on. So amid my gushing about Hell On Wheels that is to follow, remember that it’s partially, if not all, a reaction to the absence of The Walking Dead.
Hell On Wheels opens with a murder in a church, just after the conclusion of the Civil War. What times these must be! Clearly we’re being thrown into an unstable situation. The only person we have to count on so far has just shot a man through the eye, in a confessional.
Thankfully, we’re presented with a calm setting thereafter: the lush, wide open plains of Council Bluffs, Iowa. Here we find the western-most edge of the Union Pacific Railroad. For those of us who LOVED America: The Story of Us, the time and setting alone are reason enough to keep watching. We know the kind of drama that unfolded at the American Frontier while we were still bridging the gap between the coasts. Native Americans, sickness, and plenty of hatred left over between the once-warring factions in the Civil War comprise a tasty recipe for disaster.
At the center of all this turmoil is our hero, Cullen Bohannan, played by Anson Mount. Cullen is seeking to avenge his wife’s death, and he seems to be on the right track. He’s managed to find his way to the leading edge of the Union Pacific Railroad. Here, whether by accident or by design, are some people who might know a thing or two about the tragedy that took Mrs. Bohannan, an event referred to only by the name of the town; Missionary. Bohannan’s solitary goal is, of course, obstructed by the usual cast of liars and thieves, one of which is played excellently by Ted Levine, who delivers an excellent performance in the pilot, as well as in Heat (and Silence of the Lambs, and Monk, etc, but most importantly, Heat). Levine’s character is in charge of labor at Hell On Wheels, and he’s a fierce drunkard and racist to boot.
Colm Meany plays Thomas Durant, and is thoroughly convincing as a corrupt boss, so common in the early days of the Union. His main goal is to extort the government, which he has coerced into subsidizing the construction costs of his railroad. He is a tyrant, and he has a fierce hold on the railroad, his kingdom, of sorts. In him we see the greed and immorality embodied in all the extortionists we’ve had in our history.
Thankfully, Bohannan’s safety/success is not all we have to worry about. There’s also a love-stricken, fair-haired maiden wandering about somewhere with some maps that are VERY important to Durant. We have Common, who plays Elam, making trouble on Bohannan’s labor squad. And we have two unassuming young immigrants who have only innocence to offer. They’re just a couple boys trying to raise money for their Ma back in Ireland. It’s going to be a real surprise when they either die or kill someone.
Durant’s head of security, The Swede, is a terrible force we’ve discovered in the second episode. His “Immoral Mathematics” loom as we see his desire to bring Bohannan down, if for no other reason than Bohannan’s ability to outsmart The Swede twice in the course of a day. If I’m being honest, The Swede is the best hope Hell On Wheels has for the success of this show. His lack of emotion and unplugged demeanor seem to be the tone-setter for the plot, and both are dark and mysterious enough keep me watching. Sorry, but I’m rooting for The Swede.
To add a proper conclusion, Hell On Wheels is capturing my fancy much more so than The Walking Dead. I’m more interested in Cullen Bohannan than Rick Grimes. I’m more afraid of The Swede and those sly, skilled Indians than I am of the zombies. I don’t care about Sophia, I DO care about the maps. And I’m more curious about Meany’s intent for malice than I am about the Doctor’s intentions with the barn zombies, mostly because now I’ll see any jump in excitement as a ploy for ratings boosts already in The Walking Dead. Now of course, tune in Sunday for what will probably be the best Walking Dead episode yet, now that I’ve posted a rant about it. And if you do that, be sure to stick around for Hell On Wheels, which will most likely be awesome.
Sure, it’s hard to claim success after two episodes of a show. Where would we be if that were the standard? Well, we might be saying The Walking Dead is the finest show around. So it is with caution that I champion Hell On Wheels as a good new show. But it is with resounding confidence that I deem it a better choice than The Walking Dead. Sure, sure, the zombies in the barn. I know. But I’m also counting on Hell On Wheels to hold their production ship together, something The Walking Dead couldn’t do. The producer/director of the first two episodes of Hell On Wheels, David Von Ancken, seems to have a handle on what creators Tony and Joe Gayton had envisioned. Of course, he may not direct every episode, but he’s done a fine job thus far.