I must explain, or apologize, for the title of the series – not for inventing it of course, but for not rejecting out of hand a show with a curse word in its name. “Hell on Wheels” is actually a historically bona fide term. When the Intercontinental Railroad was being built, there was a mobile town that moved with it. Whenever End of Track got out of sight, they’d load the town up on wagons, move it a couple miles, and rebuild it at the new railhead. They called it “Hell on Wheels,” which is where the expression comes from. As the name suggests, it was a town devoted to vice.
We follow former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). He has come west, not for his fortune, but for revenge. A group of Yankee soldiers violated and murdered his wife during the war, and he’s hunting them down one by one. Cullen is an interesting antihero – a man with great capabilities, but hollowed out by hate. When denied his vengeance, he collapses into a bottle.
Through circumstances I’ll skip over, Cullen becomes foreman of the Union Pacific work crew. He commands both white workers and black workers, chief among them Elam Ferguson (played by the rapper, Common) with whom he strikes up a fragile and hostile alliance. His boss is “Doc” Durant (Colm Meany), a pure huckster out for the biggest of scores. Cullen’s nemesis is “The Swede” (Chris Heyerdahl), the head of security (he confides that he’s actually a Norwegian), a man who seems to combine piety with tremendous corruption and contempt for human life.
But there are (and I salute the producers for this) actually decent, decently portrayed Christians in this series. The preacher who ministers to Hell on Wheels (Tom Noonan) delivers a pretty good explanation of the gospel as he tries to minister to Cullen’s hollowed out soul. Or at least as far as I’ve watched so far—four episodes.
Last night, after watching that fourth episode, I had what seemed like an epiphany, an attack of what I might call Writer’s Disease. I realized that, given the arc of the plot, it’s almost inevitable that something really awful is going to happen to the most sympathetic character in the series. The story kind of demands it.
And I’m not sure I have the courage to go on watching, and see that.
Writer’s Disease? Or just an old man’s moral cowardice? I’m wrestling with the question.
“Hell on Wheels” is not bad if you can handle the language and adult themes. No actual nudity so far.