Entertainment Magazine

Hell on Wheels – Pilot

Posted on the 07 November 2011 by Lucasmcmillan @LucasMcMillan

hell on wheels

Hell on Wheels might be the first post-Post Western. With the state of the genre, it might also be the last.

AMC set itself an impossible task when it optioned a pilot for Hell on Wheels in 2010: produce a Western good enough to make viewers forget that Deadwood happened. Once in a while, a piece of art is such an unequivocal triumph that it negates the need for anything similar to it. Deadwood was that good. Any TV Western that comes along after it has to prove that it has a reason to exist. Deadwood is one of the best television shows ever, so that is a lofty bar to measure against.  And AMC executives had to have known that the two shows would draw constant comparisons.

The Western genre is a niche one with a cult following. In other words, the kind of person (who are we kidding; the kind of dude) who would be interested in a Western set against the backdrop of the Transcontinental Railroad construction already owns a box set of Deadwood DVDs and stores them snugly next to his Ken Burns Civil War set. That guy is going to watch Hell on Wheels, no doubt, but with a skeptical eye.

The Western genre has died a thousand deaths in cinematic history, and risen from the ashes in a new incarnation every time. Americans don’t tire of hearing about our country’s violent, lurching westward birthing process. There have been three general takes on the genre:

1. The John Wayne Western. These movies are as much about America’s Manifest Destiny as the Adam West’s Batman bears a resemblance to The Dark Knight. Guys saunter around creaky-looking saloon sets, blatantly thumbing their nose at the notion that they’re starring in a period piece. They have feathered hair, big sideburns and don’t even attempt an accent. They (and by extension, the viewer) know they’re a bunch of guys playing dress-up cowboys and Indians in the mid-1970s. People were comfortable with that charade for a while. Until:

2. The Spaghetti Western. Leave it to the Italians to educate us about our own westward expansion. This is also where dark themes first became prevalent in Westerns. When Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name character would shoot guys in the back, it was wildly controversial. John Wayne offered them a chance to turn around, at least. The Spaghetti Westerns were just as ridiculously stylized as John Wayne westerns, but they presented themselves as gritty and realistic. They deliberately tried to shatter our idyllic illusion of the West, but instead created a whole new set of archetypes. (Barren vistas, street duels, blowing tumbleweed, high noon, etc.)

3. The Unforgiven/Deadwood Western. These Westerns turned both previous conventions on their heads. Unforgiven, the 1993 Clint Eastwood masterpiece, presented the West as something closer to what it probably was. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, life in the American West was rather brutal, nasty and short. Deadwood picked up where Unforgiven left off, and then some. The too-short HBO series was TV at its finest, painting the fringes of American society with outcasts, whores, hustlers and a few honest men trying to tame it all. It was the best Western ever made, movie, television show, book or otherwise. And that brings us to Hell on Wheels.

As I stated above, my biggest initial question with Hell on Wheels was a simple “Why?” What could the show bring to a genre that feels dangerously close to tapped out?

Well, I’ll give Hell on Wheels this: it’s got an angle. It’s a pretty dumb one, but it’s there. The creators of Hell on Wheels approach the Wild West the same way the creators of Spartacus took on ancient Rome. It’s shot like a music video. Everyone looks completely glamorous. Accents come and go, sometimes within the same scene. Race relations are handled with meat cleaver-subtlety. It’s a thoroughly 21st century Western.

Our hero is a dark and mysterious guy that looks like a cross between Josh Brolin and Timothy Olyphant (one has to think that this casting choice was deliberate, to say the least) and points to his Confederate-issue pistol when asked if he believes in a higher power. Yup, you’ve seen that character before. A lot. Lest you think I’m totally sour on the show, here’s a postive note: the character’s name is Cullen Bohannon. I like that. Anyway, Bohannon’s headed out West to claim revenge against some Union Yanks who killed his wife. But if he sounds a little rough around the edges, don’t worry. You see, he was married to an abolitionist Northern woman who convinced him of the evils of slavery. He freed them all before the Civil War even broke out. Whew. You can be comfortable rooting for him now, America. We like our (anti)heroes unsavory, but not too unsavory.

Hell on Wheels’ earnest but misguided depiction of race is its major flaw. We’ve got Common on hand, playing the Proud Former Slave who works on the railroad. (Once again, you know this character. You’ve been watching him in movies and on TV for decades.) Bohannon is hired as a railway overseer, in charge of Common and a group of other former slaves. You know the beats: Common and Bohannon will develop a grudging respect for one another, they’ll find mutual goals that transcend race, blah blah blah. We’ve been down this road before, and some of those roads were a lot better.

Outside of our man Bohannon (it’s got a ring!), many of the other white characters in the pilot are wildly racist, as you would expect rich white people to be in 1860 frontier America. Ethnic slurs are tossed around liberally. They also feel painfully, deliberately dropped in, similar to Mad Men’s early “Hey look, it’s the 60s!” moments. In the world of the show, racism is presented as a heinous offense. When a rich railroad baron says the word “chink” while referring derogatorily to Chinese railway workers, his peons flinch. The camera stops to catch this and there’s a moment of dead silence. It’s 1860. That simply would not have happened.

And that’s why Hell on Wheels is a post-Post Western. John Wayne’s Westerns were Westerns as we think of them. They were “traditional.” Spaghetti Westerns subverted those tropes and made the genre exciting again with glamorized violence and a broken moral compass. Unforgiven and Deadwood came along and dumped a cold bucket of water on the proceedings, giving us a Wild West teeming with syphilis, senseless murder and scheming capitalists.

Hell on Wheels wants to have it every which way. It strives to portray the gritty, realistic Wild West of Deadwood, but it does so through a decidedly 21st century lens. It’s as silly as a John Wayne Western, but it’s filmed with the gravity and self-seriousness of the HBO drama it wants to be. That’s a pretty unsustainable combination. But most of all, Hell on Wheels can’t answer my original, and most important, question: why? If Western fans can dust off their Deadwood box set any time they choose, will they give this show the time of day?

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