By James Nelson
With the show winding down it’s final season (midseason finale airs Saturday on AMC), I figured now was as good a time as any to discuss why I love this show so much. It’s a vibrant, bloody, and complex tale about people trying to build the first railroad to connect the west coast and east coast of the United States, and even though the show has had middling rating and lukewarm critical reception for most of it’s run, I’m here to tell you why you should watch it.
Over the past five seasons the series best strength has been to constantly reinvent itself. Each season typically involves a central plot and the conclusion of that plot results in the destruction of the series dynamic. Then the next season the writers have to pick up the pieces and figure out what stories that have to tell, both about the repercussions of the characters’ actions and what challenges lie ahead on the railroad. For instance, the entire first season is consumed by Cullen Bohannon’s (Anson Mount) quest for revenge, and the following season sees him searching for a reason to live after the conclusion of season one. There is no other show on TV that constantly self-destructs itself and then rises from the ashes every season, and I’m not exaggerating. The finale of season two is one of the most catastrophic season finales I’ve ever watched and I was certain it was a series finale, because that’s how it felt.
This constant reinvention is partially by accident, as the series changes show runners halfway through its run, but part of it was out of necessity. This show doesn’t have the production values to compete with big time HBO shows, or Netflix, so they had to make do with incredible storytelling to get viewers.
Character Deaths Done Right
I don’t know how this is not discussed more (maybe because critics have largely dismissed this show), but watching this is a master class in how to kill off a character, and the writers have gotten lots of practice. This is a show that has killed a higher percentage of its cast than any other; more than Game of Thrones, more than Breaking Bad, more than The Walking Dead. There has only been one death that could have been handled better, but given the circumstances behind the actor’s departure from the series, they did the best they could to write off a central character in a dignified way. That is not to say all the characters’ deaths are dignified, but each one of them served a critical story point and made the series better. It’s not like the other shows that killed off characters for no other reason than to reinforce that no one is safe (looking at you Game of Thrones) or to reaffirm that there’s no hope (The Walking Dead). Every time death served a purpose. Each one made the series better, and each one hurt beyond belief. Some left me thinking about it for days.
There are definitely a few characters who are ciphers, but they’re few and far between. Most of them are very complex, multi-layer people who have competing motivations that are largely revealed later in the series run. This may be because at their creation in the first season, many of them were underdeveloped, but you don’t have to go much further than Elam Ferguson to see that the show has a plethora of wonderfully complex characters. Elam is a former slave who came to the railroad to make a life for himself, and in may ways in a foil to Bohannon for much of the first three season. Where Bohannon is trying to recover from the wrong he’s done, Elam is just trying to have the life the white man wouldn’t let him have, and it doesn’t help their relationship seeing as Bohannon is a former plantation owner who fought for the Confederacy. Even when it comes to the series villains, none of them (with one exception) are outright bad guys. They are all out on the frontier for their own reasons, the most common one is just trying to survive. They’re all outcasts in their own way and this frontier is fertile ground for interesting and inventive storytelling.
This is the one exception to my previous statement about villains. The Swede, from the outset, is a larger than life villain. He’s the man in black. He’s the devil. He’s the bad guy who keeps all other bad guys up and night … and I’m not exaggerating. The Swede is quite literally one of the best villains of the Golden Age of Television. He’s right up there with Frank Underwood (House of Cards), Gus Fring (Breaking Bad), and dare I say Al Swearengen (Deadwood). He’s a man who is obsessed with Bohannon and will stop at nothing to destroy everything he holds dear in the most vindictive and brutal of ways. He, in many ways, is most similar to the Joker in the way he concocts his plans and sets about tearing whole systems down, but whereas the Joker does so to benefit Batman (usually), the Swede does so because he is better than everyone. He is a violent, creepy psychopath who was born (or shall we say enabled to exist) because of Andersonville prison, and in many ways his character is still trapped there. His whole outlook on the world is that it’s one giant prison camp and he can control it. He is literally worth watching this show just to see him in it.
No One Looks Good
Most period pieces try to make a specific group of people look “good” and one group “bad.” This is largely due to our modern feelings on such things as slavery (which was abhorrent) or the crass way in which capitalists exploited their workers (which totally happened), but Hell on Wheels teaches us that everyone was a tool to everyone else. Everyone is racist. Everyone murders and cheats and holds human life in low regard. Just about every group is represented as a self-interested party that will kill anyone who tries to screw with them. The railroad kills Native Americans. They then murder railroad workers. Mormons don’t want their land taken from them, so they kill railroad workers. Basically every group of people the railroad runs into wants to kill them. Even the various groups of railroad workers want to kill each other. Between the Black workers, the white American workers, and the Irish workers, each group at one time or another tried to kill the other. That racial tension provided much of the backdrop of the first two seasons, after which they shifted to the external threats (Native Americans, Mormons, and the Central Pacific Railroad). It’s somewhat refreshing to see a period drama show that all people suck.
The show has been a fun ride, and I thoroughly recommend giving it a chance. You have until summer 2016 to catch up. That’s when the last seven episodes air. You can catch up on Netflix.