Hell on Wheels exemplifies that bored, washed-out Western period piece, the kind that audiences have been force-fed for decades. It’s easily identifiable as a Western, what with the twanging bluegrass, the Stetsons, week-old scruff, and mumbled dialogue. Our hero, Cullen Bohannon, is the predictable brooding loner, a gunslinger cut right from the days of John Wayne and The Yellow Rose of Texas, but he’s far too contrived to be as cool and elusive as Shane or Jake Spoon from Lonesome Dove. In contrast with Hell on Wheels, what made True Grit such a great modernized, twisted Western was the unpredictable school-age heroine who was tough as hell, but also this really kind, gentle young kid. Yet, due to the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit still retained the soul of the Western. Hell on Wheels is practically the opposite, a soulless slave to genre that carelessly recycles the overused plot line of the valiant cowboy and his fight against the savage, bloodthirsty “Indians”. It is absolutely a “genre” piece, but practically nothing more than that.
Additionally, in terms of story line, the emphasis on the imperialist battle against the savage brutality of the “Indians” (ugh) is embarrassingly racist, as well as dated and completely boring. Evidence of Hell on Wheels’ attachment to genre makes itself present once again. Yes, I know that much violence in the Western territories/states rose from tension with the Native tribes (to put it lightly) BUT that doesn’t mean 21st century television needs to continue perpetuating the theme of the “other” as the villain. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman! (I should probably be referring to Lonesome Dove first, but…) Now, that’s a show that completely pushed the envelope in terms of representing the Western genre. The problem with Hell on Wheels is that it determinedly clings to the ancient formula of the Western genre. The Western genre of the 1940’s and ’50’s, where red-blooded, white Americans defeated the barbaric Injuns and always win. To put it simply, I’m bored of careless attempts at recreating and revitalizing Westerns.
There are a few attempts at experimenting with the Western genre, like the modern rock music Jon mentioned previously and Thomas Durant speaking to the camera. These are legitimate techniques, but they seem to come from something uninspired. They’re also not particularly revolutionary on their own, so that really diminished my interest. It’s still very possible, though, that Hell on Wheels can redeem itself and do something completely unexpected with the Western genre.