As far as perfectly solid pilots go, I really couldn’t ask for much more from Hell On Wheels. There were a few scenes that really grabbed me–the opening in the church, the raid, any scene with one-handed man, especially when he was drinking (and who will be sorely missed), and also anything with Colm Meany’s excellent Thomas Durant–but the pilot, as expected, was mostly necessary set-up. That said, it was done well enough that I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where it goes next.
I’m not all too familiar with westerns, but I felt like this stayed pretty close to the book, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Revenge always makes for enjoyable stories, and I like that the show seems to be more than just a buddy-cop Western with Colin and Elam slinging guns and getting over that whole slavery thing, like the posters kinda made it to seem–not that I’m against grotesque violence, which I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of.
What ultimately grabbed me about the pilot is the few, and slightly peculiar, liberties it took with the Western genre. I don’t think Hell On Wheels is going to flip the genre on its head and do something completely mindboggling with it (or maybe it will–you can never tell from the pilot), but I liked the risks it took. To start, the scene where Colin rides into camp towards the beginning with, The Dead Weather, of all bands playing in the background. For a show that, I thought, hit the nail on the head as far as crafting a period piece, this bit of anachronism caught me off guard, but not necessarily in a bad way. It (as well as the theme song) reminded me of that hat-drawn-low, gun at the ready feel of what I’d consider TV’s other big western right now, Justified; and the fact that creators Joe and Tony Gayton were willing to forego the strict rules of period pieces (something Matthew Weiner would never do) and include a song from 2009, made me think they’ve got a pretty good grasp on what they’re doing. The other seen that stood out was, obviously, Durant’s final speech, which, frankly, I liked a lot. I’m sure plenty will chalk it up to some sort of undiagnosed mental illness, but if we’re looking for pragmatic reasons for his ranting and raving I’d point to that drink he kept by his side. (Side note: Hell On Wheels definitely hit all of its sex, violence, and drinking quotas, which I’m guessing AMC requires for all its shows at this point). But as far as non-pragmatic reasons go, again I think it was a neat choice that showed how aware the Gayton’s are of what this show is and the shoes that it has to fill, and what they can do to make Hell On Wheels standout in the genre. I didn’t see the speech as talking down to the audience by explaining what was going on, but rather that it was a moment of intense personal reflection, a soliloquy of sorts, that kinda says to the viewer: You’ve heard this story before. You know the heroes and villains. You know the twists and turns that this will take–that Lily and Colin will probably end up together; that the Reverend is the anonymous sergeant; that Durant will stop at nothing to make as much money as possible and that in the end everyone in this tale seems to be a pawn in his little game–but without all these cliches and plots and whatnot, there is no story. “But remember this: Without me, and men like me, your glorious railroad will never be built,” he says. Hell On Wheels may not change the way we see westerns, but it’s shaping up to be a pretty good story.