Hell on Wheels Should Lose Its Training Wheels

As I slowly, painstakingly made my way through the pilot of Hell on Wheels, questions kept popping into my head. Why was I watching this, when my 44 minutes could have gone toward preparing my colloquium, starting my final paper for Theorizing Popular Culture, or let’s be real here, watching something of substance like Dexter? Without ever having seen a single minute of Deadwood, I longed for it. I know this space isn’t intended for critical value judgements, but my experience, Hell on Wheels was awful (and not even in a good way). The pilot wasn’t like a car crash or something that could grow to become a guilty pleasure. It was just cliche, boring, insignificant, and instantly forgettable.

The opening titles are reminiscent of “viewer discretion advised” warnings for other shows, accompanied by ominous music. Even if only subconsciously, we’re told to expect the level of quality and intensity that usually accompanies those shows. With desaturated color and soft focus, it’s clearly not shot in a realistic fashion. Our protagonist is introduced by assassinating a man in a church confessional, in the eyes of God, seen leaving from behind as though he’s going into the light. This is clearly going to be a series of exaggerated tales, both in content and style.

Skipping ahead to the final moments of the episode, we find Thomas Durant alone in a train car, talking to himself about his role in life (and, seemingly, the show’s plot). What’s a drama without a villain, he asks, and isn’t his goal of building the railroad a drama unto itself? Lions, like him, are rewarded for their ferocity, but “what of the poor zebra?” Lesser creatures need to be sacrificed for the greater good, since while history is “written by and for” the zebra, it’s driven by the lions. In the future, he concedes that he’ll be remembered as a “malefactor who only operated out of greed for personal gain,” but without him, the expansion of America wouldn’t have occurred to the same degree. Without anyone else on camera to listen, any indication that Durant was mentally unstable, or any actual justification for these words being iterated verbally, this monologue came across as a clear address to the audience. Durant’s position wasn’t threatened, and there’s no impetuous for his grand realizations. It’s as if AMC’s powers that be decided that viewers weren’t intelligent enough to figure it out for themselves, so the entire series and the players’ roles within it needed to be spelled out for us. For a network whose crown jewel is Mad Men, which clearly appeals to the sophisticates and those who want to ascend to that class, such an approach is confusing. I certainly have little desire to keep watching, but we’ll see how many other viewers share that opinion.

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