AMC’s Western drama Hell on Wheels made its much-publicized debut on Sunday. Similar to most Westerns, Hell on Wheels centers on Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount, and his quest for revenge. Bohannon is a former slave owner, who released his slaves before the war. Furthermore, he is a former Confederate soldier determined to avenge the murder of his wife. This visually stunning program appears to have the ingredients for success but is lacking in execution.
The show’s failure in execution is best exemplified in its opening scene. Hell on Wheels begins with an anonymous man, who enters a church to confess his sins. He describes how he regrets his actions during the Civil War saying, “we opened a dark door and the devil stepped in.” However, when questioned about the specifics of his actions, the man is unable to describe his sins. The conversation quickly changes pace when the “priest” asks the man what he knows about Meridian. The “priest” then slides open the confession window and it is revealed that he is none other than Cullen Bohannon. Cullen quickly shoots the man, killing him. As people quickly scramble out of the church, Cullen kicks open the confession booth door and examines his kill. As he makes his way out of the church, Cullen catches a glimpse of a statue of Jesus on the cross. Cullen remains unfazed by this visual as if to say that the only higher power hr believes in is the gun on his hip. Cullen then opens the church doors and walks into a pool of white light, symbolizing that he is now on a righteous path. It is clear that creators Joe Gayton and Tony Gayton were trying to write an emotionally potent scene that offers a strong dichotomy between church behavior and classic Western manners. This is clearly a very ambitious scene but the end results feels forced and contrived.
Despite the opening scene, Hell on Wheels does have some compelling moments. Colm Meaney does a good job playing the corrupt railroad entrepreneur Thomas “Doc” Durant. His penchant for grand speeches provides the show with its most entertaining moments including a speech about how history will view him as a villain. This moment demonstrates that the show does have potential for success. Therefore, I plan on giving Hell on Wheels a little more time to effectively find its voice.