At the core of the best television shows is a complex, well-crafted cast of characters, a group of people whom the audience cares about and whose arcs are interesting to observe unfold. In the past, AMC has produced television shows focused around original, compelling characters whose decisions and motivations keep the audience engaged. As the Western genre is one that is generally filled with archetypes, it would have been interesting to see a show that would take these conventional characters and twist them, manipulate them into something gritty and surprising, like those found in Clint Eastwood’s dark western Unforgiven. Unfortunately, Hell on Wheels has not yet assigned any unexpected character traits to those inhabiting the lawless town, leaving us with a cast of fairly stock characters.
The central character of Hell on Wheels is Cullen Bohannon, slightly reminiscent of Eastwood’s Man with No Name but with a sillier name and a less interesting story. From the tense dialogue about his wife early on his motivations became obvious, and the exposition-heavy depiction of what is sure to develop into another revenge story lost my attention. Thomas Durant, an investor in the railroad Bohannon is employed by, is a Shakespearean character trapped in the Reconstruction Era, and his bombastic speeches (particularly his dramatic closing monologue) and acting style lend to the feeling that Hell on Wheels will tend away from the cinematic and towards the theatric. Elam is the intense, angry, recently freed slave working with Bohannon on the railroad and Lily, one half of a couple happily in love despite hardship, becomes a young widow when her husband is killed by a Native American attack; both are long exercised archetypes and I couldn’t help but find them stale. Although Bohannon and Durant as portrayed by Anson Mount and Colm Meaney are the most interesting and well-written of the group, still neither feels entirely fresh.
With the exception of a violent and engaging pre-credits teaser, the majority of the pilot moved along fairly slowly, methodically introducing characters and narrative plot points. But what Hell on Wheels lacks in engaging plot points it makes up for in scenery and cinematography, despite the somewhat theatrical quality. The wide-angle prairie shots, views of the horizon, and highly desaturated colors of the scenes echo the shooting style of another AMC series, The Walking Dead. Halfway through the episode, I found myself wishing that all of this actually was leading up to the zombie apocalypse; it might force one of these characters to do something original.