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“Hell On Wheels” — episode 3

November 22, 2011

You’re losing me, “Hell On Wheels.” I could forgive last week’s slow burn–it was the 2nd episode after all–but man was this episode boring. Well I should clarify: Everything that didn’t involve Colm Meaney was boring. Meaney’s Durant continues to be the sole reason I’d keep watching this show, and I can only hope he’ll get progressively drunker and angrier as the story progresses. I guess my main problem with this episode revolved around the poorly written episodic arcs for primarily Elam and Cullen. It’s cool that Cullen got to shoot some people and that scene where he (drunkenly) operates on Lilly was both cringe-worthy and very well shot (I loved those quick cuts from the wound to Lilly to Cullen taking another swig from his flask), but the temporary derailment of his mission to find the Sgt. in order to introduce him to Lilly, as well as his interactions with Joseph, neither strengthened his character nor his mission. As for Elam: Common sure is getting burned so far. He’s been given a whole lot of jack to do other than try to rally the troops and bust down barriers, which would be fine if it didn’t feel like “a very special episode” circa 1865–did anyone else find that scene in the whore house especially groan worthy?

 

As for the actual aesthetics of the show, I think “Hell On Wheels” is doing a really fine job. I especially like the use of music, which switches nicely between 1860s and contemporary tunes quite smoothly; those heavy guitars in the cold open added a good amount of weight while managing to feel anachronistic. I also loved the way they lit Durant’s office–a dim glow that accents all the deep reds and browns of the room–in that scene where he spills his drink on himself. But unfortunately, aesthetics aren’t everything; and for the first time I feel like I’m ready to drop Hell On Wheels.

Hell On Wheels episode 2

November 14, 2011

Obviously the success of Hell On Wheels hinges on Cullen Bohannan (think I was calling him Collin last week–my bad), and consequently Teen Choice Award Nominee for Choice On Screen Chemistry with Britney Spears (as the AV Club likes to point out), Anson Mount. Right now though, Cullen is a walking talk box of gun slingin’ one-liners that range from gruff and snarky to gruff and serious. I’m not sure right now if the fault here should be placed on the writers–because I can excuse somewhat cliche dialog if a show does it with a wink, which Hell On Wheels seems to dabbling in–or Mount. Though right now I’m leaning towards Mount, who gave a pretty lackluster performance, especially in the scene with the pastor; though he was a tad better in that final scene with Durant.

Anywho, after the bloodbath that was the pilot, episode 2 was understandably a bit more plot/backstory driven. My big bone to pick is with Cullen’s filter-heavy, POV flashback, which felt much too heavy handed; I get that it was to introduce the needle point he finds in Johnson’s things at the end, but I hope in the future (if Mount can up his game) they reveal what exactly happen in Meridian through dialog. But this is a show about dealing with your past as the pilot hinted, which Sean And Mickey’s Mysterious Boston Incident, the actual introduction Joseph Back Moon, and, in my opinion, the now increasingly obvious fact that the pastor is the mysterious sergeant only served to heighten. Such a theme is compelling of course, but what’s interesting is how the past effects present action, not how the past effects present emotional states–and the latter drove this episode.

But, y’know, that’s how it goes. The beauty of television stories is that slow burn storytelling style, where at the end of the season you realize just how necessary those seemingly inconsequential episodes were. Granted, you can certainly craft more rewarding set-ups than this–but again, we’re only two episodes in and you can tell the creative team is still getting into the swing of things. (Not to mention the time between the writing/shooting of a pilot and the writing/shooting of the second episode is huge, which can cause the cast and crew to lose their footing a tad.) Here’s hoping things–like Mount’s acting chops–start to pick up next week.

Hell On Wheels – “Pilot”

November 7, 2011

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.