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Hell on Wheels: A New Birth of Freedom

November 22, 2011

With each new episode of Hell on Wheels, I find myself captivated by the teaser and sucked in by the opening credits, only to become incredibly disappointed by the remainder of the episode. This was more evident than ever in the third episode, “A New Birth of Freedom”. The teaser, focused solely on Cullen Bohannon and orchestrated without a single real line of dialogue, features our protagonist rummaging through the belongings of the deceased foreman whom he has replaced and discovering a photograph of the men responsible for the death of his wife. Although the likelihood of finding a photo identifying each of the men is hardly believable, the atmosphere and structure of the sequence more than make up for this highly implausible coincidence. Hell on Wheels looks so much better during any scene that unfolds in the dark, and the flickering light and shadows inside the tent, combined with the gray hued flashbacks, created an atmosphere that for the first time actually intrigued me and drew me in to the story. Bohannon focuses on the name Sgt. Harper as bits of his thousand piece revenge puzzle begin to fall into place, and the darkness of the sequence and the quick cuts between the murders Bohannon has committed and the names on the picture made this teaser feel like the kind of gritty, brooding western that I want this show so badly to be.

However, after the music and smoke and fire landscapes of the opening credits faded away, once again Hell on Wheels lost me. The show is shot gorgeously and the art direction is flawless, but the actual content of the plot leaves so much to be desired.  The last shots of the episode, where Lily and Bohannon are shown on horseback in a wide panoramic view of the horizon, was evocative of old John Ford westerns like Stagecoach, and it’s scenes like this that continue to give me false hope in the show. There was another scene this week which particularly stood out in terms of cinematography. When Bohannon comes across Joseph tending to Lily Bell, he takes a moment to remove the remainder of the arrow from her wound, drinking continuously from his flask as he does so (also: how about cleaning the wound with that flask instead, Bohannon?). The scene is shot in a more interesting way than the rest of the episode, with the camera angled throughout the sequence to show Lily’s feverish perspective. I’m far more engaged with the camerawork and the landscapes and the period details than with anything the writers have presented (Colm Meaney’s perfectly bombastic Shakespearean speeches notwithstanding), and if the plot was able to bring something more interesting to the table, I would have been sold on Hell on Wheels weeks ago.

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Hell on Wheels: Immoral Mathematics

November 15, 2011

I try not to set too much stock in the pilot episode of a television series – plenty of great shows have recovered from underwhelming pilots, and I was initially hopeful that Hell on Wheels might be able to do the same.  Unfortunately, after this week’s episode, it’s become increasingly clear that Hell on Wheels is a show that is shot, art directed, and staged beautifully, but the ultimate execution of story and characters is the essential part of a successful show, and Hell on Wheels is not executing as well as it should.

My complaints about the pilot episode largely had to do with the lack of original, motivated characters on the show, with the writers generally favoring the usual archetypes, such as the bitter former slave and the tough gunslinger seeking revenge. However, this week the show introduced a new character, whose speech to Cullen Bohannon provided the title of the episode: they call him The Swede. Appearing to be a giant Swedish-accented hybrid of Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, the Swede sees something suspicious in Bohannan as they discuss the murder of the one-handed foreman. When Bohannon is ordered to hang, the Swede delivers a monologue about his former life as a bookkeeper intrigued me; the idea of a villain as a former bookkeeper appealed to me, and though his metaphor of controlling numbers versus people and making things add up was a little heavy handed, the speech itself was the most engaging part of the episode. With the addition of this unexpected backstory, it appeared to me that the Swede might actually be the truly original character that this show is looking for, but by the end of the episode it seemed that he may simply just fulfill the typical role of supervillain, whom Bohannon will presumably clash with multiple times over the course of the season.

Because the Swede makes for such an imposing presence on screen, I found the character arc for Lily, last seen wandering in Native American territory, impossibly dull. This week, we watched her meander through the woods, fall asleep next to a log, and later suture her own wounds, which though a demonstration of how plucky and brave she’s surely going to become only made me think about how much I miss Lost. My greatest frustrated annoyance this week, however, came from the Native Americans searching for her, who deliver their lines about missing the taste of blood in clearly enunciated, and perfectly unaccented English, even when talking among themselves – period details, AMC! Subtitles are your friends.

Hell on Wheels: Pilot

November 8, 2011

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.