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Pilot on Wheels

November 8, 2011

AMC’s Hell on Wheels is a show without roots – literally. Set in a moving railroad town in Nebraska, the show features characters all overtly motivated by their connection to, as well as their perception of, their individual homelands. There are the voluntary characters of Sean and Mickey, brothers who willingly left their homeland of Ireland to find fortune in the America, reminiscent of the misguided Irish who moved West in the documentary The Hard Road to Klondike. There are the displaced characters, such as the angry Elam who has been freed but cannot get back to his home and the Indian tribe who attack the railroad construction site that threatens their home. There is Doc, a character who has potential but currently lacks history and a real incentive, perhaps in part because he seems to literally live on a train, never in one place for more than a second.

And then there is Cullen Bohannon, our tragic hero who claims towards the end of the episode that his homeland is “gone.” Cullen is a man who went to war for his homeland of the South not because he wanted to keep slaves, but for the “honor” of his states. The pilot was overly dramatic and obvious at times, and although that is an inevitability with first episodes and I agree with the philosophy of giving a show ample episodes to prove itself, these unfortunate qualities were exasperated by the fact that each character had such a different homeland and past from his counterparts. Only towards the end, during the showdown between Cullen and his one armed boss, did any of the interactions between characters feel exciting.

Hell on Wheels is also somewhat inhibited by its home at AMC. Almost every review thus far has made sure to include how the show fits with its network counterparts and the overall brand of the network. How Hell on Wheels can distinguish itself as intelligent, provoking and generally viable among a lineup of other successful AMC shows remains to be seen.