The new Western series fails to live up to its excellent HBO predecessor in almost every way
It might feel unfair to compare Hell on Wheels, AMC's new show about the race to span the United States with railroads, to Deadwood, the great HBO series that ended its run in 2006, if the former didn't so aggressively invite comparisons to the latter. Both shows involve the rough process of bringing organization to the American West, and try to struggle with race, class, and the consequences of capitalism. They both tell that story via men with handsome sideburns and a talent for violence, unexpectedly resilient widows with interfering older male relatives, prostitutes who pal around with reverends, and unscrupulous businessmen, setting up essentially similar dynamics between them. Only Hell on Wheels has the sight of the rapper and actor Common digging railroad cuts in a top hat and vest, which I suppose counts for something. But the show is badly overmatched everywhere it goes head-to-head with its venerable predecessor.
Some of the problem lies with the shadow cast by Deadwood's two main protagonists. Ian McShane's profane, hilarious, fearsome performance as saloon-keeper and Deadwood founding father Al Swearengen already shows its influence in another new show this fall: Kelsey Grammer's turn as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane in Starz's Boss. In Hell on Wheels, Colm Meaney, by no means a bad actor, tries to summit the same peak as businessman and Swearengen surrogate Doc Durant. He has some fine moments, notably when he sticks extra arrows in a corpse to make for a more dramatic massacre photograph. But he's left to monologue about his place in history and dictate portentous telegrams. The construction of the railroad is an event that will profoundly change the country, wresting control of territory from Indians and connecting disparate enclaves to established American cities. But where Swearengen struggled to balance his personal concerns with his plans for Deadwood's future, Durant talks about history but acts mostly in his own interests. For all his bombast, he's a much smaller man.
Similarly, Timothy Olyphant's turn as store-keeper-turned-Deadwood-sheriff Seth Bullock has been so influential that he's essentially reprising it in a contemporary setting as a U.S. Marshal on FX's Kentucky Western Justified. We met Bullock in Deadwood when, in an act of mercy and justice, he sped up a man's execution to save from him a vastly more painful lynching. By contrast, former slave-owner and Confederate veteran Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) enters Hell on Wheels when he shoots a Union veteran in the face while the man is in what he believes to be confession. It's an oblique act rather than a searing one, and while we learn more about Bohannon's capacity for mayhem and desire for revenge on the men who killed his wife, the show appears to have little sense of his inner person. Once again, a national conflict's reduced to personal vendetta.
But mostly Hell on Wheels has the all-too-common misapprehension that it's better to tell than to show. And that when you're dealing with big issues like the aftermath of Civil War and race, the show has a bad tendency to make blandly comprehensible what can be grand and strange while remaining profoundly human.
When it comes to race, I appreciate that Hell on Wheels includes black and Native American characters in the main cast from the beginning. And it might have made for a better show to focus on the experience of former slaves and displaced Indians on the frontier rather than defaulting to a standard Western narrative about victimized Confederates. Instead, we've got the insulting and not particularly well-written scene where Cullen, a white man and former slaveowner who fought for the Confederacy, tells a former slave, "You got to let go of the past"--which gets the response, "Have you let it go?" The exchange isn't nearly as moving as the mournful conversation between Hostetler and Samuel Fields, two free black men in Deadwood, after a horse they were castrating tramples a young white man. "Horse run trash like that over by accident, still ain't a white man on earth gonna stand up against roping us up, now is there?" Hostetler laments. "John Brown would've," his friend Samuel Fields reminds him. The failures of Reconstruction aren't just something you state in a straightforward manner on occasion—they would have been something that seeped into every facet of your life.
That same blunt blandness extends to other characters' confrontations with the lingering effects of the Civil War, which are stated, rather than shown. The minister who's set himself up in Hell on Wheels is a straightforward prairie minister (though one with a dark secret that ultimately reinforces the show's sympathy for former slave-owners and advocates of slavery), rather than the tormented Union civil war veteran who ministered to Deadwood in its first season before succumbing to the brain tumor that was robbing him of his faith. And when the Hell on Wheels minister mildly asks "Haven't we had our fill of war? Our fill of killing?" it's no match for the anguished cries of Deadwood's camp doctor raging at God: "What conceivable use was the screaming of those men? Did you need to hear them to know your omnipotence?"
Hell on Wheels doesn't compete with Deadwood in the arts of cussing or whoring, either. Declaring of the Emancipation Proclamation, as Elam Ferguson does at one point, that "Ain't nothing good coming from this either...Look what this got. I might as well wipe my ass with it," or the sight of Doc Durant denouncing his own pitch to investors as "Twaddle and shite," don't remotely compare to Swearengen promising a crowd fired up by rumors of a massacre by Native Americans "I will offer a personal $50 bounty for every decapitated head of as many of these godless heathen cocksuckers as anyone can bring in. And God rest the souls of that poor family. And pussy's half price, next 15 minutes." Hell on Wheels' prostitutes are hookers with hearts of gold—and in one case, tattoos from her time in Indian captivity—rather than full-fledged citizens in this rough new society, and their interactions with men are entirely predictable.
Hell on Wheels can be a handsome and funny show when it tries. The lonely sight of a man shooting his fatally wounded horse alone in a lush green wilderness, or the humor of that same man grabbing a primitive church's crucifix as the only available weapon suggest a higher ambition. But if it's to truly try for greatness, Hell on Wheels needs to stop mistaking the bloody sight of an arrow wound on a woman's breast for insight into the heart of the great matters at hand.