November 14, 2011

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “Hell On Wheels”

More articles by »
Written by: Mitch Salem
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on HELL ON WHEELS:  The post-Civil War Reconstruction era has just begun, and former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is on a vendetta, systematically tracking down and killing the Northerners who, he believes, provoked his wife to suicide with their brutal attack on her.  His travels lead him to the far reaches of American civilization, where the Union Pacific railway is under construction; there he bides his time working on the line, supervising among others the former slave Elan Ferguson (Common).  (Although Cullen had been a slaveowner, he was convinced by his wife to free their slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation, so he’s relatively liberal as Southerners go.)  Cullen finally has his chance to confront the foreman Daniel Johnson (Ted Levine), one of his wife’s attackers.  Johnson tells Cullen that there’s another man on the railway, the “Sergeant,” who not only took part in the attack but actually murdered Cullen’s wife–before he can say  more, though, Ferguson kills him.  Meanwhile, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), the wife of the railway’s chief surveyor, is sole survivor of an attack by Indians furious that their land is being taken away; she escapes with surveyance maps that are critical to the Union Pacific, personified by its head, the rapacious (and loquacious) Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) if the railway is to keep construction on schedule and collect the lucrative federal government bonuses he’s been counting on.

Episode 2:  The main development of the show’s second episode, written by series creators Tony and Joe Gayton and directed by pilot director David Von Ancken, is our introduction to a new villain played by Christopher Heyerdahl.  “The Swede” (actually he’s Norwegian) is a former bookkeeper who discovered his dark side in the South’s Andersonville prison camp and is now head of security for Durant.  The Swede, who dresses in high-buttoned black and acts like a road-company version of Death in The Seventh Seal, is after Cullen for the murder of Johnson, and most of the episode is concerned with Cullen’s apprehension by the Swede and eventual escape, with a little help from the local preacher Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) and Ferguson.  (Since there’s no evidence at all against Cullen apart from the two of them having been seen together on the night of the murder, it’s never clear why the Swede is so sure Cullen is the killer, or why Cullen doesn’t just swear his innocence.)  This all leads to the necessary (for plot reasons) but unconvincing final scenes of the episode, where Cullen breaks into Durant’s private railway car and convinces him in 2 minutes flat that he should take over as the new foreman because as a Confederate, he did such a good job of blowing up railway bridges.  
In B stories, the Swede reinforces his villainy by extorting money from Irish immigrant magic lantern projectionists Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke), while Lily demonstrates her inner Rambo by stitching up her own arrow wound, and is then rescued from the killer Indians by their leader’s converted-to-Christianity brother Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears). 

Hell On Wheels has atmosphere to spare, but so far it’s light on plot and character.  Even leaving aside comparisons to the late great Deadwood (which mostly come up when Durant starts spouting speeches like Al Swearingen’s little brother), after 2 hours the show hasn’t done much more than put Cullen in place on the railway.  Anson Mount is convincingly intense, and he and Common have a nice, wary acting rhythm together, but for now they’re in isolation from the speechifying of Durant and Lily’s entire storyline. 

Hell benefits from one of the best lead-ins on all of cable, the gigantic numbers pulled in by The Walking Dead, and it held a decent 55% of that 18-49 audience in its premiere.  We’ll see whether that stays the case in its second week, but especially given the handicap that a historical, semi-western millieu has in the world of contemporary television, the show is going to have to start developing its stories and deepening its protagonists if it’s to maintain a committed viewership.

Original Verdict:  If Nothing Else Is On…
Pilot + 1:  Railway Still Under Construction

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."