AMC’s Hell on Wheels is one of those shows that really enjoys killing its characters off. Pretty much anyone in any given episode could be taken out. And, at the very least, they’re all constantly tortured by the ramifications of their life choices as well as other factors well beyond their control. People in the world of Hell on Wheels are replaceable and are expected to give their lives in service of the railroad.
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It’s just the job.
Hell on Wheels is set in the days after the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Union Pacific Railroad is in a battle against its West Coast counterpart to punch the first transcontinental railroad across the United States. The obstacles are immense, including an Aboriginal population determined burn this venture down, extreme racial tensions, and internal conflict within the ranks of those running the project.
And all of that pales in comparison to the roadblocks created by the terrain. Hello, Rocky Mountains!
The story revolves around Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier on the hunt for the Union boys that killed his family. His rampage carries him to Hell on Wheels, the tent community of workers, drunks and prostitutes that moves with the railroad worksite, where he takes a job working on the railroad to get close to his next target. He begins to build a life in Hell on Wheels despite his best efforts, becoming integral to the community and the success of the railroad project.
Anson Mount plays Bohannon well. He’s surly, obsessive and hides his elite Southern breeding behind a layer or dirt and gun smoke. Common, probably better known for his rapping than his acting, turns in a stellar performance as Elam Ferguson, a freed slave turned railroad worker turned hired gun. He’s one of the few men Bohannon can rely on. And they both work for Thomas Durant, the man building the westbound railroad. Played by Colm Meaney of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine fame, Durant is simultaneously a hero, villain and victim in this story. He’s the champion of the railroad, destroying everyone in his path to make it work while being destroyed by the railroad. You find yourself rooting for him to succeed and fail at every turn.
And then there’s The Swede.
Thor Gundersen, a Norwegian immigrant known around town as The Swede, is an accountant who found himself fighting for the North and then became a Prisoner of War. His role in Hell on Wheels is as Head of Security, though his arc, alongside that of Reverend Nathaniel Cole in particular, takes a much darker path. He becomes the true visage of evil, the bane of the community and obsessed with the destruction Cullen Bohannon.
As great a story as this is, you are certainly not watching an accurate historical portrayal. It is, at best, a caricature of actual events. Camps like Hell on Wheels actually existed as the railroad was built, spawning towns as they moved across the country. Otherwise, this is a heavily dramatized and fictionalized version of history, something desperately evident when you follow the story of The Swede through the first two seasons. What they did get right is who was working on the railroad at the time.
Hell on Wheels has been criticized for not showing Chinese labourers working on the railroad, and instead using Irish and African Americans workers on the show. The reality is that Chinese labourers did play a pivotal role in the building the railroad, just not this one. Hell on Wheels is about the Union Pacific Railroad that started in the Eastern US and was working west. The Chinese labourers were on the competing railroad that started in the West and was working east. Union Pacific did predominantly use Irish workers to build their railroad. This is something that’s acknowledged and discussed on the show.
As much as this is a story about America, it’s also a story about the Canadian film industry. Filming for Hell on Wheels takes place in Calgary as well as Central and Southern Alberta. Shooting for season three was significantly delayed by the recent flooding in the region. It’s the perfect area to shoot a show like this in, offering the Wild West” vibe the show needs as well as being a stunning part of the country to shoot in.
Much like its AMC counterparts Breaking Bad and Mad Men, Hell on Wheels is a smart, engaging drama that keeps you wrapped tight in its coils. Netflix has the first two seasons available, with the third recently debuting on AMC, and I burned through them in a couple of days. I couldn’t stop. If you haven’t been watching, catch up on Netflix and then tune in to the new episodes on AMC.
Just don’t get attached to any of the characters.
Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at iangoodwillie.tumblr.com.