Hell on Wheels, Season 1 (2011)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Some call this series "revisionist history," and others claim it's a great western series. That it might be, but it's also liberal in its worldview, a little bit racist in its depiction of white men, and blatantly prejudiced against any and all Christians.

 

1865. Lincoln is dead. Unrest spreads into the west along with the railroad. Its financier is the US government. "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) intends to take full advantage of that fact, and load his pockets with the commonwealth. But no one else seems fully aware of his vision: the senators he has in his back pocket have similar intentions when it comes to selling off properties in Kansas, and his surveyors are deluded enough to believe the intention is to beat the Pacific Railroad. One of them, Robert Bell, has just entered into Cherokee territory, along with his doting wife, Lily (Dominique McElligott). Even though he wants her to return to Chicago, due to his persistent illness she refuses to leave his side... until tragedy strikes.

  

Fleeing from his past and searching for those responsible for his wife's death during the Civil War, a former rebel named Cullen (Anson Mount) joins up with the railroad as it builds its way across the nation. His experience in warfare and with handling slaves assures him a position of authority, looking after the Negros. He finds an unlikely kinship with one of them, Elam (Common). But he watches and waits for his chance to do what he is there to do -- and it's not to lay down tracks. Other characters wander in and stay awhile, including a preacher and eventually, his daughter, a converted Indian, and a whore that Elam takes a shine to. Each has a back history that is gradually explained over the course of ten episodes and all both touch our heart and at times repulse us.

 

Lily is one of the better heroines written for television; she's spunky and gives her opinion without hesitation yet is entirely feminine... and not always wise. From a purely cinematic standpoint, this is a masterpiece -- an extraordinarily well written, fast-paced ensemble piece authentic to the old west. It is about many characters yet the main focus always comes back to Cullen's desire to avenge his wife's death. The driving force not only for him but other characters as well is revenge -- and sometimes greed, blackmail, and general selfishness. These things are understandable to believers but also hard to root for, particularly when the series veers off into a decidedly anti-Christian undercurrent in its second half. The pastor who was a voice of nonviolence and reason becomes a God-denouncing murderer who we learn was abusive to his wife before "his calling" (he comes just shy of slapping his daughter across the face). When Cullen comes to him in a moment of genuine confusion and potential redemption, after being ministered to over the last few months, the pastor tells him to pursue revenge instead. Other "Christians" are self-righteous hypocrites who pray before meals and then belt women, start murderous fights, swindle one another on business affairs, and take the Lord's name in vain. Elam knows his Bible, but doesn't practice anything in it -- he doesn't waste any time taking up with a whore. The only true Christian in the bunch appears to be the young Indian man.

 

Then, there's the politics: most of the white men are scum -- either rapists, slave owners, blackmailers, evil businessmen, evil Yankee soldiers, or murderers. Our hero is white and Southern but of course freed his slaves before the war started. This is typical of the reason why westerns are no longer commercially successful... when they become so tainted by political correctness as to make their primary audience offended, there's no one left to woo. respect the series for not being overly graphic in its occasional sexual content but it does have a hearty dose of often gruesome violence. If you can put aside its worldview, everything about it is memorable and captivating, from the beautiful costumes to the grit of the frontier. And yet, its flaws for me overwhelmed its better aspects.

     

  

Sexual Content:

Two sexual encounters are overheard (loud noises); we see the couple once they've finished; one scene of a man moving on top of a woman; several scenes of women dressing after off-screen encounters; photographs of half-dressed and/or naked woman from behind (their buttocks aren't shown) are shown; much conversation revolves around prostitutes; a man references their job in coarse terms; some sexual slang; a nude man is seen from a distance scrubbing the floor (shadows obscure any graphic details); a man asks a woman to become his mistress (in polite terms) but she declines.

  

Language:

Abuses of God's name, a half dozen abuses of Jesus, uses of s**t, general profanities, and racial slurs.

  

Violence:

Frequent and sometimes gory. Arrows are shot into people, with bloody results; several men are shown being scalped; a man's throat is cut (blood gushes between his fingers); another is shot in the head; a man is beheaded with a sword; gaping wounds are sewn up/have arrow points dug out of them; two mean beat one another to a pulp during a boxing fight. Violence is perpetrated toward women in some instances, including a scene in which a man throws a whore to the ground and punches and kicks her; that same man is later tarred and feathered and run out of town.

 

Other:

Cullen professes his only belief in a higher power is found in his gun, not in God.