“Make no mistake. Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. Fortunes will be made. Men will be ruined. There will be betrayal and scandal and perfidy of epic proportions.”
With a statement like that, how can you not want to check out AMC’s newest drama series Hell On Wheels? I’ve been told the title sounds like it’s about motorcycle gangs, and I couldn’t agree more. The term refers to the mobile tent city that housed the workers on the Union Pacific Railroad and the support entourage the camp attracted. It was a virtual tent city that had all of the essentials: a church, bar, and whorehouse. It was just after the Civil War, and the American government believed that a railroad connecting the east and west coasts was just the kind of project the country needed to pull back together and heal still-festering wounds. As one of the filmmakers accurately points out, this was the Apollo moon project of the day. Long believed impossible by the brightest engineers of the day, the railroad would cut the time it took to go from coast to coast from six months to just under seven days. It was a truly remarkable feat, and it carried with it more than a fair dosage of corruption and blood. Now AMC has brought those days from 1865 back to our television screen with an ambitious and smartly produced series. It’s a must see.
“Hell On Wheels – Population: One Less Every Day.”
Cullen Bohannon (Mount) fought with the Confederacy in the just-concluded Civil War. For him the war will never be over, but it isn’t about state pride or slavery that he still fights. He freed his own slaves a year before the conflict began. During the war a regiment of Union soldiers raped, tortured and murdered his wife and set his home on fire, killing his young son. Now he’s tracking the scattered members of the regiment down one by one and killing them. He joins the working crew on the Union & Pacific Railroad to get to more of his prey.
It seems that each season begins with Cullen a broken man and out of the railroad business. Season 3 is no different. We saw a lot of death and destruction to end the second season, and it resulted in the burning of Hell On Wheels and Durant’s arrest. We also saw the departure of a huge member of the cast. Dominique McElligott leaves the show with the brutal murder of Lily at the hands of The Swede, played by Stargate: Atlantis’s Christopher Heyerdahl. Cullen’s revenge is taken away at the last moment, and The Swede escapes into the river. It all leaves Cullen near frozen to death in an isolated retreat.
But this is a new season of Hell On Wheels, and the status quo isn’t going to be maintained. Cullen brushes himself off, and with Elam (Common) in tow goes to New York City to wrestle control of the railroad from the board. While he’s successful, he begins a tug-of-war with Durant that will serve as the main story arc for the season.
Durant begins to position himself once again and throws one obstacle after another in Cullen’s way. If he can get Cullen to fail, he will take over the railroad again. Colm Meaney delivers his best performances yet as the desperate Durant. We’ve seen the character from a position of power and how cold-blooded he could be. This time we see him in a position of underdog and struggling to regain his position. The journey offers Meaney a chance to add quite a bit of depth to the character. He also gets to do some mustache-twirling villainy this season. These two are worthy rivals and it’s that rivalry that offers us a look at what is so far the best season of Hell On Wheels. It just keeps getting better and better.
Here’s a look at the main characters from the show’s official page. I’ve updated the characters’ story arc to cover the third season:
Elam Ferguson (Common):
Elam Ferguson is an emancipated slave working to achieve true freedom in a world entrenched in prejudice. Elam struggles to come to terms with who and what he is: half white and half black. He doesn’t feel at home in either world. The one thing he knows is that he refuses to be treated as anything less than a man. As he rises to a position of power in the railroad hierarchy, he finds trouble. Elam’s and Cullen’s fates continue to be bound together, not only by their common southern roots, but also by circumstances.
This year he gets more responsibility. He becomes the head of the railroad police and Cullen’s right-hand man. He’s also now got the responsibility of fatherhood, as Eva has a daughter from her deceased husband. Elam becomes possessive of the girl and is challenged when the dead husband’s brother arrives wanting to take the child back to civilization. It will be a turning point in this character’s life.
The McGinnes Brothers (Esler/Burke):
As young Irish immigrant brothers heading to the West to find their fortune, cracks develop in Sean and Mickey’s relationship as they exploit business opportunities in Hell on Wheels, using more and more underhanded tactics. Mickey eventually questions what Sean is doing and resents his brother using him as a pawn.
It’s a crossroads for the brothers. They each back different men in the rivalry between Durant and Cullen. It leads to the eventual death of one of the brothers. You’ll have to watch to find out which one.
The Swede (Heyerdahl):
Thor “The Swede” Gundersen was Thomas Durant’s ruthless head of security. After killing Lily and escaping Cullen’s rope, he makes his way through murder and deception to a Mormon community where he sets himself up in a position of power. That deception will eventually deliver Cullen into his hands and force another change in Cullen that will place him where he usually ends up by a season’s end. Once more he’ll be away from the railroad.
There are some new characters to enter the scene this season. The most prominent is Louise Ellison played by Jennifer Ferrin. She’s a New York Times reporter who has come to get the story on the railroad and its progress. She ends up a potential new romantic interest for Cullen and ends up in the middle of the Durant/Cullen fight. We also get an expanded role for Dohn Norwood and his character Psalms. He ends up becoming the railroad’s walking boss, and his expansion is a welcome one. Norwood excels in the character and finally gets his chance to prove himself.
The season is loaded with great moments. One of the best is an episode in which the water supply is tainted and disease overcomes the camp. Durant has the only clean water available and, of course, refuses to help. It’s some of the show’s most dramatic moments, and it doesn’t involve much action or violence. It’s the kind of gritty look at humanity that this show is getting better and better at delivering. No question it’s a season about a direct confrontation between these two characters. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of character moments going on within that larger story arc. It’s a can’t-miss season, so don’t miss it.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The high-definition image presentation is truly remarkable. The sharpness and detail are a credit to the production design crew. That high level of scrutiny only shows the dedication and attention to detail. This is an image with a lot of texture to it. The muddy environs come through wonderfully in contrast to the wide vistas of untamed land that surround the camp. Costume textures really come through as well. Colors are realistic. At times the image descends into a desaturated sepia-tone that is reminiscent of the old photographic processes of the day. It’s a nice touch and only helps to bring out the brighter images when they do come out to play.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 makes fine use of the surround field. There are plenty of very clear background sounds that bring you closer into this 1865 world. It might be distant horses walking in the mud or the sounds of a bird from the nearby wilderness. When there are large action sequences we get the in-your-face sounds, yet still retain the subtle nature of the time and place. Dialog is just fine, and the score rarely intrudes. Subs rear their thundering sounds from time to time as well. It can all be found in a very dynamic crystal-clear audio presentation.
It’s all in HD.
Inside The Episode Features: There is a production diary for each episode. The handy play all allows you to see it all as one piece.
Common and Dohn Don Norwood – I’m Building A Home: (5:49) This feature looks at the Negro spiritual number the two headline in an episode this season. You get to see some recording studio footage, as well.
A Look At Season 3: (4:22) Cast and crew offer up their thoughts on the direction the season takes. Pretty much a promo piece.
Where Season 2 Left Off: (4:56) Nice to have the recap, but it shouldn’t have ended up on disc three.
On-Set Building: (3:37) Quick look at how building these sets was almost like building an actual railroad.
Set Tour With Common: (1:55) The actor shows you his main sets.
Charlie Daniels – Hell On Strings: (3:10) Charlie Daniels wrote and performed a tune for a dance number in the show. Here we go behind the scenes as to how he got involved and some recording session footage.
In case good human drama isn’t quite enough to keep you coming back for more, this series offers some of the strongest production design on television. The production takes over a massive Indian reservation in Canada, and the tent city is pretty much built as it would have been then. It’s spread out in reality just as it is in the series. A happy accident found the crew knee-deep in some of the wettest weather the area’s seen in recent memory. The climate has left the area muddy and quite gritty. The result makes the efforts of the crew to transport you into an authentic setting work that much more. It’s always interesting to see Cullen start from the outside each season. We know he isn’t going to stay there. It’s no spoiler there. We all know that “Bohannon has an irritating habit of slipping out of tight spots”.