Hell on Wheels – Pilot
Don’t mention Deadwood. Don’t mention Deadwood. Don’t mention Deadwood. Now that my three obligatory mentions of that other cable network’s western drama have been made I can move on to actually discussing AMC’s attempt to move into that territory of the not so wild West. Or rather I could, if this show didn’t go so far out of its way to stand against that towering behemoth of Televisual brilliance, an instantly unflattering comparison for the cowering newcomer. While it’s true that there has been a veritable horde of Western tales told over the years there is only really the one modern TV effort that comes to mind (though AMC actually did get here first with the underseen, ultra-real revisionist miniseries Broken Trail) and it will frequently come to mind while watching the Hell On Wheels pilot, no matter how hard one tries to resist it. I don’t want to keep mentioning Deadwood in regards to this show but it almost seems like the producers want me to, as if simply mentioning the two within the same sentence will somehow cause the formers prestige to rub off on the latter, because it sure as hell can’t earn it on its own terms.
The show opens with an out of setting murder committed by our protagonist, a strong but silent type, a real cowboy. We are then greeted with the twangling guitars and mournful fiddle of the opening score (which admittedly seems to derive as much from Deadwood as it does HBO’s other period piece Boardwalk Empire) before we follow said protagonist as he joins up with the remnants of a rag-tag frontier civilisation, only just now coming into its own; one run by a foul-mouthed, intense and easily irritated dictator of sorts. This though is where the similarities in story, and hell the story as a whole, start to rapidly fall apart.
Where the story differs from Deadwood is in its actual adherence to some of the genre tropes; Hell on Wheels will not simply be a drama set in the West, but an actual Western in its own right. The most prominent example of this is is in the fact that there are parts of the program, those focusing on our supposed protagonist, which string together to form something of an Eastwood-esque revenge narrative; the appearance of this idea suggests that the show will also be including some of the genre elements inherent to such a story, hell it may even have a second showdown before the third season comes to an end.Though this direction is infinitely more over-travelled than the alternative I still think this move towards the schlockyer side of the story is a good move, Deadwood is a freak that shouldn’t have worked at all, let alone as well as it did and for that reason alone copying it is simply setting yourself up for failure. I do however have to wonder if the more self-important and serious tone that this show has shanghaied from that will mix well with such content, I guess we shall see.
Though despite all i’ve just said against it the story itself is quite fine, all these criticisms made are more than acceptable; derivation and tonal inconsistencies are practically part and parcel with the Western and so it would be silly to hold them against AMC here. What matters with Westerns is how the tale is told, it’s the execution that separates the likes of Ford, Eastwood and Leone from the rest of the pack, and the execution is exactly where Hell on Wheels loses the track.
At a glance the show looks and even feels like Deadwood, but given enough time Hell‘s production manages to distinguish itself, primarily by being distinctively bad. The show is going for a semi-realistic take on the Western and so there is a lot of dirt, dust, mud and blood to be found around the shots…most of the time; for each genuinely gritty set-piece there is a pristine scene that is quite obviously taking place on a simple set. This realism also leads the show down a much more visceral route than your proto-typical Western, confined as they mostly were by the Hays code and the general standards of decency present at the time, however this path too falls short of not failing. The moments of violence in this episode, and there are many, lack all sense of impact, they simply just occur. One moment the arrow is in the air and the next it is in the guard; one moment he’s alive and the next dead. Watching the show made me feel like Dr.Manhattan and I don’t mean all tingly like touching static electricity.
The preeminent problem that I had with the show however was its poor pacing; for lack of a more eloquent turn of phrase, stuff just happens. We get a scene here of a man entering the railroad, one there of scouts being slaughtered by trademarked, tropic Indians and then we cut straight to a sole figure soliloquising quite to himself, like a mad man would do. Though the show is said to be held on the back on Anson Mount this isn’t really the case, to call him a protagonist would almost be confusing the term because he certainly doesn’t serve as our entry point to this world, nor does he stand as connective tissue between the scenes; if he is the protagonist than it is simply because he is the character on screen the most, in the same way that the least shallow point on a plane is also its highest. You could simply say that this is an ensemble production as a way of explaining this away but that doesn’t quite cut it either.
What Hell On Wheels is missing is an overarching, singular narrative that drives through from one side of the show to the other like the titular transcontinental railroad does America. The show is, as it so sweetly puts it, an open wound in need of uniting. For it to work someone or something needs to stitch it back together and soon; if they can catch it in time then it may yet heal, but if they leave it too late and infection sets in, than the whole thing will no doubt need to just be cut off at the wrist. As the show has adopted so many Western tropes though I feel it is only right that I adopt my Western viewing perspective when watching it and by this I refer to the fact that Westerns are, by and large, very slow stories, they very rarely grab you early but suck you in as they progress until eventually you virtually feel the dust in your face. Will Hell on Wheels do the same? Probably not, but I’m willing to give it a chance. One major screw up though and AMC won’t even see me draw.