By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer
Early on in AMC’s newest drama “Hell on Wheels,” the main character, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), tells his new boss on the transcontinental railroad, “I’m willing to do just about anything.”
This seems to be the unofficial motto for the show, which is set in 1865. There’s nothing neat and clean about “Hell on Wheels.” It’s all dirt and grit, literally and figuratively. This isn’t a nice place, and it isn’t filled with nice people. If anything should be the most telling about this show, it is the title. Taken from the actual name of the tent city set up along the railroad, the population is clearly stated, “one less every day.”
Mount plays Bohannon, a man who once fought for the south during the civil war, even though he seems against slavery. He’s out looking for revenge after the war took his wife’s life and working on the transcontinental railroad.
“Hell on Wheels” will draw inevitable comparisons to HBO’s brilliantly fierce “Deadwood,” but if it should be compared to anything, it should be Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 magnum opus “There Will Be Blood.” Both are about the stripping down of humanity and men at their worst when the nation was supposed to be at its best. It’s hard not to fall in love with this show and all of its fearlessness.
Rapper Common plays Elam Ferguson, a freed slave who’s uncomfortable working on the railroad under Bohannon’s command. It’s still unclear if he will be a friend or foe to Bohannon, and like most everyone on the show, he plays him with a barely contained rage. Every word that passes through Mount’s mouth slips out with a growl or hiss disguised with a gravelly southern accent. “I did plenty I was ashamed of,” he says when referencing his time in the war. And behind that scraggly beard and hard edged, well-weathered face, you can see a world of hurt behind his eyes. The only question is: is it his hurt or the hurt he wants to put on other people?
We can only hope that this is a performance that will catapult Mount into the same category as his AMC brother, Jon Hamm. And Colm Meaney oozes smarm as the show’s main bad guy (though, on a show like this, it’s hard to pick who exactly the bad guy is.)
The show is lush and expansive, epic almost. And even though it is a bit slow at times, it is still exceptionally good. The vengeful murder mystery should be handled with care, though, otherwise it could become tedious and overwrought, spoiling an otherwise brilliant show.