Hell on Wheels

I’m not normally a fan of westerns, but Hell on Wheels is one of my all-time favorite shows. The series is more than a western, however. It’s gritty. It’s action-packed. It’s emotional. Wheels is truly an excellent adventure-filled drama.

Star Trek Connection

As a life-long Trekkie, I see much similarities between the two shows. The original Star Trek was, after all, considered the “Wagon Train to the Stars.” Or, perhaps it’s the production connections, the most obvious of which is the inclusion of veteran Trek actor Colm Meaney. There are other connections as well. Marvin Rush’s company serves as the series’ cinematographer. Rush was Star Trek’s Director of Photography from 1989-2005. Star Trek: Voyager’s Roxanne Dawson has also directed an episode of the series.

Cullen Bohannon

One of the show’s biggest strengths comes from the central character, Cullen Bohannon. Farmer, soldier, family man, gun-slinging cowboy, railroad tycoon… this supremely well-rounded character has his foot in two worlds. Highly educated, this former southern slave-owning plantation owner who marries a wealthy northerner is a man of two worlds.

Enveloped with a haunting past, personal tragedy continuously taunts Cullen Bohannon throughout the series, often as a result of revenge against Cullen’s morally justifiable actions. Beginning with the slaughter of his wife and son by Union soldiers during the war, soon-after followed by the (spoiler alert !) death of Lilly Bell at the hands of his arch nemesis (The Swede). There’s also the death of close-friend Elam, at Cullen’s own hand, and the tragic murder of young Ezra – the Mormon boy Cullen essentially adopts. Then, the character’s seemingly only hope for happiness is again ripped away when his new wife and boy disappear without a trace.

It is through these personal torments that Cullen perseveres and finds his inner strength, with the railroad metaphorically representing Cullen’s own personal reconstruction. At first, it was Cullen’s quest for vengeance that brings him to the railroad. In the end, it is the railroad that gives him purpose and saves him.

Despite his horrifically violent tendencies, one can only admire this character’s tenacity, devotion, and strong sense of morality.

Strong Ensemble of Characters

Like any show, its characters are arguably the biggest factor in determining quality. Not only is the series driven by an outstanding central protagonist, the strong ensemble of supporting characters are each uniquely captivating. You love to hate the main antagonist, The Swede, who is wittily evil. The love-hate relationship extends to the incredibly self-centered Thomas Durant, who is both an ally and nemesis to Bohannon.

Ongoing Reinvention

What has kept the series fresh is it’s ongoing ability to reinvent itself. Each season is like its own series. The first season introduces the characters and focuses largely on Bohannon’s quest for vengeance, as well as the general conflicts associated with a frontier railroad town. The second season leaves this vendetta behind while building on the ensemble cast of characters and taking the series to a new level creatively.

With a new show-runner taking the reigns, the third season sees a dramatic shift. With another tragic loss for Bohannon, the character sees a re-birth. Motivated by his losses, Bohannon fully embraces himself in seeing the successful completion of the railroad. Much like the previous season, grounding the characters in a static location – just outside Cheyenne – opens the door for character-driven plots. The bond between Bohannon and Cullen also becomes a strong focal point, driving much of the plot moving forward.

Beginning with Season Three, the pace becomes faster and plots more serialized. Showing confidence in renewal, the season also concludes with the first true cliffhanger… leaving viewers pondering the fate of Elam and Bohannon.

Despite a slow start, Season Four is my favorite in the series. I love the introduction of Governor Campbell as it provides opportunities for dramatic moments of friction, stemming from the Alpha-dog clash of power between him and Durant. Another new arrival, newspaper reporter Louise Ellison provides an outsider’s viewpoint, and even a sense of humanity to the often vile town. The initially comic-like rebel, Sydney Snow, and encompassing story arc provides a full range of emotions that leave poor Bohannon with yet another personal tragedy as he still reals from the (spoiler alert !) loss of Elam.

The fifth – and last – season again sees a full re-invention, as Bohannon joins the competing railroad. This introduces a new setting in California and a new cast of characters that features Chinese railroad workers for the first time. Certainly, the season does revisit Bohannon’s old stomping grounds with the Union Pacific Railroad as each railroad races towards completion.

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