Last Week’s episode of Hell on Wheels, the AMC Iron Horse western drama, featured Elam Ferguson surviving his battle with a bear using only his knife. The man is mangled up and barely alive when a Comanche party find him and the dead animal together. According to the show’s lore, the Native American tribe believe that any “warrior” who kills a bear takes on its power and cannot be killed or defeated in battle. This cues the tribe to make an attack on cavalry troopers who are searching for a woman kidnapped by the Comanche.
This western, chronicling the movement of the railroad across the American West, has been on the network that brought viewers The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, since 2011. Both “Dead” and “Bad” are award winning shows that boast, and boasted, a huge devout fanbase and if one looks up Hell on Wheels on IMDb, it does have a pretty high rating with audiences at 8.3 and is also an award winning show.
Anson Mount is Cullen Bohannon, a soldier left over from the Civil War and former slave owner who is on the trail of a group of Union soldiers who murdered his wife. Hired in season one by Daniel Johnson (played by Ted Levine) to run the African American crew of prior slaves, Cullen soon takes over as the foreman and reports to Colm Meaney’s megalomaniacal railroad boss Thomas “Doc” Durant.
As the Iron Horse progresses across the American West’s wild frontier, the AMC series Hell on Wheels deals with all sorts of themes that have always been part of the western genre and some that have not. The show attempts to portray Native American’s with a bit more than the Hollywood stereotypes seen in the past and it broaches the subject of both slaves and their former owners adjusting to their new roles after the War Between the States.
Things like the lack of any real law outside the settled areas of the country and the reality of those with the most money having the most power also make appearances in the show. Now in its fourth season, the western series has yet to be approved for a fifth but it has some pretty impressive audience figures for a Saturday night show.
The series began with Mount’s character seeking revenge for the murder of his wife but in season three he opted to drop that mission to fight with Meaney’s character Durant. This scaling down of the show’s plot has not seemed to hurt the ratings, but it could very well allow the series to run out of steam more quickly. The original revenge plot, where Bohannon had the entire American West to hunt for his wife’s killers, could have run for ages. Downsizing it to just the railroad could be a real mistake.
Hell on Wheels does have some fine subplots and features Colm Meaney as an almost perfect villain. This AMC vision of the American West’s Iron Horse invasion of the plains with its ultimate goal of uniting both coasts is pretty good. There is enough violence and action to keep most action fans happy and while the change of focus from revenge to control may ultimately hurt the show, officially it is the second most popular show on AMC, according to viewing figures. HiYo Iron Horse.
By Michael Smith