Episode Title: "Pilot"
Writers: Tony Gayton & Joe Gayton
Director: David Von Ancken
In the aftermath of the Civil War, one man seeks vengeance for the death of his wife by pursuing her killers to "Hell on Wheels," the dangerous and lawless town that follows the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
In Washington D.C., the Civil War is over and Lincoln is dead. One former Union soldier walks by a church and he is moved to confess his sins. When he enters the confessional, the priest urges the soldier to talk about a particular incident in Meridian, Mississippi. Then the preacher reveals himself to be Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and he immediately blows the soldier's brains out. Then he scoffs at a depiction of Christ and he leaves the scared worshipers behind. Elsewhere, Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney) gives a passionate speech about the transcontinental railroad to enthusiastic potential investors.
But in private, Durant admits to Senator Jordan Crane (James D. Hopkin) that he's shoveling a load of crap, but he is in line to use government subsidies to pay himself to build the railroad. The Senator tries to change the terms of his bribe, but Durant quickly outmaneuvers him. On a train, two brothers Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey McGinnes (Philip Burke) struggle to read a newspaper story about Cullen's church murder; which catches the attention of Cullen himself, who sits across from them. After introductions are made, the train arrives at Hell on Wheels and Cullen asks the camp boss for work.
Although the one-handed boss was a Union soldier and Cullen a Confederate, he believes Cullen to be a kindred spirit. And as a former slave owner, he assigns Cullen to be the "walking boss" for a group of newly freed slaves, including Elam Ferguson (Common); who doesn't take kindly to his newest boss. Elsewhere, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) is baptized by Rev. Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan), who decides to build his church among the prostitutes that serve the Hell on Wheels. Ahead in Cheyenne territory, Robert Bell and his wife Lily (Dominique McElligott) chart the map for the railroad company despite the danger from the local tribe and Robert's debilitating illness.
At the Hell on Wheels bar, Cullen shares a drink with his boss and reveals that he freed his slaves before the war because he married a Northern woman. When the boss inquires about his wife, Cullen only confirms that she was lost during the war. Back in Cheyenne territory, the tribe attacks the survey team and begins savagely scalping them. Robert and Lily escape into the forest with the survey maps, but his coughing gives them away to a lone warrior. The warrior shoots an arrow through Lily's hand and shoulder before Robert attempts to choke him out. However, Robert is fatally stabbed and Lily is forced to kill the warrior herself with his own arrowhead.
Lily takes a few moments to grieve for her husband before she retrieves the maps and takes off. Far away, Durant receives word of the attacks via telegram and he responds by saying that he is on his way to Hell on Wheels. Back on the railroad, Ferguson attempts to help his dehydrated friend get some much needed water. Cullen confronts Ferguson over an action taken without his order, but he seems to let him off lightly. However, the camp boss is incensed to see Ferguson's friend drinking water during the work period and he drives his horse into him, fatally injuring the man before he rides off. That night, Cullen comes across Ferguson's tent where he sharpens a knife while his friend's body lies nearby.
Cullen warns Ferguson not to kill the boss in retaliation and when Ferguson implies that he'll kill Cullen too, he simply tells him to let go of the past. But Ferguson spits the words back in his face. Later, Cullen shares drinks with the boss even as Cullen pours out his drink whenever the boss looks away. While speaking with Cullen, the boss figures out that Cullen has come to the camp to kill him for his role in what happened to his wife in Meridian. He uses a gun to walk Cullen away from the camp as he prepares to kill him. The boss also tells Cullen that it wasn't his idea to kill his wife. It was one of the other Sargents stationed at Hell on Wheels.
But before Cullen can get the name out of the boss, Ferguson appears behind him and kills him. The next day, Lily continues walking towards civilization as Durant delivers a length address to someone off screen about the path of history. And on the railroad, Ferguson acts as if nothing has changed but Cullen is noticeably nervous as horsemen approach them.
Because comparisons are inevitable, let's just get this out of the way now: "Hell on Wheels" is not "Deadwood" and it's not trying to be. Although there are some surface similarities between the two. First and foremost is Thomas "Doc" Durant, who seems to parallel Al Swearengen in his larger than life stature. As Durant, Colm Meaney gets all of the best lines and he says them with a passion, even when the character knows that what's he's saying amounts to BS designed to rope in more investors. Durant isn't as Shakespearian as Swearengen, but he is prone to making grand speeches like his earlier counterpart… even if it's not clear who Durant is talking to in his last soliloquy.
The character of Lily Bell also seems similar to Alma Garret from "Deadwood," at least on the first impression. Although judging from her brief scenes in this episode, I'd argue that Alma was a stronger character, but Lily is more willing to physically defend herself in a life or death situation. Dominique McElligott is acceptable in the role, but I'm not impressed with the character at this point.
As for Anson Mount, it's hard to believe that it was just nine years ago when his character was deflowering Britney Spears in "Crossroads." It's amazing what you can discover on IMDB…
However, Mount really does come across as a genuine leading man and it helps that he looks older and more grizzled than his 38 years would suggest. The scene in which Cullen was hiding in the confessional was a little over-the-top, but I did enjoy the way he completely disregarded the religious icons as he walked out of the church. I was pleased at first when it was revealed that Cullen was a slave owner. Too often, Hollywood glosses over the sins of the era by giving their lead characters a pass on the slavery issue. Take Mel Gibson in "The Patriot," for example. He couldn't possibly own slaves, and so he employed only freemen in his fields.
Well… "Hell on Wheels" eventually goes for the same trick with Cullen by revealing that he freed his slaves as well after marrying a Northern woman. It's a little better that he at least had that in history, but it was still kind of gutless to dance around it again by making Cullen seem more enlightened than his fellow southerners. Common had a good turn as the freedman, Elam Ferguson, who doesn't seem to have any problems killing anyone who crosses him. However, his murder of the boss was about as justified as it gets on the frontier.
The background characters, Reverend Cole and Joseph Black Moon have my attention because I want to see if they're serious about building and maintaining a church in Hell on Wheels. Black Moon comes off as genuinely sincere, but I definitely don't trust the Reverend…
The biggest drawback of "Hell on Wheels" is that it doesn't seem to trust the audience to come up with its own conclusions. I understand that a pilot episode has to get across a great deal of information and this episode did accomplish a lot in its first hour. But there are so many times that the characters spell out their actions and motivations (especially Durant) that the show loses the veneer of a serious drama.
I'm intrigued enough to give "Hell on Wheels" a couple of weeks to find itself, but this isn't a home run out of the gate. The production values are very high, but so far the series lacks a soul.
Crave Online Rating: 7.5 out of 10.