Why Yes, You SHOULD Catch Up on Hell on Wheels

I never got around to watching Hell on Wheels when it first aired; it was one of those shows I let accumulate on my DVR, gathering dust as the weeks went by. Critics seemed less than enthused by the AMC Western, which didn’t live up to the network hype or to the genre heights of HBO’s Deadwood. I couldn’t bring myself to get invested in something that no one else seemed to care about.

But when the first season of the series was released on DVD, I decided to give it another shot—my first shot, that is. It was only 10 episodes, AMC dramas often work better in marathon form, and I figured it would at least be an aesthetically pleasing show to watch. After all, The Walking Dead is gorgeous even at its worst, and sometimes a show’s stunning cinematography is enough to get me through a short season.

Perhaps it’s because I went into Hell on Wheels with such low expectations that I ended up really liking it, or maybe it’s just better than anyone gave it credit for. It’s not Deadwood, and it’s definitely not as high-quality as other AMC series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But it’s solid: It’s well paced, engaging, and yes, gorgeous to look at. It may not be your new favorite show, but it’s too entertaining to dismiss outright.

Hell on Wheels follows multiple characters attached to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in 1865. It’s the story of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) looking to avenge his wife’s death; of investor Doc Durant (Colm Meaney) looking to make his fortune; of freed slave Elam Ferguson (Common) and widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) trying to find their independence.

For the most part, these characters aren’t as complex as Walter White or Don Draper, but they retain plenty of the AMC qualities we’ve come to know and love: moral ambiguity, mood swings, an affinity for inappropriate sexual encounters. Hell on Wheels paints everyone in broader strokes than some of the network's other series do, but it’s dark enough to appeal to those who find USA and TNT cable series to be a bit too bland. Also, because this is AMC, there’s one very memorable beheading.

At the same time, I get that Hell on Wheels is a tough sell. If you don’t like Westerns, you might just not dig a series set in 1865. While it's not a straight cowboys-and-Indians tale, but it’s still storytelling in that vein—and there are certain constraints to the genre. The story is not always straightforward, but the character arcs and motivations are a bit more clear-cut. While it’s certainly an updated version of the form, the traditional framework is still there.

Ultimately, though, that’s part of the show’s appeal. In an updated version of the classic Western—as opposed to a modern Western like FX’s Justified—you can see the way contemporary sensibilities affect traditional tropes. In Joseph Black Moon, we get an Indian who struggles to balance his upbringing and his newfound Christianity. In Cullen, we get a “cowboy” of sorts who appreciates the difference between right and wrong—but still lets his moral compass swing in all directions.

The problem with being on AMC is that Hell on Wheels will always be compared to its sister series, two of which are widely considered the best shows on television. Hell on Wheels isn’t high art—though, to its credit, it does allow itself to focus on good storytelling instead of heavy themes conveyed through long-winded character speeches. (Take a hint, The Walking Dead.) Oh, it might take itself a bit more seriously than it should, but it never falls under the weight of its pretensions. Even when the music swells, you’re having fun.

So consider giving a chance to the show I deleted without a second thought. Hell on Wheels may not be worth critical adoration, but it’s definitely worth your attention. And I guarantee it will never dick you around for two seasons while its characters struggle to solve a murder mystery: at the very least, the series moves along at a gallop.


Hell on Wheels returns for Season 2 on Sunday, August 12 at 9pm on AMC.

Hell on Wheels Season 2 Promo Photos

Comments (20)
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The show is very good. EXCEPT they put in these annoying songs! During battle scenes and such. Sometimes I think I am watching the WB Channel. Stick with the score.

Those songs are distracting and bad sounding!
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This series was a remarkable disappointment. Some of the things that happen through the course of the first season defied credibility to the breaking point with me. I'm capable of "suspending disbelief" as much as anyone, but the reincarnation of a guy with his head blown off took the crown of stupidity. I can't continue watching a show that insults your intelligence that much.
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Always loved the show. Cannot wait for season 2 to kick off.



And very glad people finally are starting to be aware of it.
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I love BB. I watch WalkD but am not deluded that it's much more than a gore fest for the 18-34 demographic. Mad Men is a well acted, well written, sophisticated soap opera. The Killing is a a huge snore. Hell on Wheels is the best thing on tv. All the great themes of American history and mythology are there, even if it does pretent that the gorgeous Canadian prairie is Iowa. Can't wait for 8/12.
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Agree with the article. A solid show worth watching that doesn't get enough attention. Love Cullen and the Swede best of all.
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Staff
Love the Wester genre. Three episodes in i had to pass.
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I like the show can't wait for season 2
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This is without question the best show on AMC. I do not know what everyone else is smoking. Better than The Walking Boring, and a step above the improved The Killing.
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I love that you found a way to highlight four different characteristics most terrible critics share. Thank you.



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Whoever said this show was slowly paced or downright boring, I have three words for you. ARE YOU INSANE!? For just 10 episodes in its first season it was paced very well. It didn't jam a lot of unnecessary crap to make it boring and when it did kind of strayed from the story line, the show still stayed strong. This was the best new show last year that your not watching because morons listened to the other morons (critics) said the show wasn't good.
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While I didn't LOVE the show, I loved some episodes. So, overall, I found the first season pretty good.



I'm sure that it moves too slow for some people... not only is it a western, it's on AMC. So I have no rebuttal to that, except to maybe say that if you can get past the slowness, you'll probably enjoy it, hehe.
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Hell on Wheels was probably the best new show of last year that received no attention/credit. Thankfully AMC still renewed it for a second season. The show is well acted, engaging, and very beautiful. Cullen hunting the man through the camp in the final episode was very well done.
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I love this show, we need more westerns.
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hmm. i tried part of the first episode a while back and felt it was too slow. if i can place my trust in you, random internet writer, i suppose i too can give it a second chance.
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yeah seriously boring. also filling in the few blanks where there wasn't annoying dialogue or acting with music further aggravated me.
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The show is not that bad. I do agree with you about those annoying songs cut to a montage. I had to mute the audio during those scenes with songs.
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This show is definitely a slow burn, so it may not be to everyone's taste, but it does pick up pace later on and is very well done.
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I definitely enjoyed it. And it just became available on Netflix Instant, so another way for people to catch up on the show.
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I found this to be a weird thing to say : "But it's solid: It's well paced, engaging, and yes, gorgeous to look at." because the two things that struck me about the series were that it was a very poorly paced season and that many of the episodes were downright boring. I think marathoning a show makes you lose perspective on how poorly paced a season is and can also gloss over the dull parts because they are quickly replaced.



This is helpful though. I had kind of decided not to watch season 2 at all, but it sounds like the right strategy is to watch none of season 2 until it is over.
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ya wait till the season is over,by then this piece of garbage should be cancelled and you won't have to waste your time

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