Hell on Wheels: Seasons 1 & 2

Recently I decided to watch an episode of the AMC show Hell on Wheels on Netflix. I had not heard anything positive or negative about the show, but I was in the mood to watch a modern production of a mid-1800s western. Over the next week or so I watched all of the first two seasons. The show captured my attention, and here is why (speaking in generalities to avoid spoilers).

The series is the story of a railroad company building tracks across the untamed west. Hell on Wheels is the name given to the settlement near the end of the rail line where most of the story takes place. Around this story of railroad enterprise several other stories are told.

I really liked the complexity of many of the characters. Noble traits are mixed with shameful traits. No one is portrayed as all good or all bad. Along the same lines, weakness and strength are often not far apart. Because all this character development occurs, there are many characters that could conceivably be viewed as a favorite. I particularly enjoyed the way Thomas Durant, Lily Bell, Elam Ferguson, Mr. Toole, and Eva’s characters were developed (but discussing these characters would involve major plot spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that).

The series has a raw brutality and directness. Scenes of injuries show blood. Many deaths are not quick and quiet. And it’s not just limited to the humans, a scene from the butchers shop shows where bacon comes from in more detail than I’ve ever seen on a television show (the show has a “no animals were harmed . . .” statement during the credits, so I guess the gutting and slicing scenes were all with props). What I like about the blood and violence in this show is that it is not glorified, it’s ugly.

One disturbing aspect of the show is the portrayal of Christianity. Some of the characters make good statements, but the role of the church and the behavior of proclaimed Believers is an example of misplaced faith and misguided motivations.

After seeing the first two seasons I suspect this show will see a large fall in viewership due to its reluctance to embrace normal Hollywood plot lines.

Season 3 started recently on AMC. I don’t have cable television, so I’m out of luck as far as watching the show in real time. Maybe I’ll catch up when the third season hits Netflix. . .


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