This AMC series didn’t seem to get much attention during its first season, especially in comparison to the network’s critical darlings, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead. It doesn’t help that the title conjures up images of something closer to Sons of Anarchy than its actual setting of the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. Then there’s the pesky matter of its almost entirely exterior set location in Alberta attempting to stand in for Nebraska, roughly 1500 miles to the southeast. There’s no real draw to the talent on board, with the biggest names being actors Colm Meaney and Common. But the biggest knock: how to make a drama about 19th century railroad construction (that isn’t broadcast on the History Channel) enticing to viewers.
Thankfully, the writers save the day, crafting intriguing stories that milk the ongoing tension between the different races, nationalities, sexes, and ex-Civil War sides of the ragtag crew working on the railroad. There’s also an ongoing revenge story at play, which opens the pilot and will continue into Season Two. That story follows ex-Confederate loner Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) hunting down the Yankee soldiers who murdered his family, a trail of retribution that eventually leads him into the Hell on Wheels camp. One of his final targets controls the rail work crews there, and when that man winds up dead Bohannon manages to turn a murder conviction into a job as the dead man’s replacement. As the new foreman, he has to navigate the politics of bossing the mostly Irish white workers and their lesser-paid black counterparts (led by Common's Elam character) as they rush to complete the first 40 miles of track.
Meanwhile, the greedy head of the railroad sits in his fancy clothes and plush railcar devising plans so dastardly he should have a mustache to twirl. Rather than plot a straight line for his railroad, he demands that his crews take a winding route solely to maximize the mileage and hence the size of his government compensation. Colm Meaney makes a commanding baddie, but his role is so one-dimensional for most of the season that it’s more caricature than character. He’s abetted by a towering Norwegian assistant known as the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), much to his chagrin, an unsettling and off-kilter character who devours scenery with aplomb. Rounding out the nasties are the ever-present Indians who threaten to wipe out the rail progress and workers at any time in an effort to protect their land.
Other tangential recurring characters include an Indian who has converted to Christianity and lives in the camp, a minister who has a violent past and isn’t afraid to revisit it, and a fair-haired classy maiden widowed by an Indian attack but determined to stick with the rail crew for no apparent reason other than eventual romance with Bohannon. The cast is fairly large and most of the characters get decent screen time and worthwhile stories, further enforcing the theme of America’s melting pot pulling together in the grand rail endeavor. At its core though, at least in the first season, the stars are Mount, Common, and Meaney, with the Bohannon and Elam characters forging a tenuous friendship while Durant throws obstacles in their way. The construction of the railroad is little more than a backdrop for the interlocking character studies, but those stories make the show well worth seeking out.
The series looks great on Blu-ray, except for the pilot episode that is oddly pixelated, as if the production team hadn’t figured out the nuances of high def before shooting. Other than that, the rest of series is feature-film quality and well worth the Blu premium. Bonus features include a look at how the designers recreated the past for the exterior sets, along with behind the scenes footage, cast interviews, and a segment on the monumental efforts undertaken to film a train crash using a dummy fullsize wooden train and some creative landscaping work.
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