Set in 1865, just after the Civil War, "Hell on Wheels" is basically a story of revenge, not unlike the Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns. Former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) is out to kill the group of Union soldiers who raped and murdered his wife.
With the tent city parked in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Cullen begins work supervising former slaves, including Elam Ferguson (Common), who doesn’t try too hard to hide his contempt for his white bosses.
Meanwhile—the early episodes are full of meanwhiles—Durant’s chief surveyor is attacked and killed by Cheyenne Indians in Nebraska. The Indians and Durant’s men are searching for his wife, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), who has important maps that will help Durant determine the railroad’s route.
We also meet a pair of Irish brothers hoping to make their fortunes, a preacher fighting for the souls of his Native American convert, not to mention the tent city’s ample number of hookers and outlaw thugs.
Most of these characters are by-the-numbers denizens of any Western. Thankfully most of the actors make them more interesting than the sometimes atrocious dialogue should allow. Meaney, sad to say, can’t overcome the long-winded expositional hooey he’s given and Durant comes off as more caricature than calculating manipulator.
Brothers Joe and Tony Gayton have written Meaney one loud, messy speech after another. (The premiere ends, laughably, with Durant talking to no one in particular about lions and zebras and “the building of the great road.”) The Gaytons commit that Creative Writing 101 sin of telling, not showing, of summarizing through yakkity-yak-yak-yak instead of dramatizing an issue. Add to that the glacial pace set by director David Van Ancken and you get a slow train to, well, hell.
The trio doesn’t create any sustained drama until the second episode, when we meet Doc’s enforcer, Tor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl), a menacing, spectral presence who laughs because people call him “The Swede.” (The joke is that he’s actually Norwegian.) His speech about the “immoral mathematics” he learned at the Confederate prison in Andersonville is something to behold.
Heyerdahl nails the nasty villain whom viewers will love to loathe. His scenes opposite Mount crackle with tension and prove that "Hell on Wheels" will eventually gather enough steam to get somewhere.