From the time gold was discovered in California in 1848 to the dawn of the 20th century, the grand stretch of mountain and prairie between the mighty Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean was a place of few laws and fewer social niceties. The aptly named Wild West was a hard place to get to and a harder place to live. And even though the Transcontinental Railroad would eventually help tame the landscape that surrounded it, creating the thing was a hard, wild adventure in itself.
AMC's drama Hell on Wheels takes us back to the construction of that long and winding railroad in the second half of the 1860s—twisting, supplementing and changing history, naturally, with each laid tie.
Cullen Bohannan, a former Confederate soldier, is the show's golden spike—the guy who holds it all together. Once the Union Pacific's chief engineer, Cullen has strayed from the narrow way both literally and morally. Even when serving Union Pacific investor Doc Durant, Cullen had another motive: To hunt down and kill the Union soldiers responsible for the murder of his wife and son. And so as Season Four opens, he's not even involved with the railroad anymore, but holed up instead in a Mormon community claiming its own share of the West.
Cullen's not the only one carrying around skeletons in his baggage. Bishop Dutson, the Mormon community's leader, is in reality a killer called the Swede—a secret Cullen also knows. Doc Durant may also be a murderer, and is certainly about as cagey and duplicitous a businessman as you'll find. He has the mayor of Cheyenne, Wyo., in his pocket and a good chunk of the city on his payroll. Clearly, building the railroad is secondary to striking it rich for him.
We are given characters who are trying to do the right thing—even if they sometimes go about it in the wrong way. As hard and murderous as he is, Cullen also tries to care for those who look to him for help. Eva, a one-time prostitute, is struggling to make ends meet as an honest woman—no easy task in this land of iniquity. There are those who still believe in handshake agreements. And religion is often seen as a positive motivator and source of comfort.
Still, it's not a pretty place, this wheel-obsessed Wild West. People misuse other folks' faith for their own nefarious ends at times. They're strangled, stabbed or gunned down, often in cold blood. Prostitutes offer sensual succor to railroad workers and others, with sometimes graphic dialogue and outright sex scenes. Rape makes ugly appearances as well. Indeed, the characters here feel free in this wide-open country to stray from all manner of laws and codes, both legal and moral.
Hell on Wheels has the feel of those old 19th-century dime novels—the ones that specialized in augmenting the achievements of characters like Kit Carson and Wyatt Earp, turning them into legends. AMC's show has just enough of an air of truth about it to lend a bit of credibility, then fills in the empty spaces with boxcars full of sex and violence.
"The Elusive Eden"
Cullen warns a friend that Bishop Dutson isn't who he claims to be. Cullen's friend doesn't believe it: No one could lay on hands and speak in tongues like the Mormon bishop if he wasn't truly blessed by God, he says. And when Cullen's new wife, Naomi, is having trouble giving birth, it's the bishop who chants above the laboring woman while Cullen quietly recites the Lord's Prayer. (The baby and mom both turn out fine with all the credit going to the bishop.)
Meanwhile, Durant's railroad hits a snag when a path across a frozen river doesn't hold up, sending an engine and cars into the cold water. A train boiler explodes. A fistfight breaks out. We see a dead body, a pool of blood surrounding the head. People talk about murders and murdering. Eva is raped while hanging out laundry: She struggles to get away as the camera retreats. Next time we see her, she's lying on the ground unconscious. The mayor "rescues" her, but then also sexually abuses her as he's getting her cleaned up.
We hear Cheyenne compared to Sodom and Gomorrah and called a "God-forsaken place." Characters smoke cigars and drink shots of whiskey. We hear talk of "whores" and "whoring." Lies are told. The s-word is said (once), along with "d--n," "h---" and "b--ch." Jesus' name is abused at least twice.