Top critical review
13 of 14 people found this helpful
Doesn't live up to its initial promise but an undemanding aimless oater nonetheless
on 4 July 2012
Hell on Wheels isn't another Deadwood - despite being set against the building of the Union Pacific railroad, the scale is less epic, the cast of characters less eclectic and the dialogue less elaborate - but is a very much more conventional oater. It's probably the fact that it plays so safe and predictable that's why it's now into its fourth season when Deadwood could only manage three. It doesn't exhilarate or surprise, but it is an undemanding and easy watch.
It starts out as a revenge western where the trail leads to Hell on Wheels, the moving construction camp of the Union Pacific Railroad uniting the east and west coasts. Sold to the public as a project that will help heal the nation after a war that has left it a gaping open wound but naturally a scheme for various profiteers to get rich, Colm Meaney's ruthless railroad baron, bribing, blackmailing and bullying his way along the least direct and most profitable route the dominant figure even though Anson mount's vengeful veteran actually takes centre stage and Christopher Heyerdahl's towering Swede ("Actually I'm Norwegian"), a former bookkeeper who looks like Karloff's Frankenstein and now practises a form of immoral mathematics as the head of security on the railroad, makes the biggest impression. Racial divisions between the black and Irish workers and potential conflict with the local Indians constantly flare up along the way and there's a wide cast of supporting characters - Dominique McElligott's widow who holds the secret to the elusive pass between the Rockies that the railway depends on, Tom Noonan's preacher (who thankfully doesn't turn out to be an evil hypocrite despite his flaws), Common's ex-slave, Robin McLeavy's former hostage of an Indian tribe turned prostitute, a pair of Irish magic lantern showmen, the odd crooked politician and Wes Studi's local chief who just wants things to stay the same among them. As with co-producer David Von Ancken's barely released but much more compelling Seraphim Falls [Blu-ray] (some of whose cast turn up here) there's a religious undercurrent about forgiveness and damnation there as well.
So, plenty of opportunity for drama and interesting character arcs, yet too often the series just ambles along without much sense of purpose: the revenge quest is forgotten for much of the run, issues and obstacles are raised and dealt with with surprisingly little drama and even Meaney's schemes are fairly ordinary despite the promising monologue he's given in the first episode that has him seeing himself in almost Shakespearean terms. Similarly the budgetary limitations haven't been met with much imagination. Hell on Wheels itself is an underwhelming and underpopulated sight, the working on the railroad mostly limited to one team to save on extras, so anyone expecting the simplistic plotting to at least be offset by the kind of meticulously detailed and ramshackle design of Deadwood is likely to be disappointed. It's a show that puts on a show of grown up attitudes and has occasional flashes of ambition but isn't really going anywhere or doing it with enough power or panache to stand out. Not that it's bad, more that it's solid and efficient but tends to amble when it should gallop. Set your expectations low and don't expect any surprises, and it's a decent Western series in an era when Westerns are few and far between.
Entertainment One's Region A-locked US Blu-ray offers impressive widescreen transfers of all ten episodes with 26 brief featurettes as extras.