The first transcontinental railroad linked the eastern and western halves of the United States at a time when the country was still reeling from the war between the North and South. It accelerated the settling of the prairie and beyond as it cut the time of a cross-country trip — lasting a grueling six months by stagecoach or wagon train — to eight days.
It was a 19th-century marvel of engineering, but progress came with a steep price — plenty of people died, corruption was rampant, the landscape was radically altered, and many Native American tribes lost their way of life. Hell on Wheels: The First Complete Season (2011-12, Entertainment One, not rated, $40) uses this inexorable push right after the Civil War as the setting for the tale of vengeance-seeking former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a gunman and former slave owner determined to track down the Union soldiers who killed his wife and young son in Mississippi.
The AMC show, which was the network's second-highest-rated original series (behind The Walking Dead), also involves Elam Ferguson (Common), a recently freed slave distrustful of everybody and everything; Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), whose surveyor husband was killed by the Cheyenne; and Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney), the greedy investor building the Union Pacific Railroad. Durant is the show's only character based on a historical figure. Hell on Wheels, the mobile assortment of gambling dens, whorehouses, saloons, tent preachers and various services that follows the railroad's westward construction, also actually existed. It was a lawless town that had so many killings it boasted its population was "one less every day."
The main characters struggle to find their way in this grimy, rapidly evolving world. The laconic Bohannon, who freed his slaves before the war at his wife's urging, has a single-minded purpose that precludes any other relationships. Ferguson finds that little has changed in his dealings with whites, and he is in no mood to accommodate them. The two of them eventually develop a very grudging respect. Bell, through grit and determination, survives the Indian attack that took her husband and exacts revenge. She needs that strength to thrive in a male-dominated situation.
Durant is a bullying dandy who makes grandiose speeches about the great endeavor but is really out for as much graft as he can get his hands on. The more track he lays, the more he gets paid — a point he makes violently clear to an engineer who questions why he wants the route to meander across the flat terrain. "This undertaking is subsidized by the enormous teat of the federal government," he says, slamming the man's face into the map. "This never-ending money-gushing nipple pays me $1,600 a mile, yet you build my road straight?"
The series is the creation of filmmaking brothers Joe and Tony Gayton (most recently co-writers of the 2010 movie Faster). It is rich in period detail (and plenty of genuine mud) with lush exteriors filmed on the pristine Tsuu T'ina Native Indian Reservation in Alberta, Canada. The second season began shooting in April and will air on AMC later this year.