Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season (eOne) turns the building of the transcontinental railway into the forge that created the new America in the aftermath of the Civil War. This is not a romantic vision of brotherhood, however, but a dark drama of the savage past made for cable TV. That means mud, blood, graft, vengeance, and a hotbed of racial conflict surrounding the construction of the railroad.
The title, which doesn’t mince words in selling the show’s sensibility, is also the name of the tent village that follows the railroad construction, a migrating town that serves as base camp, bunker, and the industry of followers, from bars to brothels to a tent church determined to save souls from the hell around them.
Anson Mount stars as Confederate veteran Cullen Bohannan, who follows the trail of the Union renegades who murdered his wife and family to the railroad camp and ends up as the crew foreman, a job he takes only as cover for his mission. Common is Elam, a former slave who hasn’t found much opportunity in the wake of emancipation and the hangover of post-slavery racism. A murder wraps their destinies together, first as wary conspirators, then as allies. We’re not talking blood brothers here, but in a mercenary world where life is cheap and justice owned by the railroad boss (Colm Meaney), they find they can trust one another, and that saves both of their lives more than once.
Dominique McElligott co-stars as a widowed surveyor who choose stay on with the rough but exciting project rather than return to the constraints of society, and a whole world of characters revolved around the story: the preacher with a past (Tom Noonan, who is brilliant), the Christian Indian (Eddie Spears), the brutal Norwegian camp enforcer (Christopher Heyerdahl), a pair of young Irish entrepreneurs, and a tough hooker who carries the brand of her past as a captive of the Indians for all to see.
American Movie Classics commissioned the show to build on their growing slate of acclaimed originals (“Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”) and it’s an impressive physical production, hewn out of the Alberta wilderness locations and shot in shades of earth and steel and gunpowder. It hasn’t yet found a way to turn the interesting mix of personal conflict, racial tension, survivalist mentality, and the volatility of a tent city populated by violent, brutal, angry men, into a story as compelling as their best shows, but it’s promising enough to bring me back for the second season.
10 episodes on three discs on both Blu-ray and DVD. Both include the original featurette “Recreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels” and the short video piece “Crashing a Train: From Concept to Camera,” but these cobbled-together pieces are less polished than the 30-minutes of promotional featurettes made for AMC.
Also includes short video character profiles, five-minute “Inside the Episode” featurettes for each episode of the show, and 24 minutes of additional behind-the-scenes footage.