Were I into making tortured analogies, I might call AMC’s Hell on Wheels the feisty little brother of Deadwood. You know, cause it’s smaller and less cool but it TRIES hard. It also tends to imitate its older, much more awesome sibling in a way that’s fairly pathetic. If I were drawing a picture to illustrate this, I’d sketch a skinny kid wearing clothes two sizes too big, with a look on his face like he was trying to be cool but a little glimmer of sadness in his eye, as if he knew how pitiful and lame he looked.
The word I’m looking for here is “self-conscious.” Season 1 of Hell on Wheels looked classy and had a rich enough plot, and there was enough action and the characters were for the most part not boring, but it never came together into a great show, it always remained slightly awkward and timid and lacking in confidence. It had the pieces to be a great show, but the pieces were never woven into anything that made you say “Holy crap I NEED to watch this show.” It was more like, “Well Breaking Bad and Mad Men are a few months away from coming back. Guess I’ll watch this thing…”
The lack of confidence and direction that afflicted Hell on Wheels, I believe was directly attributable to a bad case of Deadwood envy. The writers were clearly inspired by David Milch’s truncated masterpiece, and in fact borrowed liberally from it, but what they never got was how to assemble the parts they were borrowing into something that could live and breathe on its own. They could ape the moves, but they could never inject the soul. What they ended up with verged on pastiche. Had they come to the table with all their own ideas, maybe they could’ve created something new and original, instead of a slightly wimpy Deadwood semi-homage.
How glaring was this Deadwood pilfering? It may not have been egregious, but it was there. And after awhile it got to be a little comical. Here are the more obvious acts of thievery:
Hero starts out motivated by self-interest but is ultimately cast as a reluctant authority figure.
Deadwood: Ex-lawman Seth Bullock just wants to put away his badge and run a hardware store with his Jewish buddy. But circumstances and his own moral righteousness, not to mention his being the toughest hombre in the whole camp, force him to take up sheriffing again.
Hell on Wheels: Ex-army officer Cullen Bohannan just wants to avenge his dead wife by shooting people. But circumstances and his own more-or-less moral nature, not to mention his gift for organizing and motivating a labor force, cause him to take on an unwanted leadership role in the camp.
Heroine’s dopey husband conveniently dies, freeing her to shack up with the hero, but not before she endures a terrible physical trial related to the husband’s death.
Deadwood: Alma’s husband is thrown off the rim by Dan Dority as part of Al’s scheme to acquire his gold mine. Widow Alma descends into a laudanum haze to deal with her grief but finally pulls herself out of it with the help of Trixie and the orphan. She has hot sex with the married Seth.
Hell on Wheels: Lily’s husband seems like he is going to die of tuberculosis but – bait-and-switch! – he gets killed by Indians instead. Lily survives the attack only to be lost in the wilderness, wounded and stalked by natives. She is rescued by the Christian Indian Joseph (before Bohannan swoops in). She never actually gets around to doing it with the widower Bohannan in Season 1 but, come on. Think those two won’t be hooking up in season 2?
Rather than turn tail like everyone expects, plucky heroine uses her dopey dead husband’s legacy to buy her way into the endeavor at hand.
Deadwood: Everyone thinks Alma will go back east after her husband’s demise. Instead she uses his gold money to start a bank.
Hell on Wheels: Everyone thinks Lily will go back east after her husband’s demise. Instead she uses his vital maps as leverage to get in on the railroad with Durant.
Hero’s best friend is a minority who shacks up with a scarred prostitute (cause scarred prostitutes are the only ones who can truly understand the plight of an outcast in a world full of hateful, greedy bigots).
Deadwood: Seth’s best friend is Sol Star, a Jew. Sol does it with Trixie, who worked for Al Swearengen and bears his mark of ownership but only psychologically; this makes her scarring emotional and not physical.
Hell on Wheels: Cullen’s best friend is Elam, a freed slave. Elam does it with Eva, who was once held captive by Indians and now bears their mark of ownership in the form of a sexy chin tattoo.
The preacher goes nuts.
Deadwood: Reverend Smith goes crazy from a tumor. He is mercy-killed by Swearengen.
Hell on Wheels: Reverend Cole goes crazy cause he’s pretty much a murdering psycho at heart and the religion stuff was just a band-aid. He needs to be mercy-killed before he chops anymore heads off.
Guy everyone thought was dead comes back as a man of Jesus.
Deadwood: Creepy Tolliver henchman Andy catches smallpox and gets dumped in the woods to die. Calamity Jane saves his life and in gratitude Andy leaves behind his nefarious ways and turns to teaching the Word.
Hell on Wheels: Elam shoots sick racist Toole in the mouth but he somehow doesn’t die. Toole returns to the camp ranting about Jesus and begging for forgiveness.
Conveying a character’s lonely outsider status by giving them a big old hat.
Deadwood: Joanie Stubbs, the melancholy lesbian prostitute who breaks away from the control freak Cy only to fail miserably in her own brothel-running endeavor thanks largely to the homicidal activities of Hearst’s agent Wolcott, wears a giant fashionable top hat (which she thinks makes her seem more elegant).
Hell on Wheels: Joseph Black Moon, the Cheyenne who left his tribe and learned about Jesus at the foot of Reverend Cole, wears a signature black hat (which he thinks makes him seem more white).
Perhaps these similarities are only coincidental. If so I apologize to the writers of Hell on Wheels. You are not sneaky imitators after all. By the way, my advice for you in Season 2? If you insist on continuing to slyly rip off the greatest Western TV show in history, why not rip off the single most memorable aspect of that show? You know what I mean. Al Swearengen. Nowhere in Season 1 of Hell on Wheels is there a character who’s truly analogous to Deadwood’s foul-mouthed, scheming, over-sexed, possibly psychotic tavern owner/pimp. Durant? He’s a speechifying douchebag Capitalist, not a hard-bitten crook/entrepreneur with a thing for berating cripples. The Swede? He’s no Al. He’s a one-note cartoon villain with a hair-cut from a ‘20s German expressionist horror movie.
That’s what Hell on Wheels Season 2 really needs: Someone who entertainingly embodies the filthy, venal, anything-to-survive spirit of the frontier like Al did. Bohannan as an anti-hero is all right, but he’s fundamentally a decent dude and therefore somewhat dull. Durant is a smug bore and the Swede is something from a Dick Tracy comic. There’s no one here to develop a beautiful, conflicted relationship with. To steal a line from Pauline Kael: Al Swearengen is the man you hate to love. Hell on Wheels doesn’t have a single character worth hating or loving. All it has are some borrowed moves from the big brother it adores and envies and can never be like. And some nice shots of grass.