Right from the start, star Anson Mount and series creators Joe and Tony Gayton knew the TV western would be more than just a revenge story.
Editor’s Note: As we approach the 10th anniversary of Hell on Wheels, we’ve gone back into the C&I archives to take another look at what we’ve written about the acclaimed TV western starring Anson Mount. Here is the very first article we ran, which appeared shortly before the series premiered Nov. 6, 2011 on the AMC Network.
The name of the show is Hell on Wheels – and the title isn’t merely metaphorical.
To be sure, the eagerly awaited new western TV series – set to premiere Sunday, Nov. 6, on the AMC cable network – involves a relentless avenger who’s hell-bent on smiting the wicked. And just in case we miss the religious symbolism, the opening episode begins with the relentless protagonist — Cullen Bohannon (played by Anson Mount), a Confederate Army veteran hunting the Union soldiers responsible for his wife’s wartime death – gunning down one of the guilty parties in a church confessional.
But as writer-producers Joe and Tony Gayton are quick to point out, Hell on Wheels also refers, quite literally, to a traveling town. Specifically, it’s the name that was given to the itinerant collection of saloons, bordellos, bathhouses and gambling houses that followed hundreds of Union Pacific railroad workers during their westward progression while constructing the Transcontinental Railroad.
“It’s straight out the history books,” says Joe Gayton, who co-created Hell on Wheels — the series, not the town — with his brother Tony. “And when you think about it, the whole idea of a town that can pick up and move in one day — there’s nothing more American than that. What could be more American than a town that can pick up and travel on wheels?”
In Sunday’s premiere episode of Hell on Wheels, Cullen Bohannon travels to the titular traveling city in search of his human prey. By the end of the hour, it’s clear that he plans to stick around for a while — as an overseer of Union Pacific construction workers — but only for as long as it takes him to cross the final name from his to-kill list.
Of course, it’s entirely possible — if not absolutely certain — that he’ll reconsider his priorities if he gets a shot at redemption, and an opportunity to help make history.
“The key to the whole thing is the railroad,” says Anson Mount, an Illinois-born, Tennessee-reared actor whose previous TV series credits include Conviction, Third Watch and Line of Fire. “Because if we do our job right, this show isn’t just about revenge. Or even just about the building of a railroad. It’s really about the building of a nation.”
Or, more precisely, the re-building of a nation.
“Remember,” says Joe Gayton, “this all takes place during the aftermath of the Civil War. And you have all these different characters thrown together, working together, building the railroad. In some ways it’s like, a hundred years after the founding of America, we have the re-founding of this country.”
And while Bohannon’s quest for revenge sets the series into motion, Tony Gayton insists: “We don’t want this to be The Fugitive, by any means. To me, Bohannon is sort of like Odysseus – after fighting in a war, he’s looking for his home. The big difference is, he really doesn’t have one anymore.”
Among the other characters who loom large in the ongoing drama: Elam Ferguson (rapper-actor Common), an emancipated slave working to achieve true freedom while employed as a Union Pacific laborer; Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), a fiercely independent woman determined to survive in a man’s world after surviving a horrific Indian attack; Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney), a greedy entrepreneur who freely claims credit for “perfidy of epic proportions” while driving construction of the Transcontinental Railroad; Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), a “civilized” Native American torn between his culture and the changing world around him; and Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey McGinnes (Philip Burke), two young Irish immigrants looking to find their fortune in the American West.
The Gayton brothers admit to having a special regard for the McGinnes siblings. Says Tony: “It really appealed to me, this whole idea that you could have some guys from some Podunk village in Ireland come off the boat — and a couple of weeks later, be working on the railroad out in the middle of nowhere. And if they walk out too far, they could be captured or killed by Indians.”
Joe and Tony did extensive research while plotting the ten episodes that comprise the debut season of Hell on Wheels, in the hope striking the perfect balance between historical accuracy and riveting drama. In the Wild West world they have created, some Native Americans (including a tribal leader played by the great Wes Studi) are nobly heroic, while some unpleasant palefaces truly are bloodthirsty savages.
And nobody — not even the manipulative Durant — achieves anything without sacrifice.
“I think what impressed me the most,” Tony says, “is just how tough these people were. There’s a lot of talk about the World War II generation as The Greatest Generation — and my dad was part of that generation — and they were certainly tough. But I don’t know if they were any tougher than these people coming out of the Civil War and going out there to build a railroad. Think of the deprivations they had to deal with, for such low wages.
“Put it like this: The railroad couldn’t have been built by a bunch of complainers.”
The Transcontinental Railroad “was the engineering marvel of the 19th century,” Anson Mount says. “When its plans were announced, nobody thought it was possible. But once the project got started, and people began to see it really might be possible, it became a story that captured the imagination of the entire country.
“You know, if we were just going to play this revenge arc — that’s really a short arc. You could drag out [Cullen Bohannon] chasing the guy he’s after over a number of seasons. But eventually, that’s going to get boring. Because it’s a single target, and there’s only so much dodging and chasing that you can do.
“So if you want to portray a higher ideal in your hero, a beautiful way of doing that is to introduce another arc. Something that is idealistic, that he has a choice to get on board with or not. And in this case, it’s the Transcontinental Railroad. And through that, we get to see the constructive side, the believer side of Cullen.
“Of course,” he adds with a chuckle, “the darker side of the character might eventually resurface. But I don’t want to give away too much right now.”