‘Hell On Wheels’ Season 1 Finale Review

Published 3 years ago by

Anson Mount and Ben Esler Hell on Wheels God of Chaos Hell On Wheels Season 1 Finale Review

When AMC announced it had picked up Tony and Joe Gayton’s television western Hell on Wheels, the news set off a string of speculative buys across the various other networks scrambling to reproduce AMC’s success, as was the case with Mad Men. After having viewed the complete first season of Hell on Wheels, however, the onslaught of pending westerns need not fret, the best is still waiting to be discovered because AMC has set the bar incredibly low.

Having previously written revenge flicks like Faster and The Salton Sea, it was of little surprise that the Gayton brothers would choose to begin the story of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) by having his trek west be fueled with a thirst for vengeance. What is surprising is how quickly everyone – the writers and Mr. Bohannon – seemingly forgot the premise of the series. After the pilot, HoW quickly shifted gears into a hackneyed look at the United States’ expansion west and how the concept of “manifest Destiny” irrevocably altered the lives of everyone in its path.

This, in and of itself, would not have been an uninteresting avenue to explore – especially considering the bitter conflict of America’s Civil War is still a fresh memory, while the war’s larger, societal impact is still being felt and understood by those who consider themselves the architects of such a “destiny,” and those who have largely been caught under the boot of said progression.

Unfortunately for Hell on Wheels and its audience, there was little exploration going on in the ten episodes that comprised the program’s first season. Though the series seemed intent on delivering some sort of social commentary on the topics of race, class and gender equality, it generally did so with all the grace and subtlety of a large rock being thrown through a plate glass window. The result of which, forced the abandonment of not one possible storyline, but all of them – a point realized after the season’s final episode ‘God of Chaos.’

At first it seemed as though Hell on Wheels was deliberately telling a slow story in order to build toward an unexpected, or somehow grand climax. Instead, over the course of the season, it became obvious that HoW wasn’t just taking its time getting to where it was going, it actually had no idea where it was headed. The meandering storyline could have been forgiven had the guts of the series not delivered such maddeningly derisive content most of the time.


The alarming convenience of the storytelling comes to a head after Sgt. Harper – the supposed last man on Bohannon’s “to kill list” – is brought to Hell on Wheels by the Swede, so that he may testify to Bohannon’s supposed culpability in the death of the previous foreman. The last time we saw Harper it was episode 3, and the Sergeant was shooting Bohannon’s horse out from under him from a quarter-mile off and then scampering away into the woods. Now, it would be impressive if the Swede had simply bested Bohannon’s tracking skills by finding the elusive Sgt. Harper first, but the fact of the matter is, Bohannon never really bothered to look for him.

Christopher Heyerdahl as the Swede Hell on Wheels Hell On Wheels Season 1 Finale Review

Harper’s presence in Hell on Wheels is intended to give the audience some notion of resolution because we’re all supposed to have been incredibly concerned with Bohannon’s quest for vengeance – though he’s not bothered by it much.

Between Bohannon looking for Harper and finding him, the rest of the episode concerns itself with Durant’s 40-mile celebration party, which basically sets up the status quo for next season.

Durant suspects Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) of having feelings for Bohannon – which would likely come to a surprise to her, as she’s conveyed no such emotion either outright or indirectly this entire season – and wants Bohannon gone, so, despite cutting the Swede off at every turn in all previous episodes, Durant relents, and authorizes the Swede to do…whatever it is he wants to do with Bohannon.

Before he can see that pesky southerner pay for his crimes, the Swede falls victim to the McGinnes brothers, who, after taking Bohannon’s advice on dealing with the extortionist completely wrong, arrange a mob to tar and feather the lanky fellow with what looks to be piping-hot ink.

Oh, and Tom Noonan, as the Reverend Cole, once again brings the crazy to whatever roll he plays. Thank you, for your consistency, Tom Noonan.

By the end of it, Bohannon and the Swede are both on the run, Elam is left wondering if he’s made the right decision and Lily is ostensibly left to deal with Durant’s unmitigated pining and requests for her affection. And the audience is left wondering just what we were supposed to get from this story.

As mentioned above, the time period in which Hell on Wheels is set should, for most, be considered plum territory to explore, and yet much of that has been left largely untapped. In 10 episodes, the concern of nearly all characters of the program was the notion of whether or not the railroad would carry on past the illustrious 40-mile mark that Thomas Durant (Colm Meany) had been tasked to reach before the government dollars began to roll in. The expansion of a railroad could be interesting television, if this were a program about railroad expansion – or at least one that confined itself to such a singular thought – but Hell on Wheels isn’t that; it is not content to tell one story well when it can touch upon a myriad of topics without actually having anything interesting to say about any of them.

Common as Elam Ferguson Hell on Wheels Hell On Wheels Season 1 Finale Review

There was simply not enough mining of the notion that America’s expansion west was an undeniable push of modernity run by cold, mechanical ruthlessness that does not wish to stop and contemplate the destruction of another culture’s way of life. Instead, Hell on Wheels conveniently depicts the Native Americans as a bunch of guys who’re just not really getting this whole “locomotive” thing, and they’re basically getting in the way. For most of the season, the Cheyenne have largely been reduced to the role of poorly realized villains, and given none appear in the final episode, they are apparently minor ones at that.

More than the missed storytelling opportunities, however, the most egregious error with Hell on Wheels is that week-in-and-week-out the series exhibits some of the most deplorable dialogue ever uttered on an AMC program. It is the sort of dialogue that either assumes all of its characters are morons, or, worse yet, those viewing the program are. The script rams home the meaning of everyone’s words by following up a line of dialogue with an explanation of what was just said. Perhaps there would be more time for content and quality storytelling if everything weren’t said twice, and the actors were given the opportunity to infer further meaning through anything other than poorly written dialogue.

As it stands, Hell on Wheels has a long way to go before it can justify being on the same network as Mad Men, Breaking Badand The Walking Dead. With AMC readying season 2, lets hope the Gayton brothers enlist some help in the scripting department – otherwise there might not be an audience left for season 3.


Hell on Wheels returns to AMC in late 2012.

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  1. I was kind of annoyed by how the pulled a similar trick the killing pulled with their finale, in how that the supposed bad guy is captured and we come to find out it’s not the right guy. Also Elam’s story in this episode was not that good. I’m interested to see where the show goes from here, personally I liked the episode pretty good although I have seen better finales. Finally my last thought is that I disagree with the statement about the Cheyenne being only villains, yes there were renegades, but the Chief and the others did not want to things to resort to violence and also I thought their arc where they are explaining how it is technically their land was well done.

    • Except they are only 40 miles from Omaha, there were no Cheyenne around here, nor maurading bands of Native Americans in 1865.

  2. I wasn’t too impressed at first with this show, but then the last few episodes started to gain my interest. I truly believed the sluggish pacing was finally leading to something…possibly something great.
    Then the finale happened.
    Tired, slow, go nowhere episode. A hollow dance. A tar & feathering that completely lacked any intensity. A boring chase and murder void of any tension.
    In the end, we were right back where we started with episode one.

  3. Glad I didn’t end up buying the episodes on iTunes (got a new DVR). I thought the same thing about the race relations. Oh well, I’ve been watching “Deadwood” at the gym while doing cardio. Thanks HBO GO!

  4. I’ve really been trying really hard to like this show. It’s so disappointing that I”m probably going to throw in the towel unless the premier of season 2 has something (anything) truly interesting. I feel like the writers were just hoping to avoid getting the pilot to work and never really thought through the overall story arc. This is a Deadwood starter kit at best. The necessary twists that must happen to get Bohannon and The Swede (the most interesting characters by far) back in to the overall story in season 2 will definitely require some serious willingness to suspend disbelief. Maybe another miracle a la Toole’s survial of a gunshot to the mouth will allow the Swede and foreman Bohannon back into Hell on Wheels. Speaking of poorly created bad guys, why is Toole back and in more than one scene? That was an empowering moment to see Elam take revenge for so much suffering at Toole’s hands and then *whammo* a cheesy, contrived miracle and he’s back? Hard to believe Toole would have changed in the world of Hell on Wheels when no one else seems to. I’m just tired of seeing him limp around with his missing chiclets and hunched shoulders looking for forgiveness and acceptance. He was the least subtle character and now we’re to believe that he has lost all of his mean-sprited racist vitriol? Please.

    It’s just too bad given all that this story could have provided that the writers have presented us this hollow story arc. I’m surprised it has been renewed for the second season, especially given AMC’s high standards for their other dramas. Crap on Wheels if you ask me!

    • Crap on Wheels, indeed! Haha. Couldn’t agree more, especially after seeing two episodes of the second season. Actually 1 1/2 eps, as I left episode 2 when Elam brutally murdered a man by repeatedly stabbing him in the gut. This, in revenge for the man killing a prostitute; Lilly Belle had hired him to kill the killer. I had predicted mass violence in season two because the makers of this travesty are probably angry for not being taken for the “artistes” they obviously are. All these mean spirited reviews and posts have made them reckless.

      Rent Deadwood, seasons one and two (skip three) and see profanity raised to a high art (shocking at first)and subtle, deeply nuanced characterizations loaded with bitter humor. Ian Mcshane as Al Swearingen is brilliant, murderous and funny. (Al is a cousin of mine in real life) Al is the anti-Durant. The Durant character is so cliched, I expect him to don a mustache so he can twirl it when speaking the idiotic dialogue he has to say.

      Anson Mount is probably a good actor, but not here. He could take a cue from Timothy Oliphant in Deadwood. Tim was intense but there was humor and light sarcasm in him and best of all, intelligence percolating beneath a restrained surface.

      H.O.w. reminds me of some of the old westerns from the fifties and sixties — Bonanza, Big Valley and such. Only bloodier. So much bloodier.

      • Was this written by a 5 year old? Rubbish and bad taste. Two things you surely have. Of course, your lack of depth will not allow you to enjoy this show. Please just keep to your simple life with simpler ideas.

  5. To be on the same scale as BB and MM yes I agree long way to go, but IMO far above walking Dead already. Put that show to shame.

  6. Thw Walking Dead duffers from many of the flaws you list here, only much much worse. Poor dialogue, dumb characters, convenient plot coincidences, touches on a myruiad of topics, but only very superficially.

  7. I didnt mind the dialogue throughout the season. It took me watching 7 shows to connect with any of the characters. The season finale was boring! The meeting with the Indian chief was well written I thought. Up to this point I haven’t been a fan of Common’s acting but I thought he was pretty good in this show. Episodes 7 & 8 were about the best. This is the first show I’ve watched on AMC.

  8. I missed the HOW finale and was searching for a rerun date, when I found this review. I completely agree with the post. I have been befuddled since the first episode wondering what this show is really about. It goes in several directions even though nothing interesting ever happens. The way the Cheyenne have been depicted reminds me of the old B westerns.
    I love Breaking Bad, and was really intrigued with the Walking Dead because of the characters and the situation. I wanted to like HOW and I may give it another chance, but I won’t stay with it long if it continues to be this lackluster and muddled.

  9. I completely disagreed with this review. The dialogue, as well as the situations and weaponry for this period, was dead on. The parties behind this show did a lot of research.

    • A lot or research? You have got to be kidding, right? The scenery is wrong, laying track in standing water, Cheyenne in Eastern Nebraska, Durant hops on his private train and makes it to Chicago and back in two or three days, guy gets shot point blank in the mouth and survivies, Native people who couldn’t see the blonde haired white woman less than 100 yards from their camp, white Christian woman having sex with converted Indian, everyone having sex with whores but no one has VD, Union troops supposedly attached to Sherman who somehow ended up in Meridian Mississippi, growing tobacco in Mississippi, period inappropriate weapons, language, customs, etc., etc., etc. ….

      • Thank you Mark— yours is most comprehensive list of insults to the audience’s intelligence I’ve seen yet. A few more in random order: Why are so many characters bareheaded? Why are the railroad workers so clean? Lilly, an intelligent woman, sails into her hateful in laws’ home wearing bright orange outfit; a clear violation of even the most liberal of mourning customs. Sherman actually was in Meridian early in 1864; he burned it down—but how did Bohannan leave Virgnia and travel over Yankee held territory arriving in Meridian right after his wife and son were killed? He’d described himself as a small tobacco farmer; his home looked downright palatial — small farmers with 4 or 5 slaves would have lived in quite crude and modest circumstances. He said in episode 8 (i think) that he was at the bridge at Antietam/Sharpsburg, picking off piles of Yankees. In reality, it was a skeleton force of Georgia sharpshooters who did that, the 2nd and 20th Ga. infantry regiments, and a small contingent the Palmetto Sharpshooters from SC. Why did the Swede leave Bohannan in the railroad car long enough for him (Bohannan) to escape? Why are we bruised and bleeding from being hit over the head with clubs about racial attitudes in that era. I think the show jumped the shark with the miraculous recovery of Toole; this was almost laughable and was done solely to set up a silly scene where Toole could fall on his knees and beg for forgiveness for being a racist. As the reviewer said above, the characters had to drive home every point again and again — there was a quite good scene of Bohannan (white), Elam (African American, and Joseph (Native American) riding out of camp together. The Yankee Lieutenant was compelled to sneer “well looka here boys; we got ourselves a rainbow!” Dear Lord. They named the renegade Cheyenne “Pawnee Killer” and then killed him in the show, set in 1865. The real Pawnee Killer lived several years longer. Where was the humor in this show? I’ll stop now and make a prediction: The two smug brothers who made this show are incapable of self analysis, completely lacking in a sense of humor or the absurd, have a Messianic turn of mind where race is concerned, and they will resort to depicting extreme violence next season to attract viewers.

        • Pay attention to the show, it will answer alot of ur questions. Some of ur questions don’t make sense or just over critical of the show

          • Um Macpall, I took ur advice and paid attention to the show. Too much attention. I’ll have to disagree with ur opinion and say this show is total crap and an insult to the audience.

            ur frend

            G in Ga

      • It is entertainment-and to enjoy it you must not violate the only rule which is “the willing suspension of disbelief.” The show has much promise, and there are various avenues the series can now take that they have been renewed. If I want to watch an historically correct show I’ll watch the History Channel. I liked it, and there are apparently many more that do also.

      • Ur dumb

        • Ur dumb? Who is Ur?

  10. I Just Read Some Of The Revues For The First Season Of Hell On Wheels, I Have Been A Western Movie Buff For Years,And I Just Don’t Get The Negative Views,This Was Just The Way I Would Think The Building A Railroad Through The Midwest Would Have Taken Place. Mud And Mire And Tents To Live In As They Were Clearing Ground And Laying Track. The North And South Still Had Scars To Heal,And The Only Way To Do That Was To Go East And West.
    Comparing This Series To The Walking Dead,Which Is Completely Fantasy,And Make Up Is Not On The Pro Side Of Movie Making.
    I Think The Writers Of Hell On Wheels Have It Just Right,And Have A Hit In My Opinion.

  11. totally disagree, I really enjoy this show and find it interesting. I do however understand how it is frustrating that it doesn’t focus on one single point and hope it clears up in season 2. Comparing it to Walking Dead is completely off track. I personally don’t consider the Walking Dead that interesting, just a brand new idea that was never explored before, a TV show about zombies. I mainly watch it to see zombie-head-smashing…otherwise I’m not hooked on it at all (it’s finale was good though). HoW on the other hand takes a period with many conflicts and I find myself wayyyy more hooked on it than the Walking Dead. The meshing of races may be inaccurate but it exposes the tensions between them… i.e. when elam is almost killed. I did find the season finale anti-climactic however and find the ending of the second-to-last episode had a bigger wtf moment…
    Overall, I am excited about the show and hope that it narrows some of its story lines in season 2. I greatly disagree with this review mostly on the fact that I am interested in the show, much more so than the walking dead which is better than HoW according to this review. Perhaps the language was this way in the 19th century, we’re dealing with recently freed slaves who were not allowed to learn to read for the majority of their life so the fact that their language is simplistic does not surprise me. there are also new immigrants who’s education is no doubt lacking and education has not been standardized in this period. If you’re asking for them to talk like we do in the modern era because that makes you feel smarter…what are you thinking. I personally see the language as FITTING THE TIME PERIOD as many of these men and women were not sent to fancy finishing school and the public schooling system has not yet been implemented so how could they talk intelligently.

  12. I disagree with this review, I’ve really enjoyed this show. Yes, the story-line has been slow in places but I feel they’ve spent time actually developing the characters. Deplorable dialogue? Really? What show have you been watching? Are you expecting it to sound like Deadwood?! No, apparently you expect it to sound like Mad Men or Walking Dead, two totally different styles of shows. This show doesn’t speak down to it’s audience, doesn’t “explain” so the audience gets what they’re saying.

    In your review I find you making a lot of assumptions such as “bohannon never bothering to look for the seargant.” They don’t state that, so you assumed that…looking to find fault. If you are going to review something don’t make crap up.

  13. I watched the first episode of Hell On Wheels and throughout muttered comments that only could come from the mouth of Al Swearington. But I am DOUBLY incensed that the Gaytons have decided to rape the story of Olive Oatman for her tattoos, turning her into a whore. Olive Oatman was a tragic figure who’s ‘disfigurement’ and captivity was paraded across the West as proof of the savagery of the tribe that actually rescued her. The insensitivity shown by the Gaytons further insult is despicable.

  14. its a great show if u dont think so u are wrong

  15. Like most crap coming out of hollywood, this show goes to great lengths to offend and marginalize white males…who’d have thought it in a western. Plus, could they have a more stereotypical view of the German workers, always pitting them unfavorably against the Irish and pretty much everyone else…it makes me wonder about the ethnicity of the writers and producers of this show. They seem to have to agenda here.

  16. Sean, my thoughts exactly. There doesn’t seem to be time in between the shootin’ and stabbin’ to develop multi dimensional characters. I do like the cohones the Irish brothers are revealing and predict they will rise in prominence within the HOW community. That’s probably my own Irish DNA kicking in. This season, although extremely violent, is shaping up a little better than I thought. My hubby loves it so I watch it, saving my critiques for when the commercials are on.

    The racial/ethnic thing has been done to death on this show, the strokes are so broad, its almost satirical at times. They created the character Elam, who could never, ever have existed in that time and place as he is written in this show, in my opinion. He’s having these huge struggles when the smaller ones former slaves faced in post Civil War America could have been far more interesting. He could have been a force within the Black community in the town to gradually work for, and achieve, some respect and rights. Now that he’s been kicked back down in Ep. 5, perhaps he’ll do that.

    I don’t know why the hell I care about this show. Actually, I like to watch hunky Anson Mount doing anything. That’s probably it.