"Hell on Wheels" - Season 1 DVD/Blu-Ray Review

By Jamie Ruby

Hell on WheelsAMC's Hell on Wheels takes place in the traveling town of Hell on Wheels after the Civil War, during the Union Pacific's construction of the first transcontinental railroad. The show follows former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, who is out for revenge to find the Union soldier who killed his wife.

The series does a great job of chronicling the way of life after the civil war. It feels true to life and does not shy away from atrocities like the treatment of the newly emancipated African-Americans, or the whore houses and the way women in general were treated at the time, or the brutality of the Indians and what our nation took from them. It really pulls you into the time period and makes you feel like you have been transported there.

It's easy to see that a lot of research was done and care was taken to get the gritty look of the show, from the fully constructed town to the blood and dirt caked wardrobe. If you like historical features, that is one thing the series brings to the table in spades. Hell on Wheels tries to stay true to the events and conditions of the time. The scale of everything feels like a mini movie from week to week.

Hell on WheelsIf you love westerns you should love Hell on Wheels, but don't shy away from it if you don't. When I started to watch the Blu-ray set to review, I honestly didn't think I would like it - westerns and historical type shows are really not my cup of tea at all. However, I found Hell on Wheels to be very relatable. The characters are so well developed I found myself easily engrossed in the show and watching more episodes in one evening then I originally planned. Let's face it, no matter how good artistically something looks, there has to be substance there, and Hell on Wheels brings it. It's easy to get interested in not only Bohannon, but all the character's day to day lives during the construction of the railroad.

The series boasts a truly superb cast, lead by Anson Mount as Bohannon. From the beginning to the end of the season, it's not clear whether his character is truely a good man. He sticks up for what's right yet he kills men without much thought. Regardless of his motivations and decisions, he is great to watch with his easy grace and dry humor.

Colm Meany plays the part of Thomas Durant, a greedy business man based on a real person in history. Durant, one of the major shareholders of Union Pacific, is being paid subsidies by the US govenment to complete the railroad. A dishonest and often cruel man, he takes every advantage he can get. He is paid per mile of the transcontinental railroad and therefore forces his workers to make the path of the railroad very curvy to use as much track as he can. Although shrewd, there are times during the season where you actually start to like Durant, as he can be very charming, especially when it comes to Lily Bell.

Lily Bell is played by Dominique McElligott. Lily's husband, Robert, was overseeing the railroad construction and figured out a path to the Rocky Mountains. While out together he was killed by an Indian, who Lily subsequently killed. Bell is quite the tough woman, doing things women of her time wouldn't dream of doing - from killing the Indian, to suturing her own arrow wound, to laying her own floor in her tent. She does things her own way and strives to finish out her husband's dream, even if it means playing nice with Durant.

Another character to stand out is Elam Ferguson, played by Common. Elam is one of the recently freed slaves working on the railroad, but he has much higher ambitions. I actually felt Elam was probably one of the most fleshed out characters and Common does a fantastic job. People may not treat him as their equal, but he won't back down without a fight. He is worthy of the men's respect and trust, and he will be ruthless if he must. I also found his relationship with Eva very compelling.

Originally an Indian captive, Eva is whore in Hell on Wheels, and as much as she acts like the other women of the time, she stands out and is the only woman willing to sleep with (and eventually fall for) Elam, which of course causes a bunch of trouble.

Another character that needs mentioning is "The Swede", played by Christopher Heyerdahl. He heads Durant's security, but often in his own ruthless way. He seeks to keep everyone under his control and kills those who disobey him on a whim. He is constantly after Bohannon who he suspects is wanted for murder.

Other important characters include Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) who tries to keep peace between the town and the Indians, and Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), an Indian who wants to find a peaceful way to coexist with the white men. Other members of the supporting cast include brothers Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke).

I specifically reviewed the Blu-ray set and watched each of the bonus features to review them each as well. Besides the ten episodes the disc set includes the following.

Hell on WheelsRecreating the Past: The Making of Hell on Wheels - This featurette is very interesting if you like to learn about how things are made. Different people of the production go into detail about how they created things, such as the sets, set dressing, etc. It also talks a great deal about the research and authenticity of the look to the show, as well as keeping it consistant. They also explain how they had to remove or cover modern conveniences such as telephone polls. Another big part of the featurette is on the construction of the train engine.

Crashing the Train: From Concept to Camera - this is exactly what it sounds like.

Inside Hell on Wheels Featurettes:

Making-of Featureettes - There are seven of them (About Hell on Wheels, The Guns, The Wardrobe, The Meaning of the Railroad, Building the Train, Locations and Sets, Dirt Medicine) and they go into detail about creating different looks of the series.

Character Featurettes - There are seven of them (Cullen Bohannon, Elam Ferguson, Thomas Durant, Lily Bell, The McGinnes Brothers, Pawnee Killer, and Joseph Black Moon). Each actor talks about their characters and the basics such as why they took the part and such. The Swede for some reason is not one of the features, but there is some more on him in the episode featurettes.

Episode Featurettes - These "inside the episode" extras obviously talk about each episode. Pieces of them are repeats from the above features.

Behind-the-Scenes Footage - This featurette is mostly just footage of the show being shot. Most of it is insignificant little pieces, like extras walking around, but there are some bits that are interesting to see how it is done and to watch it from a behind the scenes point of view, such as McElligott getting covered with blood.


Lastly I want to take a moment to mention the actual packaging of the Blu-ray. The set contains three discs, four episodes on the first two and two on the third along with the bonuses. I like the fact this one of the thinner sets (it doesn't fold out or anything). The only really complaint that I have is about the way the content is listed. While the discs do tell which episodes are on each (by number only) and which has the bonuses, if you want specific episode titles or a list of the bonus features you have to either take out the discs or take out the wrap-around cover, there is no insert or book with the information, nor any episode summaries. Therefore if you were to look at the disc in the store you would have no idea what bonuses you are getting at all (all that is on the back is the credits), which is something that really irks me. Though, in the DVD set's defense, at least it has the episode list there, some sets don't have anything. Other than that it is standard packaging that you would expect and it had a simple insert ad for season two with an ad for Breaking Bad on the back.

Hell on Wheels is created, written, and executive-produced by Joe and Tony Gayton, and is developed by Endemol USA and produced by Entertainment One.

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