I’m gonna do something a bit different this time in that this isn’t about anime, a video game, or even live action J-drama. It’s about an AMC series that’s pretty popular apparently and was somewhat recently put on Netflix – so I tried it out and what I found was something I can’t help but write about. In the most apt terms for a show about building the Union Pacific Railroad, this series is a complete trainwreck. I have to admit, I’m not even quite sure what this is – is it a review? Or just an excuse to tell the world about whatever this fucking show is? I don’t know anymore. Prepare to see “insane” and various synonyms a few hundred times as you read this.
I really don’t know where to begin – not only because I’m trying to cover five and a half seasons (the entire show aside the second half of 5 which hadn’t aired and so isn’t on netflix) but also because there are just so many things to mention and I don’t want this to be longer than my average review because I don’t want to care enough to write some multi-part massive thesis paper on why this show is so fucking terrible. I don’t even know how to really explain the premise and all the official summaries are insanely inaccurate like calling this a revenge story when that stops about 3 episodes in to season 1 and very rarely comes up ever again. It’s basically immediately after the civil war and is about a bunch of equally fucking retarded and insane characters working on the Union Pacific Railroad in it’s race with Central Pacific to the west coast though 90% of it is dedicated to character-drama which doesn’t work well when none of the characters make any sense.
I will say the acting is okay – it wasn’t amazing or anything, it was fine though and “fine” by AMC standards is better than what you’d usually expect from them so it’s worth noting. It still suffers from things like “dead” characters still breathing very fucking obviously because the actor couldn’t be assed to hold his breath 3 seconds for a shot, some over the top reactions that nearly mimic anime in how ridiculous they are, and so on – but for the most part it wasn’t terrible. As bad as the writing was for those characters, the actors managed to believably be those unbelievable, inconsistent, stupid fucking people. Expecting higher tier acting than that from AMC is a bit much, especially when one of the most main characters is played by Common – a rapper that nobody even remembers because nobody knew him in the first place…and when he’s one of the better actors.
I’ll also give them credit where it’s due – I really respect the set designers because, well, in this case the “set” was a few locations of nothing but grass and dirt out in Canada where the designers built the actual 3 main locations and even added all the dirt and mud themselves and built everything from scratch – all the buildings are “real” and any with interiors are also those actual buildings. It’s really cool to see something like that these days when everything is on a sound stage, built in a backlot half-assedly for better camera angles by not having a back wall, etc. They even, according to some behind the scenes stuff, would have to build stuff on the fly pretty often and most of all this construction took place in -20 degree weather. Unlike the rest of this entire show, the guys who did this really deserve some commendation when the industry avoids all this work at all costs yet they went to an extreme and they did a fantastic job as well. There is some realllllly awful CG work (most notably for explosions) and things like that, but the main sets were all real.
That aside, not only does Hell on Wheels fall victim to that typical issue of AMC with it’s acting, but many others as well. If you’ve seen anything they’ve had a hand in you’ll easily guess this one; a shitty unfitting and annoying insert song in nearly every episode to force whatever feeling they want at the time and failing at it. Don’t forget the complete misunderstanding of how guns work, though this at least is a step up from how terrible that aspect is in The Walking Dead. Of course there’s also a lot of terrible directing that doesn’t understand how terrible it is from someone who clearly thinks they are an artistic genius with awful “cinematic” scenes that aren’t cinematic or meaningful, but just overly long nothing-fucking-happens scenes that fail to even set a mood. It’s also one of those cases in media that name-drops itself at every turn, in this case because the main camp is literally called Hell on Wheels.
Let’s get to what really makes this…amazing? EVERYTHING and EVERYONE in this show is genuinely insane, convoluted, retarded, inconsistent, and somehow interconnected at every turn (because that makes writing good by default!), making for one of the biggest most unbelievable and just plain goddamn strange clusterfucks imaginable.
Let’s start with “The Swede” who is in fact the main antagonist of the entire show after starting out as a nobody who seemed would only be relevant for an arc throughout maybe the first half of season 1. He never dies no matter what and he’s beyond comic book villains when it comes to being an insanely over the top pointlessly evil character – especially given he HAS NO MOTIVES, not even “I’m evil because I’m evil”. There’s NOTHING. He just IS evil and to the most outlandish level possible.
He starts out as an asshole who runs security for this place but hates Bohannon (the MC), then he hates him more because he ends up getting one of the employees of the railroad killed and steals his job, then he arrests Bohannon and gives him his sob story and talks about his “immoral mathematics” which is an edgy way of saying “making hard decisions that may impact people’s lives or livelihoods”. There was an attempt here at making him something more than the absolute NOTHING he is, but it flopped. Bohannon ends up continuing how he does and The Swede just becomes more and more insane, stalking him, putting together all sorts of torn up news paper clippings to prove Bohannon is an evil killer and running around telling his boss about it like some kind of 9/11 truther, and of course by doing that seeming like he actually cares about that and wants him brought in for his injustices or because he might kill him. He doesn’t though, he’s just crazy. His insane tirades and such never end and he’s a constant source of problems for our lead for awhile. Then he ends up fired and stuck picking up dead bodies and burying them, while going even more insane and believing – from digging up the bones of a sabertooth randomly – that he is some sort of God.
However, he then goes from an asshole stalker truther into someone bent on destroying Hell on Wheels for absolutely no reason and killing everyone in it because he just does. At this point he manages to make the priest, another member of our rather large and focused on cast, just completely lose his mind out of nowhere and with seemingly no effort whatsoever. He takes ONE EPISODE to turn this guy from a normal priest who truly believes what he’s preaching into trying to kill everyone in Hell on Wheels and writing an insane manifesto about nonsensical bullshit that the staff didn’t bother figuring out. In the same episode we learn The Swede has managed to become a very literal God to the native americans in the area because they are so fucking stupid that after he was tarred and feathered by the folk of the mobile town they found him and thought he was their messiah or some shit because uh…he had tar and feathers on him and is a tall guy. He leads them in a crusade against evil whitey and the slaves and even arms them with crate after crate of rifles, he returns first though and pretends to have escaped them – fooling everybody somehow, being arrested by Bohannon, being freed because “he’s totally innocent because he says so”, then being left alone with one guard while he recovers from his “totally not self inflicted” wounds, but then as he’s being taken care of killing the guy watching him and escaping again and helping the Indians in their attack as he trots through town soaking in the screams and fire and death around him because he’s EEEEVVVVIIILLLLL!!!!
His story isn’t nearly over yet though. After that, Bohannon tries to hang him off a bridge they built and one that he got a lot of people killed working on by sabotaging their equipment…oh, right, before that they let him go again and put him in charge of the town directly under the woman actually running it as the priest in his insane stupor shot the guy running it and this woman didn’t understand what she was doing with all the paperwork and numbers so she wanted him to help even while knowing all of what’s gone on with him. When Bohannon finally goes to hang him, he’s an idiot, and The Swede manages to just jump off and float down the river face first with his arms tied and is fine shortly after. He spends like a full season with some mormon Bishop and his family – nothing meaningful shown, random clips of him talking to them, dumb bullshit with no point even in retrospect.
Finally, a season or two later, he kills the bishop, kills the wife, and screws up killing the kid who never is relevant in regards to his story again (he ends up as a character but this connection never is brought up and nobody even realizes he’s the kid of the people he killed at any point). Swede now takes the role of a mormon Bishop who has the most strange way of talking because of him faking like 3 accents at once (the actor and the character) yet nobody questions this and he becomes the man in charge of an entire fort of very violent, well armed, vicious mormons which he then uses to force Bohannon to marry a mormon and become a mormon and live here with him in the mormon fort while he pretends to believe his own bullshit which he seems to actually believe but only on a bullshit level(????).
Then, after about a half season more, this conflict comes to a climax. Bohannon fools The Swede with a most amazing technique – one surely learned from the great master…Bugs Bunny? Yup, the big conflict comes the closest it’s ever gotten to concluding between these two because of an exchange that is essentially “IT’S DUCK SEASON” “NO IT’S RABBIT SEASON” “NO IT’S RABBIT SEASON” “NO IT’S DUCK SEASON” with a certain duck ending up condemning himself because of being a retard. Here, all Bohannon does is rile him up and start him into a religious tirade about some bullshit – Bohannon runs up, hugs him, apologizes and screams out about how he’s a sinner and needs forgiveness from heavenly father above and this and that. After that is where it becomes something nobody could have taken seriously when writing it yet it’s treated as this insanely creative and super intelligent plan – Bohannon starts helping his religious speech and throwing things in, eventually throwing in things like “YOU KILLED THE FALSE PROPHET – THE REAL BISHOP” and Swede going YES YESSS I KILLED HIM AND HIS WIFE WITH MY OWN TWO HANDS” and this going on for almost 3 minutes of him just confessing to all the things (relating to the mormons) that he did. Bohannon is let go along with his wife and baby and it’s implied that the Swede will be killed for murdering their Bishop as well as falsely leading them all this time.
He gets away alive again though because even with 50 armed, quick to shoot, angry mormons he’s in no danger. In fact, after another half season or so, he forces them (somehow) to get Brigham Young – their leader and a real person in history – himself to come and he then becomes his best friend in a couple of minutes and so is let free as well as turned into his right hand man. A season or so later, The Swede decides to take Young’s position as holy prophet as well by manipulating Young’s son (who he begs to work with) into believing he’s the true prophet and talks him into killing his own dad because he didn’t give them boots and was mean to him as a child. He tries but he’s a little pussy boy so Brigham survives and the Swede at this point (literally this immediate point, this same scene in the show) just fucking gets out of there and goes to kill Bohannon’s wife and child because.
Maybe I shouldn’t have started with him.
There’s a huuuuge cast and all of them have nearly equal to that bullshit going on that ties into everyone elses bullshit too, so it’s hard to pick only some to discuss. Let’s go to Common next though, rather, Elam. Skipping the IMMENSE amount of dumb shit circling around him the entire show, his demise is just incredibly stupid. First he “dies” just COMPLETELY out of nowhere by a random bear that pops up a few seconds before the end of season 3 and who tears him apart OFF-SCREEN ENTIRELY and we never hear from Elam again for like a full season. If he had really died there, that would have already been fucking horribly stupid – who kills a main leading character off-screen to a random out-of-nowhere bear? He returns, and once he does you think he’ll be back at Bohannon’s side in no time – or at least get a more suitable death. Well, not really.
He ends up the “bear killer” to the indians and they abuse him as a “magical shield” against the army who comes to try and save this white woman they captured. It’s possibly somehow, in a show taking place right after the civil war with plenty of racial slurs and hate every direction, the most racist part of the show wherein a black man starts behaving like a violent monkey and starts talking in broken English. He’s brain damaged and being raised back by Indians, I get the idea behind it, but it just makes him look like a ooh ooh ah ah banana loving black political cartoon who can’t speak or think properly rather than acting like a Cheyenne indian. Worse, it ends up with him dead anyway after a really long, plodding, pointless episode establishing him as a fucking retard. They waste a full episode on all of this and then it goes nowhere because he just fucking dies anyway. This is actually consistent with how, aside Psalms (I’ll get to him), all the black characters are portrayed – poor attempts at empowering blacks because that’s what media exists for nowadays apparently that come off as completely racist instead. You’ve got Elam who is consistently a dumb asshole even before this Bear attack and constantly refusing to take care of his own child and you’ve got the strong black independent sassy black woman who ooh ooh ahh ahhs her way around beating white men out of nowhere with sucker punches they could never see coming and robbing corpses along the road who appears in season 5. Sure, she’s “based” on a real person but if she was like this then it’s no surprise people avoid talking about her when dealing with this time in history as it just proves modern stereotypes were true even back then.
The only consistently likable character in the ENTIRE HUGE CAST is Psalms who is only likable because he has basically no role at all and just pops up from time to time being a chill black dude, though he does often play an important role in situations even if he’s not present through most of them. During the latter half of season 3 and from then on he does get more focus at least and it’s implied he’s finally moving up in the railroad – now seeming to be one of the walking bosses. Before that he’s also around for a lot of personal issues of Elam’s and Bohannon’s, even beating and nearly killing a New York cop to try and save Elam’s child from him. He ends up somewhat replacing Elam once he’s gone and the show in that respect is better for it, he oddly still plays a small part but he’s around far more often after that and plays even more of a role being Bohannon’s right hand man who always tends to be there when he needs him, always helps him out and looks out for him, and even multiple times risks his life for him and is treated – even by others most of the time, who tend to look down on blacks heavily and still see them as slaves – as an equal after his earlier efforts in the show and constant supporting role throughout all the hardships. It’s one of the only positive things I can say about the show or it’s characters. He is, oddly, the sole character who actually has genuine development instead of randomly taking a huge turn in personality, beliefs, etc out of nowhere, and he’s one of the supporting cast behind a bunch of main ones who can’t manage that.
There is one other semi-alright character (Mickey) but he goes through just as many retarded out of nowhere shithead phases as everyone else, but of the cast aside Psalms he’s typically more likable than them when he’s not being an alcoholic piece of shit which is kind of just an arc for him for awhile, aside that part he’s pretty good and his change felt at least positive and a bit more consistent. That is until he tried molesting Eva (Elam’s ‘woman’) literally after finding her raped and “helping” her, it’s okay though because this event is completely ignored the very next episode and never brought up again nor does it create a rift between him and her at all. The indian guy was alright too but he leaves for no reason (I assume real-world job stuff or something making him need to leave the show because it was pretty abrupt – but knowing this show it may have just been stupidly abrupt because of shitty writing).
I wanted to like Elam and Bohannon, especially their camaraderie – but they constantly are probably the MOST guilty of changing who they are episode-to-episode and even within episodes, not only that but their relationship with one another is drastically different even within one scene they’ll totally flip flop about each other. None of this feels like it’s that rivalry between pals or anything either, and it’s portrayed as real genuine feelings every direction it goes. It makes sense at first when Elam still feels the sting of his slave days and is stuck working under an ex-slave owning rebel, but it never stops and they end up best buddies who consistently try to kill each other, threaten each other, and use racial slurs in the most malicious ways possible rather than just “it’s how they spoke at the time”. Then they have Bohannon be the one who kills Elam in the end when he’s insane and acting like an enraged King Kong style gorilla jumping around swinging at people going BUY MUH SLAVE WIMMENZ WHITEY (literally) and eventually he attacks Bohannon, making him kill him to defend himself. Of course this was only after him screaming about his slaves and trying to sell them for about 20 or so minutes straight while everyone looked on in shock and said a few repeated lines like “Elam, it’s me!”. It was all very awkward, drawn out, and pointless and honestly left a worse ending for the character than the already incredibly stupid “dead to a random bear” one.
I’ve mentioned Bohannon a lot because he is THE lead – there’s a huge cast of main characters but he’s always the most main of them all. He’s shit from the very beginning just like the rest though, surprising nobody. He has an even longer tale of bullshit than The Swede – and keep in mind I’m avoiding all the million “important” stories and ways they tie together even with Swede, let alone everything and everyone else, because it’d be impossible to go over all of that. Just imagine the most nonsensically weaved together bullshit, like a child playing with crochet. There are so many intricacies and interwoven elements that are all so stupid I could spend 5-10 paragraphs on EACH ONE and there are like 100 PER EPISODE and those extend THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE SERIES. It’s incredible in a way how much effort they put into making every single person and story element have relevance throughout the series to every single other person and story element no matter HOW SEEMINGLY UNRELATED OR IRRELEVANT THEY MAY BE, almost as incredible as how fucking terrible of a job they did of it. There’s just no way to get that across in this post in a way I’d be happy with, so I’m not even going to try.
Anyway, Bohannon is basically a typical anime protagonist. Mega plot armor that makes it so he’s never even close to actual danger at any point, insanely smart in very book-smart ways not just “in general” even though he’s an uneducated ex-farmer from the south (he actually invents from NOTHING but his own mind much of the things that started the evolution of modern mining and drilling machinery and is also the only reason the union pacific or central pacific ever got past the middle states according to this show because everyone else was fucking incapable of doing their jobs), and absolutely every single woman he meets wants to fuck him and typically DOES at some point. Even a reverend girl (whatever the fucking word would be) and this mormon teen, the latter of which he gets pregnant after one bang before abandoning so he can fuck a Chinese teen (he likes them young) who pretended to be a man.
There’s also that demeanor of “I am chaotic good” when he’s actually just chaotic bullshit and does nothing to ever identify him as a “good guy” given he runs around slinging racial slurs, bragging about his slaves, being a womanizer, acting like he’s better than ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE, killing anyone he feels like on a whim which hilariously happens nonstop throughout the show yet there’s one time he does this that the show tries making a big deal out of by saying OH NO IT WASN’T WHO HE THOUGHT AND NOW HE HAS A MORAL CRISIS except it ignores that he murders people left and right based on nothing much of the time, and outright refuses to do anything heroic every chance he gets and it’s also wiped off his mind by the next episode anyway. Oh, right, we can’t just have one figure from history befriending the retards in this show – so here comes UNITED STATES PRESIDENT ULYSSES S. GRANT, a sworn enemy of Bohannon during the war, who becomes his very best friend very quickly out of nowhere. He meets him once and because he was a soldier he immediately latches on to Bohannon because “heh, us soldiers right?”.
No other reason, no development, they’re just on each other’s dicks right away because they aren’t businessmen. Grant even is a very relevant plot device in keeping Bohannon alive and employed multiple times in the show as he does all he can in all his power to make sure nothing bad happens to Bohannon if he can help it. He even, after Bohannon out of nowhere leaves Union Pacific to join Central Pacific for no actual reason, asks Bohannon his opinion over everyone else’s about some major decisions regarding the future of America and he listens to him because he just does.
Oh right, there’s also a guy who gets shot literally in the face through the mouth and ends up magically fine with no medical attention (not that it’d be much help back then and in the boonies) and with no actual damage about 2 days later. No pain, no problems talking, nothing, he even goes right back to hard labor and regains his position as a walking boss and then foreman within a day as well as stealing Elam’s woman who he beat before at the same time in about the same amount of time.
I mean there’s just so much. There are like 30-50 main characters by the end with constant roles and, again, all interwoven insane stories going on at the same time, but there’s also just the story itself which is equally crazy and nonsensical and tries handling all those personal stories as part of the main story while also shoving in random poorly thought out politics and group conflicts. The worst part is those narrative aspects make the character issue that much worse – not only from it’s focus on them, but from the fact that a lot of main characters just DISAPPEAR after awhile (for example the federal marshall guy) with no mention of why or how, and others are just killed randomly and never brought up again.
This is a series which is is impossible to explain or review because it’s beyond stupid, it’s beyond nonsense, it’s some unnatural existence that is an anomaly because no human being could think this shit up and it shouldn’t have ever been able to come into creation. It fails at absolutely everything it tries, and it tries absolutely everything you could imagine every single episode with every single character. Everything is an immense coincidence at every turn. Everyone has drastic changes out of nowhere because the writers seemed to believe that’s how you do character development. Every character flip-flops on everything even down to their basic character traits within minutes of any episode, and then again and again minutes after each one of those throughout the next 40 minutes. No matter how many of these people were based on real ones, none of the way they’re depicted, developed, or 90% of the way things play out are historical – I can fucking assure you of that.
This show is fucking terrible and just confusing in how it came to exist and how someone decided this was worth money, worth turning into a TV series, and worth going 5 full seasons for. This is the most ridiculous thing imaginable even beyond the sheer hilarity and stupidity of things like Resident Evil or .hack’s deeper lore which are able to take that kind of thing and make it actually really intriguing and fun to learn, while here it’s got the same convoluted shit, the same interwoven everything, the same over the top stupidity, yet it’s very self-serious, makes NO fucking sense even compared to being eaten by a plant to become a super mutant, and is just genuinely fucking retarded with no redeeming factors other than the once in a lifetime feeling of sheer awe that this is a real thing.