HELL ON WHEELS “A Birth of Freedom” Review

HELL ON WHEELS “A Birth Of Freedom” Season 1 Episode 3 – In a month where I’ve watched The Birth of a Nation and Breaking Dawn, Hell On Wheels is still the most offensive thing I’ve seen. Which is sad, because the show isn’t intentionally racist or sexist (I think). It’s just trying to address and confront these issues in the vein similar to Deadwood and Mad Men – as in, show racist and sexist characters, but in a way that just exposes their ignorance, but supports it – but unfortunately the show is so dumb that most everything that comes across the screen is just insanely offensive. But it’s offensive in the dumb way a cute little kid might be if they laughed at a crippled homeless person. The kid is dumb, but, like the show, it’s still really cute and you still have hope that one day it’ll grow up and read a book.

I feel bad for Colm Meaney. Nobody deserves the rants and raves he’s made to recite. At the very least, his directors should have kindly asked him to cease with the Daniel Day Lewis impersonation. His character is supposed to be a huge presence leering over the rest of the encampment: a thinly veiled attempt to bring Al Swearigin back from Deadwood and put him in another man’s body: spouting monologues, insulting everything that moves, cruel and corrupt. The only problem is that Meaney’s performance is utterly charmless and Durant is just terribly written.

Common fares only slightly better in the way that at least he has some presence (or I could be mistaking screen presence for a nifty beard) if his storyline seems completely flat. He takes on twice the amount of work of the white men though tactically, I can see no reason for him to want to do so, aside from a belief that working so much would earn him a lie with a prostitute. Though surely that’s not worth breaking your back at twice the rate.

Meanwhile our hero Cullen sets out on a quest of vengeance and happens across Lily Bell and Joseph, the “civilized” Indian. This is completely plausible because the American Midwest is renowned for being claustrophobic and close-spaced. After sending Joseph away and then acting all grumpy in front of Lily Bell (and Anson Mount does a great job making sure that Cullen and Lily Bell have absolutely zero chemistry) he leads her back to the camp and we’re treated to a shot which lasts about a minute of this tall, dark, mysterious ranger riding into the dusk while Lily Bell looks on. Because if she can do nothing else by herself, at least she can look on.

I really want this show to get better. I love Westerns, and I hope the show does find its feet. But it’s so humourless and offensive and dumb that my hope to see a top notch Western, filled with haunting atmosphere, beautiful cinematography, characters who say little but do a lot, danger, loneliness, adventure, maybe even a look of the culture of Native Americans, something which has been criminally neglected in film and television, is dwindling fast.

What did you think of this episode? Sound off in the comments below.