Hell On Wheels “Bread and Circuses” Review

The worst thing about Hell On Wheels isn’t the racism or the bad characters, the awful assumption that the audience is stupid and therefore needs to be spoonfed every plot development and every intent behind every relationship. No, the worst thing about Hell On Wheels is that it is set in the American Midwest, which is, by all accounts, a pretty stunning place, and yet the show is so cinematographically unadventurous it’s dull.

Most of this episode involved a fight between Elam (I finally learned his name!) and Cullen. The show is obviously trying to make these two into the central relationship: the Walter and Jesse, the Peggy and Don of Hell On Wheels but they have to be characters to get invested in them. Elam and Cullen are just glaring, grunting blank slates. The only thing that defined them in this episode was their considerable muscle bulk, which, whilst pretty to look at, hardly lends itself to a compelling story.

The fight should have been brilliant. Common and Anton Mount are both in tip top physical shape and it’s clear that they relished the oppurtunity to fight: when his character started to get riled up, Common started beating his chest like a mad man. I’d be shocked if that were in the script, since it was the only moment of the episode which reached for the throat. Everything else about the fight was stagey. It was clear Elam would not fight not because he had a back up plan, but because he needed to get beaten down enough so that the speech about beating a white man could be uttered, and any excitement which the speech could have elicited was undercut by its contrivance. The fact that Cullen lost only because Elam (unbeknownst to him) cheated means that he is still the winner: Elam won the fight, but Cullen knows he should have won. It would be far more interesting if Cullen were not only our protagonist and a self-declared tough guy, but also just completely incompetent, full of empty bravado. That’s an interesting character. A guy who wins, even when he loses? Puh.

I don’t want to talke about the Native American stuff. Why do they speak in English? Why…no, I’m not going to even start.

The Lily Bell and Durant relationship should be interesting, but it is unfortunately the victim of the show’s worst expoisional writing. Today when I was watching Lily Bell, I was reminded of Katharine Hepburn. Not because Dominique McElligot is so good, but because the character is a woman who is strong and resourceful with zero tolerance for nonsense and I wish that that character, the character Hepburn made legendary in films like The Lion In Winter, was the female lead on Hell On Wheels.

I do hope the show will get better, because as I’ve said many times in multiple reviews, I love the Western genre and this show has some great potential which I hope it will reach. Maybe it’ll take a season, but hopefully it’ll get there because I’d love to see a really great Western on television: the dawn and the failure of a civlization-that’s the sort of story television was made for.

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