Hell on Wheels is a live-action television series that premiered on AMC on November 6th, 2011.Set in the 1860s at the beginning of Reconstruction, the series follows Cullen Bohannon, a former Confederate soldier, who is determined to exact revenge on the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. His quest for vengeance sends him westward to Nebraska's "Hell on Wheels," the lawless town that moves with the construction of the transcontinental railroad. However, things get complicated when a Cheyenne tribe attacks the construction of the railroad, determined to destroy the project because it is being built through their lands.
This series provides examples of:
Aborted Arc: Cullen's quest for revenge against the Union soldiers who murdered his family, the main arc in Season 1, is eventually forgotten. Justified as he had lots of distractions by then.
While Cullen still shows no interest in tracking down his wife's murderers, this arc is picked up after a fashion in Season 3, when the brother of the guy Cullen killed in the opening scene of the pilot comes to the Hell on Wheels camp, and Durant uses the history of Cullen's murders in an attempt to get him fired from the railroad.
Always Chaotic Evil: How most non-Mormons see the Mormons, not helped by the fact they tend to shoot or enslave anyone who gets close to their land.
The American Civil War just ended, and with the fighting over, the nation is turning to building the railroad.
Annoying Arrows: Averted. The arrows are shown to inflict painful wounds or are outright lethal like a real arrow would be.
Anyone Can Die: Especially in the second season where Reverend Cole and Lily Bell are both killed.
Artistic License - Geography: The railroad camp is in Iowa, which is about as topographically interesting as a plywood board. Even so, the mountains of Alberta (where the series is filmed) show up in the background periodically.
Mormon Aaron Hatch says Bohannon has damned his daughter Naomi to Outer Darkness for eternity because they had extramarital sex (and she got pregnant). However, Mormon doctrine is that only those who have first accepted the Holy Ghost and then denied it will go to Outer Darkness, which you'd expect he would know. See "Plan of Salvation" on the Mormonism page.
Then there's the whole business with Bohannon marrying the Mormon girl. Mormon wedding ceremonies are not open to non-believers. The ceremony that the Swede presides over doesn't resemble a Mormon sealing in any case, but still, a Mormon bishop (even a fake one like the Swede) would not preside over the marriage of a Mormon girl to an outsider.
The Atoner: Toole, thanks to his miraculous non-death from a gunshot at point-blank range.
Badass Preacher: Reverend Cole is a retired one, and Elam may technically count as well.
The Bad Guy Wins: Second season, in stark contrast to the first, ends with The Swede acquiring a complete, crushing victory on our protagonists and dying happily ever after. See Downer Ending further below for the consequences of such action.
Its even worse at the end of Season 3. The Swede, who survived the second season finale, kills most of a Mormon family and takes the identity of a bishop. A bishop that later presides over Cullen's trial. Durant gets a hold of the rail road, and its heavily implied that Elam dies trying to rescue Bohannon, who wasn't even in mortal danger anymore; The Swede decided not to Execute him, and instead force him to marry a woman he had impregnated earlier in the season.
Bi the Way: Sarah Ellison is revealed to be at Hell on Wheels thanks to her "affection" for another woman who happens to be famous newspaperman Horace Greeley's daughter, in the same episode where Cullen kisses her
Big Eater: There's rarely a scene featuring the Swede that he isn't munching on something.
Breaking the Fourth Wall: The only way to explain Durant's monologue at the end of the first episode; his speech is for the audience.
Call Back: In the ninth episode of season 3, Bohannon tosses Durant a rifle and asks if he knows how to use a rifle, Durant merely grins and cocks the weapon. This calls back to the season two finale, where Durant fought with a rifle (the exact same model, in fact) against a Zerg Rush of Indians.
Cool Hat: Bohannon wears one of these. As from the last couple of episodes of the first season, Elam has one too.
Confessional: In the opening scene, a Union soldier enters a confessional to speak with a priest. The priest turns out to be Cullen, who's come to kill him.
Corrupt Corporate Executive: Thomas "Doc" Durant, who owns the company that finances the railroad as well as the railroad company itself (so he's essentially paying himself to build the Union Pacific using government subsidies), and who fires one of his surveyors because the guy dares to suggest building the railroad straight (as opposed to curvy, which would make the railroad artificially longer and therefore mean that he gets paid more to build it). He also bribes/blackmails a senator in the pilot.
Corrupt Hick: The Swede, despite being a northerner and an Immigrant, fits this trope to a T. When he's not out being the Hanging Judge, he's shaking down businesses and bribing officials to look the other way while he robs his employer.
Reverend Cole slowly but surely drifts over the line until he finally snaps after killing Sgt. Griggs, telling Bohannon that the Devil has rendered God powerless, and that he should just choose the dark path he's on, as "it's easier."
The Determinator: Lily Bell, who manages to kill a Cheyenne warrior, escape through enemy territory avoiding trackers, and sew up her wound all on her own.
Downer Ending: The second season ends with a massive wave of misery: Durant is on the run from the law, Mrs. Bell is graphically killed, Bohannon crosses the Despair Event Horizon and stays catatonic, Sean ruins what was left of his relationship with Ruth, Mr. Toole is Driven to Suicide after a miserable existence. To put it into perspective, Fergurson is the best off of the bunch and his home was destroyed in the same episode. The last shot we get is Bohannon, walking alone.
The third season is possibly worse. The Swede is alive, in a position of power over Bohannon, whom he forced into a marriage. Durant has retaken the railroad. Elam is likely dead, and Eva knows this, meaning she's up to her neck in despair. The only minor victory is the fact that Bohannon isn't dead, but with the Swede watching him like a hawk, its likely he will be soon. if nothing else, he gets to return to farming, which he stated earlier in the season he missed.
Egopolis: the Hell on Wheels from last season has evolved into the town of Durant, Nebraska
Establishing Character Moment: The first episode is chock-full of these for introducing all of the characters, many of them in their very first scene. For example, see Durant's sentator bribe.
Exact Words: Elam confronts the man who killed the prostitute in the season 2 opener, asking him to confirm he killed her "before I shoot you in the gut." The guy points out that Elam's not going to do it, as people will hear. Elam seems to relent and begins to walk away, while the guy admits that he did in fact murder the prostitute. Elam turns around and says "You're right, I'm not going to shoot you." He then proceeds to brutally stab the man to death
Foreshadowing: In the first episode, Durant says: "Blood will be spilled, lives will be lost, men will be ruined...in Hell on Wheels." The second season then shows all three happening in fast sequence: Massive bloodshed against the Sioux, the death of two major characters (Reverend Cole and Mrs. Bell), Bohannon's Despair Event Horizon and the destruction of Durant's career..
Toole talks about his family with a worried tone as if they were dangerous folks Eva wouldn't like to meet. Declan Toole appears in season 3, and he seems quite fearsome, while his evil is ambiguous.
Every Scar Has A Story: Eva has tattoos on her face under her lip. "Everyone stares, but no one ever asks." The tattoos signify her status as a slave in the native tribe which held her.
Faith Heel Turn: Reverend Cole gives an epic Rage Against the Heavens to Cullen after murdering a Union soldier who came after Joseph Black Moon in cold blood. It's clear that by this point his personal demons have caught up with him.
Also The Swede, who spent a chunk of his time in Andersonville. His case in special because he explicetly mentions he became whoheis there.
Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Lily delivers a verbal version of this to Durant when he's moping over possibly losing his contract to build the railroad and being exposed for being a Corrupt Corporate Executive, telling him "Is this Thomas Durant I see before me, or a blubbering schoolboy?"
God Is Dead: According to Reverend Cole, He has had His arms and legs cut off and His eyes gouged out by the Devil.
Grey and Gray Morality: Cullen is our protagonist but no one is much more heroic or villainous than anyone else. The closest to being "pure good" in the show is likely Ruth, who is strictly focused on the church.
Heel-Faith Turn: Toole in "Timshel". After being shot in the face, he claims an angel came down and flicked the bullet from his wound. He's noticeably less of an asshole after this.
Thomas Durant was a real corrupt bussinessman, not a fiction.
Collis Huntington turns up early in Season 3, trying unsuccessfully to lure Bohannon west to take charge of the Central Pacific Railroad (the one that was was being built eastwards from California to meet the show's Union Pacific). Later in Season 3 he again tries and fails to hire Bohannon.
Ulysses S. Grant gets involved in Union Pacific business in Season 3.
Historical Fiction: Hell On Wheels' plot is directly tied to the history of the Union Pacific Railroad.
How the Mighty Have Fallen: The Swede in Season 1 was in essence the law in Hell on Wheels (and used his position to accumulate power and wealth). At the end of Season 1 the Maginnis brothers rally the merchants of Hell On Wheels to tar and feather him and throw him out of town. In Season 2, he's returned to town, but is now the town undertaker.
Johnson, the Copperhead (i.e. Southern-sympathizing Northerner) foreman who helped in the rape and murder of Bohannon's wife, who is casually racist and accidentally kills a black railroad worker, then claims it was a result of the guy disobeying orders. He gets his throat slit by Elam before the episode is over.
Also the Irish railworker who seems to have made it his mission to taunt Elam over how, as a black man, none of the white prostitutes will sleep with him, and continually denigrates Bohannon behind his back and to his face. Probably no coincidence his name is Toole...
Sean Maginnis, who sees the murder of the prostitute as an opportunity
Durant has his moments, such as when he tells Lily that a horse has more value than a prostitute, and so therefore he won't do anything to catch the man who killed the prostitute
Large Ham: Colm Meaney is having way too much fun as Durant. For instance, the pilot ends with him giving a lengthy, operatic Breaking Speech to no one.
Lean and Mean: The Swede. Notable in that he went into Andersonville as a 200-some-odd pound man, and came out thin as a rake. His Badass Longcoat accentuates this.
Mr. Fanservice: Bohannon is a direct embodiment of "tall, dark, and mysterious". Elam also has his moments. The first season episode "Bread and Circuses" deserves special mention because it involves a (topless) fight between the two, .
Not Blood Related: The reverend considers Joseph as his son and calls him such. It's thus all the more repulsive to him when he sees Joseph and his daughter are attracted to each other.
Not Quite Dead: Toole, shot in the face in "Revelations", turns up alive in "Timshel".
Obfuscating Stupidity: "Revelations" opens with a flashback of a young Elam stumbling over a pro-slavery passage of the Bible, reading to entertain his master and some of his master's friends. One of the friends remarks upon the danger of teaching a slave to read, mentioning that Nat Turner was taught how to read. Elam's master says there's nothing to worry about, as Elam doesn't understand what he's reading. Cut to the barn, where the slaves are huddled around Elam as he reads clearly from an anti-slavery passage of the Bible...
Oireland: The McGinnes brothers make a hefty sideline with a magic lantern show of images of Ireland for the Irish workers on the railroad.
Only Known by Their Nickname: The Swede actually mentions his name, but everyone just calls him The Swede or Mr. Swede—even though he is actually Norwegian.
Politically Correct History: Averted for the most part. The series doesn't head into simplistic depictions, neither whitewashing nor demonizing history. The Wild West is depicted as a much more complicated, diverse, and morally grey place than how it is usually portrayed. What appears as "political correctness" at first sight is consciously justified given the context.
Bohannon is a former Southern slaveowner/Confederate soldier - who only fought as a matter of honor, who freed his slaves before the Civil War, and whose wife was raped and murdered by Union soldiers. All the Union men are portrayed as corrupt, incompetent, racist, or outright psychotic. All of which fit into the Dunning School narrative of American history. However, other former Confederate soldiers (Bohannen's former comrades) appear in season 2. They're racist assholes who rob trains and kill anyone in their way. With the exception of the Doc, who just doesn't seem to know what else to do now that the war's ended. Bohannon also mentions he actually was racist before, but he changed after his wife convinced him of the evils of slavery.
He later admits to Elam that he did not, in fact, free his slaves. He likely lied because he realizes now that Slavery is terrible, as one slave died trying to defend his son, and because he was talking to Elam when he said this, meaning he was talking to a former slave. At the time, he needed Elam's help, so lying about freeing his slaves would've been the smart thing to do.
Elam is shown dancing with and outright arguing with a white woman - in public. He was almost lynched for sleeping with her, but everyone is suddenly okay with it he returned from his escape.
At that point, Elam had become Durant's right-hand man, and as such, feared. There's also the fact Bohannon was seen as his friend. Virtually everyone in the railroad fears Bohannon, it'd make sense they'd leave his "friend" alone. Nonetheless, this is a time period where black politicians and sheriffs were murdered or threatened with violence by white mobs. This is justified in that Elam is told more than a few times that his gun won't always be there, and his power as Durant's henchman is limited. He also faces scrutiny and a loss of respect for being saved by Cullen during a gunfight, as he was pinned down. Even though he was simply taking cover, he appeared weak.
Ragtag Band of Misfits: The inhabitants include our ex-Confederate protagonist, several ex-Union soldiers (including a very tall and thin Swedish Norwegian lawman), a crew of Irishmen, a crew of freed slaves, an ex-Jayhawker revivalist preacher, a Cheyenne who has converted to Christianity, a white woman raised by natives working as a whore, a female English surveyor, a Yankee Corrupt Corporate Executive, and his French-speaking black manservant.
Season 2 reveals that a significant segment of the population of railworkers are German, as is the town butcher who gets murdered by the Maginnis brothers and fed to his own pigs
Refuge in Audacity: Bohannon is hunted by the Swede for the murder of Johnson who was killed by Elam. So what does he do? He goes to Durant and tells him he needs Bohannon as foreman in order to build the railroad. Durant lampshades it, asking Bohannon how he puts his pants on "over those big balls of yours." It works!
The Sheriff: The Swede, of the Corrupt Hick variety. He only uses his authority to lean on the local businesses or to step in when the Important People get wronged. Otherwise, he lets the town rot. Also something of a Hanging Judge, as he has the power to order executions.
Slashed Throat: A popular method of murder in Hell on Wheels, starting with the pilot.
Smug Snake: Toole, who unlike more villainous characters such as The Swede and Durant has basically no redeeming qualities, not even intelligence. Though he's noticeably less smug when he becomes The Atoner after surviving being shot in the face.
Stuffed In The Fridge: Lily Bell is randomly murdered in the last minute of the second season for no other reason than purely to piss off Bohannon.
Before the series starts Bohannon's wife is raped and murdered by four union soldiers whom he then hunts down and kills.
Tar and Feathers: In "God of Chaos", The Swede gets tarred and feathered before getting run out of town.
That Man Is Dead: The Swede, who is impersonating a Mormon bishop, says words to that effect when Bohannon confronts him in the third-season finale. The Swede's obvious seething hatred for Bohannon seems to indicate that he isn't sincere.
Title Drop: By Durant, toward the end of the premier episode. There's also a visual one earlier with the shanty town's sign.
Torches and Pitchforks: The Swede finds himself on the receiving end of this after pushing the townsfolk too far.
Translation Convention: Probably safe to assume that the Cheyenne weren't conversing in English with each other in 1865.
The Western: The setting takes place in the American West, involving railroads, cowboys, and indians
Villain Decay: A common criticism of the series is all the villains' incredible knack for becoming pathetic or ineffective rather quickly. The Swede in particular zig zags this trope completely, he starts off as a major threat, then he becomes more passive and less threatening, loses all threat value in the middle of the season, but suddenly gets his act together in the finale. Only to get tarred and feathered fairly easily in that same finale. In season 2 he's reduced to the town's graveyard digger, but he steadily becomes worse than ever as he riles up the German-Americans to the point of almost killing the McGinnes brothers, motivates Reverend Cole to start a massacre, and eventually murders Lily Bell in cold blood to spite Bohannen.