Note: This isn't a spoiler heavy review, but I do talk about some things that may reveal a little too much if you've never watched the show. So just keep that in mind when reading this review.
I'll be the first to admit that I was a bit late to the Hell on Wheels party. I didn't start watching it live until season four (of course I watched the first three seasons on Netflix), and I'm pretty disappointed that I didn't start watching it when it first premiered. It is a great show, and it was definitely one of the better shows on television during its five season run. So without further ado, here's my thoughts on the show as a whole.
Hell on Wheels starts out with Cullen Bohannon's quest for revenge on those that murdered his wife, but it eventually evolves into something completely different once he gets hired by the Union Pacific Railroad. Basically, it goes from a revenge story to a full blown railroad business story. And to be honest, I was actually pretty worried that the transition from a revenge story to a story about the railroad might make the show a little boring, but I was very wrong. Cullen is so determined to finish the railroad that he's willing to go to hell and back to ensure its success. He deals with indians, violent Mormons, disease, worker strikes, and business rivalries in his quest to finish the railroad. It's quite the ride, and it gets better with every season. The biggest problem with the overall plot of the series is that they had to rush the story along towards the end of season five so that the show had a conclusion before it was cancelled. But I guess it could also be looked at as a good thing, considering most TV shows that are cancelled before the creators planned on ending it have no conclusion at all. And, to be fair, the ending we were provided with is very satisfying considering they had to wrap up the entire show in seven episodes.
If you're a fan of the Western genre, then you were probably pretty sad to see the show get cancelled. It was one of the only western shows on air, and it was the best by far. Luckily for us, the first five and a half seasons are up on Netflix for us to re-watch. The second half of season five will probably be added in the next few months.
The casting in this show was spot on. Anson Mount is pretty damn perfect as Cullen Bohannon, and the rest of the crew is solid as well. The character that I was the most disappointed with, though, was Elam. He had so much potential and was such a great character, so I was in near disbelieve when they took the direction they did with his character. I'm not sure if it was because Common had some other projects inbound and decided he couldn't stay on the show anymore, or something else entirely, but I really wish he had stayed on for the duration of the show. There was just so much more they could have done with him. Anyway, the show's characters evolve a fair bit throughout the seasons and become more and more interesting as time goes by. There's no doubt in my mind that you'll be pretty damn invested in the main cast by the end.
There is no set location for Hell on Wheels. Originally, the main location for the story was a town called Hell on Wheels, but as the railroad moved on, they moved to a different town. The story also takes us to a Mormon fort, indian camps, and the Mormon city of Salt Lake City. It is pretty cool to see all of these different locations in a Western setting. The frequent change in scenery helps move the story along, and it also helps keep the show interesting.
This show is for fans of the Western genre, and I suppose anyone who's really into trains may find this show interesting as well. If you're not a fan of Westerns, or if you have no interest in trains, this is not the show for you.
Hell on Wheels is a great show that, in my opinion, didn't get the attention it deserved in its five season run. The story is intriguing, the characters are engaging, and the ending is satisfying (considering the circumstances). I definitely recommend that you check it out on Netflix, you won't be disappointed.
As far as my rating, I gave it four stars purely because I feel like the creators had to rush the ending due to the cancellation. If they had done one more full season to wrap everything up instead of cramming it into half of a season, I'd probably give it four and a half stars.
MFMart (MikeFMartelli on February 02, 2020:
HELL ON WHEELS: Review of the Superb Ending, Part 2
Similarly, the brief stint wearing the Union Blue was a perfect symbolization of Bohannon’s attempt to escape the trauma of war, killing, revenge, and the associated emotional numbing and constriction that plagued him for many years. The promise of uniting the country and healing wounds through the transcontinental railroad had was a variable subterranean motivation driving him - but after its completion, his drunken emotional pain episode betrayed this illusion. His next effort at healing is represented in his acceptance of a position in Grant’s army. General Grant’s previous recognition and respect for him in the powerfully shared goal of the transcontinental railroad helped kindle the illusory hope for a solution to his internal distress.
His short service produced two important experiences: 1) his forced testimony against Durant spurred a poignant protest to the hypocrisy; 2) Grant’s dishonesty and clear addiction to war and more killing, along with meeting Custer’s taste for blood. This disillusionment killed any hope for external solutions and sparked significant movement toward the emotional recovery he sought. He returned to the confessional where he previously committed a revenge murder and had a carthartic emotional (but nonverbal) confession that released much of his emotional constriction, with the only verbalizations uttered afterward through tears: “Thank you.” He left Grant’s army and was now emotionally free to pursue full attachment and emotional healing through love by following Mei to China.
MFMart on February 02, 2020:
HELL ON WHEELS: Review of the Superb Ending, Part 1
The final episode ending was superb! Mei was an obvious solution for Bohannon... He has major difficulties attaching, and though this was seriously amplified by murder of his family & subsequent war related death and trauma, he admitted he hadn't been a great husband and father and certainly felt guilt about not protecting them (and fighting a war when he no longer even believed in slavery - showing more passion for war and revenge).. his first apparent attachment post-murder of his family was a bizarre war related one to the sadistic younger reb atrocity co-conspirator. His first post-war attachment started to develop with Lilly Bell, but was push-pull and ended in another traumatic death when he didn't protect her (i.e., protected the bridge while leaving her unguarded ) ... then he stumbled into a coerced marriage to a foreign cultured Mormon child that only slowly evolved, albeit abstractly, from duty to some warming - something expected for someone with attachment problems... and that attachment was traumatized again (after he left her unprotected). His strange relationship with the Swede was notably symbolic of his scrambled push-pull attachment/distance from others (& himself), as was his relationship with Durant. His closest attachment was to Elum (sp?) Ferguson and that didn't end well... his semi-developed attachment to Jim ("the pirate") and his family also betrayed real attachment. Ah Fong's father and Al Fong were quick attachments but the father was murdered while the Ah Fong/Mei attachment that started as a protective older male - younger Chinese male relationship and then morphed into a protective older male - younger Chinese female relationship...it crossed sexes, it matched two traumatized individals, persons and perfectly fit the constricted attachments (especially for women of his accustomed culture) of an emotionally traumatized man, while also giving opportunity to: (1) stop her from seeking the crippling revenge that he had sought and was seeking freedom from,(2) finally be present & not abandon protection of someone he loved (and whose rebellious nature would ensure many opportunities), and (3) find redemption and a final chance at a truly meaningful attachment where he could commit, prioritize & ultimately protect his love attachment and the relationship...Notably, it was consecrated with his cathartic expression to Mei that he loved her, symbolized by his emotional (but not verbal) confession to the priest at the church where he had committed one of his revenge murders years earlier, and executed when he quit the railroad to follow her to China.
KristyLC on November 17, 2019:
I, too, have really enjoyed this season. I like westerns and I like trains, so it is a good fit. I was disappointed in the portrayal of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). They did get right that we believe in baptism by immersion, a verse of scripture is read from the Book of Mormon, a Primary song is sung (all in season 3, I believe), but to portray the Mormons as a violent people is incorrect and only continues to misrepresent this faith's history. In our day of the internet and the ability to even do some minor searching, there is no excuse for this sloppy "historical" portrayal. Perhaps it is "creative license", but why not be honest in portraying this people who sought to worship God the way they saw fit, allowing others to do the same.