One of the resonant early images in AMC's ambitious new drama Hell on Wheels — about the building of the transcontinental railroad in the fractious days immediately after the Civil War — has religious believers ecstatically submitting to baptism while, in the background, violent progress proceeds apace, with huge explosions tearing up the terrain.
"That's very representative of the show," says Tony Gayton, who created the series with his brother Joe (they've collaborated on films, including last year's Faster starring Dwayne Johnson). "Christians singing their praises to God, while things are just blowing up."
The contrast exemplifies the show's image of America: On one hand, the railroad's eventual success underscores the nation's can-do spirit; on the other, those who profited most from it were crooked to the bone.
"The greatest marvel of the 19th century was American — and it was built entirely on graft and corruption," observes Anson Mount, who stars as Cullen Bohannon, a former slave owner and Confederate soldier who takes a job on the railroad in a surreptitious effort to track down the murderers of his wife (in this week's episode, he spies one of the culprits on horseback). "That's perfect. If we're successful, we can turn the story into a great metaphor."
"Hell on Wheels" was the name given the itinerant town that moved across the country during construction of the railroad, populated by hardscrabble characters, often drunks and prostitutes. A death a day was not uncommon. "I can't believe people had to live their lives like that — at least we got to go home at the end of the night and have a nice, hot bubble bath," deadpans Dominique McElligott, who portrays Lily, a woman who survives an Indian attack that claims the life of her surveyor husband. "Progress was made, but it was slow and hard, and you can watch that journey from the comfort of your home."
Thomas Durant — the series' primary real-life character, played by Colm Meaney — stood to profit mightily, but only if he could build the first 40 miles of the railroad without government money. That struggle consumes the first season. "If he doesn't make the 40 miles by a certain date, it's all over for him," Meaney says.
Socially conscious rapper Common rounds out the cast as Elam Ferguson, a freed slave who hasn't found "liberation" to his liking. Joe Gayton explains, "The world's not ready for Elam. He doesn't want anything but total freedom and that causes a lot of conflict."
"I'm like, 'Hey, where is the freedom?'" agrees Common. "He's not putting his toe in the pool — he's diving right in." He adds that immersing himself into a character who was a slave is "emotional. I have a responsibility to the people who went through that to be as truthful as possible to what a black person at the time would be."
Bohannon becomes Ferguson's boss, and eventually, the two men wrestle their way to a tentative grudging respect. "Common and I had a hell of a good time developing this relationship," Mount says. "We were adamant that we can't do the modern PC thing" — he adapts a silly, happy voice — "'The white guy and the black guy are friends now!' That respect doesn't come easily. We literally have to fight each other for it." That visceral, bloody battle comes in the December 4 episode.
Mount, who dreamed of starring in a Western for years, found himself besieged by violent storms on location in Alberta: "When I'm out in the cold rain on a horse, I can hear God laughing at me — 'You asked for this.'" Still, he adds, "If you're uncomfortable in the shot, it usually looks awesome."
Hell on Wheels airs Sundays at 10/9c on AMC.