The third season of Hell On Wheels opens with Cullen Bohannon slowly freezing to death at the railroad’s abandoned winter camp. Shivering beneath a heavy animal-skin coat, he angrily tells the ghost of an old friend that he isn’t real. Bohannon races outside and dunks his head in a nearby pond, at which point he is approached and bitten by a wolf, leaving a wound in his ear that will bleed for the rest of the first of tonight’s two episodes. His work outside concluded, Bohannon wanders into another railroad car to find one of the other winter occupants literally frozen stiff, so he steals the man’s pipe and starts getting the locomotive ready for the trip back to Omaha. Like so much of Hell On Wheels, this sequence is audacious, strangely primal, and more than a little insane. It’s also impenetrable beyond the most basic of readings—namely, that the winter and the brutal events of last season have turned Bohannon into a full-on brute, perhaps even an animal—even though there does appear to be more to interpret here. On a better show, the presence of ghosts, wolves, and frozen corpses might actually symbolize things or, more precisely, form part of a larger thematic framework.
But the rest of the first half, “Big Bad Wolf,” only follows up on the one of those themes actually in the episode’s title. From a narrative perspective, the use of the wolf bite isn’t bad, even if Mark Richard’s script doesn’t really seem to dig into any deeper meanings. Still, if Cullen didn’t randomly bleed from his ear at opportune moments, he might not have had the visceral proof he needed to break through the Credit Mobilier board’s Northeastern prejudices and secure his job as chief engineer. Much like Cullen’s manipulation of Elam, as he takes his friend on as an apparent equal only to reveal he’s tricked him into playing his butler, the blood impresses the board and makes them recognize that Bohannon and the frontier have to be taken seriously. Everything serves the larger purpose of installing Cullen as the chief engineer of the Union Pacific, and these episodes arguably need to be looked upon not as continuations of what’s happened so far on Hell On Wheels but rather as a collective second pilot (or third, depending on how much you consider last season’s premiere to also be a reset). In theory, Cullen’s arc here is one of rebirth, as he rolls away from a savage winter that everyone assumes killed him—and Elam still suspects Bohannon left what was remaining of his sanity at the camp—and then gradually rebuilds himself during his trip to New York to the point that he can return to that same camp in spring, though this time as its unquestioned master.
That renewal process applies just as, if not more strongly to the show itself, as TV veteran John Wirth takes over as showrunner, replacing Hell On Wheels creators Tony and Joe Gayton. There’s certainly some promise in this apparent new direction; if nothing else, the show seems to be more directly about railroads than it ever was in the first two seasons. Early in the second episode, “Eminent Domain,” Bohannon explains to a journalist just how the railroad is built, supplying a level of technical detail that had previously been absent from the series. The conflicts of both of tonight’s episodes are driven by real, historical issues surrounding the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad—its brazenly corrupt politics in the first, its removal of homesteaders in the second—and even the ongoing subplot about Durant planning some fuzzy coup d’état with the help of Sean McGinnes is, if not immediately compelling, then at least directly related to railroad politics. That’s a promising break from last season, which was dominated by the Swede’s convoluted revenge plot. That storyline certainly had its highpoints, some of which had to do with improved scripts in the second season’s back half and the rest of which had to do with Tom Noonan and Christopher Heyerdahl’s fearlessly loopy performances. But that plot finished in an explosion of grim nihilism, and so for Hell On Wheels to continue, it really has to find something else to do.
The great challenge for this show remains Cullen Bohannon himself, and thus far John Wirth (who wrote “Eminent Domain”) and Mark Richard appear to have no better a handle on the character than their predecessors. The show knows that Cullen is a man of integrity who keeps his word and tries to do right by people; Durant makes this point in the first episode, and it’s the gist of the journalist’s article that closes the second episode. Bohannon comes the closest to articulating who he is when he turns down the relatively generous offer from his Central Pacific counterpart, explaining that he already gave his word to Credit Mobilier that he would finish their railroad, and his word is about all he has left. The grand reunion of the main cast towards the end of “Big Bad Wolf” reveals just how much respect the men have for Bohannon—something that was, on balance, justifiably earned last season, even if the storytelling wasn’t as clear on that point as it could have been—and he does show a certain flair for improving working conditions and the railroad’s overall efficiency, even if he does casually acknowledge that at least one man dies every day.
The show long ago dropped Bohannon’s initial raison d'être, which was his quest for revenge against the Union soldiers that killed his wife. The show now suggests that the railroad is Bohannon’s only way to move on from his grief for the people he’s lost, and the transient, inherently forward-looking nature of the Hell on Wheels camp could provide a good metaphor; with every new foot of rail laid down, Cullen gets that much further away from his past. It’s also a useful way for the show to move forward, even if it’s still figuring things out. The premiere acknowledges his racism in a way the show rarely has before, as he explicitly tells Elam that he will always be inferior to a white man such as himself. But then, after a brief scuffle, Elam is presented with the news that Eva has delivered their child, and Bohannon switches back to a sympathetic soul, telling him to remember this minute forever, because it won’t come around again. Individually, both of these are valid character points, and it’s not impossible for Cullen to effectively embody both of these traits, even in the space of about 30 seconds; indeed, his fellow AMC antiheroes are men very much defined by their apparent contradictions. But characters like Walter White and Don Draper, however oblique their motivations or thoughts might be, still suggest an underlying logic to their characters, the result of fine-grained understanding on the part of their respective actors and writers. Anson Mount has proven a capable, reliable lead for Hell On Wheels, but Bohannon remains too often a cipher, and it’s up to him and the new creative team to bring some coherence to the show’s protagonist.
The same could be said of the show’s villain. “Big Bad Wolf” halfheartedly tries to position Durant and Bohannon as rivals, perhaps even two sides of the same coin, but even the show seems to acknowledge that their relationship is muddled beyond recognition. Are the two business rivals, personal enemies, or even each other’s champion, to borrow Durant’s word? From the beginning, Hell On Wheels has struggled to get these two characters to coexist in the same storylines; their paths haven’t been parallel so much as askew, going off in two utterly different, non-intersecting directions. Wisely then, the show again splits the two, angling Durant more as a behind-the-scenes thorn in Bohannon’s side than as an active competitor. Colm Meaney remains a compelling presence, even if the show has never really known what to do with him, although pairing him off with Ben Esler’s Sean McGinnes could be a promising move. In their own ways, they have both proven themselves to be detestable men, though only Durant embraces that role he’s carved out for himself. The only issue is that this subplot appears to rely on making shady accounting and land speculation interesting, which may well be beyond Hell On Wheels. Still, if that doesn’t work, the show can always just forget about it and keep moving along until it finds a new plot that does succeed. Indeed, for Hell On Wheels, its own transience has often been its main redeeming virtue.
- AMC’s decision to move the show to Saturdays likely means it doesn’t have too much faith left in the show, and I’m afraid we at The A.V. Club are following suit. This is the end of regular coverage of the show—barring a nigh unprecedented surge in reader interest—although we might check in on the finale if the season proves interesting.
- I didn’t discuss Elam too much, although his story is largely the same as the one that has been told over the past two seasons, as he angrily demands equality and is frustrated by Bohannon’s begrudging paternalism. The second episode does have some success pairing Elam off with Matthew Glave’s new chief of security, which unsurprisingly means this promising new addition gets killed off by the midway point.
- The Mormon homesteaders are themselves a potentially interesting creation, although they ultimately bring the show back to its familiar nihilistic themes, as it’s strongly implied the father forces his own son to face the gallows after the killing of the chief, irrespective of his actual guilt. While the hanging scene is a good reminder that Bohannon is a man of his times and adheres to his own world’s rules—and his subsequent hammering in of the surveyor’s posts indicates his resolve to continue—the actual scene goes on for so long that it’s disappointing that there’s no twist or swerve at the end of it.
- I suppose that last point goes back to a disagreement some of you had with my review of last season’s finale, and I should clarify that I don’t demand Hell On Wheels become a hopeful show or that it not depict such grim, nasty content. I just think the show too often struggles to do anything particularly interesting with those elements.