On paper, there’s quite a bit to like about Hell On Wheels, albeit with reservations. In the role of haunted badass Cullen Bohannon, Anson Mount has proved a capable enough leading man, doing a workmanlike job with generally substandard material. As a diehard Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fan, I’m always thrilled to see Colm Meaney in anything, and he’s been his usual impressive self in making Doc Durant just about hold together as a coherent character, despite all the seemingly random stuff he gets asked to do. I’m less sold on Common as Elam Ferguson, but his performance—which tends to fall somewhere between swaggering and pissed off—made more sense as the first season went along and Elam gained a foothold in the Hell on Wheels community against almost insuperable difficulties. The supporting cast isn’t uniformly strong, but Christopher Heyerdahl has been a lot of fun to watch as the Swede, and Tom Noonan and Wes Studi have done unsurprisingly good work in their roles as Reverend Cole and Chief Many Horses.
But it’s not just the cast that makes me hold out hope for Hell On Wheels. Its setting, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, is an area of history I find fascinating, particularly due to its potential to explore how the United States began to knit itself back together after the most fractious, traumatic event in its history. Hell On Wheels has put together an ensemble composed of not only Confederates, Yankees, and former slaves, but also Native Americans, Irish immigrants, a vaguely aristocratic Englishwoman, and a Norwegian who really doesn’t like being called Swedish. Watching how such a wildly disparate group could come together and form some kind of ramshackle community in the dangerous frontier—well, ignoring that that’s kind of what Deadwood was about, this seems like a story worth telling. Plus, I love trains, so a show all about building a railroad is likely to intrigue me on principle.
The problem is that the first season of the show often wasn’t about any of that, mostly devolving into a shaggy dog story in which a lot of random, unconnected stuff just sort of happened. In particular, the show seemed to forget for long stretches that these characters were supposed to be building a railroad, which sure didn’t help the generally shapeless feel of the show’s first 10 hours. That’s partly why I’m genuinely excited that tonight’s second season premiere actually begins with a shot of a nighttime train, as the now fugitive Bohannon and a band of ex-Confederates rob one of Durant’s payroll trains. Even better, the next sequence shows the train arriving into camp—which is slowly evolving into a town of sorts—as the workers realize they have just lost out on another week’s pay. This is basic stuff, really, but it establishes a sense of cause and effect, the idea that Bohannon’s latest selfishness has direct consequences for the rest of the characters, and that everything our characters experience is shaped by what happens with the trains and the railroad.
The best news about this episode, particularly for those wary of giving Hell On Wheels another chance, is probably how much ground it puts between the end of the first season—which, while I certainly didn’t hate it, never really rose above the level of C-grade television—and where our characters are now. To be sure, the fallout of last season still affects the characters, but the ensuing time (I’d guess two or three months, but I don’t think it’s stated explicitly) has forced everyone to start moving on. Bohannon briefly returned to Meridian and fell in with a bunch of hotheaded bandits, and he’s now hoping for a new life in the Confederate colonies in Mexico. Elam is firmly ensconced in Durant’s inner circle, as is Lily, although exactly where Durant and Lily stand is left a bit uncertain here. They’re certainly business partners, and the premiere finds them struggling with stolen payroll, work slowdowns, and the question of whether to build the railroad through sacred land. Elam’s beloved prostitute Eva has left him and settled down with the seemingly reformed asshole Mr. Toole, whose continued existence despite the fact that Elam shot him in the face still manages to push my already overtaxed suspension of disbelief to its absolute breaking point. The McGinnes brothers are railroad employees charged with managing the new residential properties, with Sean, in particular, fast growing every bit as corrupt as the Norwegian gentleman he tarred and feathered. Speaking of the Swede, he’s reduced to carting around corpses and coming across as even creepier than he did before, with his and Reverend Cole’s “eulogy” for a murdered prostitute a particularly psychotic moment for all concerned. Oh, and Joseph Black Moon is having sex with Ruth in earshot of the unhinged reverend, which can only end well.
Most of “Viva La Mexico” is concerned with setup for the rest of the season, with Bohannon the only character who really gets a full-fledged story. And, by “full-fledged story,” I mostly mean a chance to wallow in some more Confederate self-pity, complete with a wholly gratuitous story about yet another Union atrocity—this time about grave-robbing carpetbaggers—that I really, really could have done without. The episode does a decent job of conveying just how lost Bohannon has become, particularly when he beats the crap out of some Yankees for speaking ill of his fellow bandits’ Confederate anthem. This is something we’ve seen before—I’m reminded of the opening of “The Train Job,” for a start—but I like the little moment where even one of Cullen’s fellow outlaws is repulsed by the brutality of his beating. For all his tortured notions of nobility and talk of starting over in Mexico, Cullen doesn’t have a clue how to put the past behind him. Worse, he’s not willing to make the difficult decisions that might actually allow him to break his current cycle, which in this episode means either letting go of his rage, looking like a coward and running from his own gang, or actually shooting Elam and taking the payroll. Obviously, some of those are more desirable options than others, but any could have theoretically given him a shot at a new life. Instead, Bohannon remains obsessed with taking the easy way out in the most bullheaded manner possible, and so he finds himself facing imminent execution once more. This is a decent enough little arc, but now, the show has to figure out where to take Cullen next. And that, historically, has been a problem for this series.
I’m not sure any of what happens tonight really qualifies as intriguing—especially since I have the sinking suspicion that it’s all going to reset to the old status quo sooner or later, because I just don’t see how you can reintegrate Bohannon into this show otherwise—there’s nothing here that screams imminent disaster either. That’s the alpha and omega of faint praise, admittedly, but I might as well be realistic here. For Hell On Wheels to become a decent show, it needs to start using its setting to its advantage, with the railroad and the post-war time period offering structure for the characters’ misadventures (hell, if all goes well, we might even be able to call them “stories”). It’s still welcome to tell its pulpy Southern revenge story, which can certainly offer a certain amount of goofy fun, but for any of the other characters to have much point, the show needs to do more. I can see glimmers of all that in the season premiere, but it only seems sane to reserve judgment until we see more of just where this is all headed.
- In Bohannon’s absence, Elam has clearly taken his job as the camp’s overly macho, unnecessarily taciturn badass. I approve of this, both because it suits Common’s strengths as an actor and because I really like his hat.
- The McGinnes brothers’ attempt to move in on the Swede’s territory feels like it should be a comic relief plot, partially because that tended to be their role in the first season and partially because Elam also wants in on that job. But then the show points out that Mickey already killed a man in Boston, and now, I’m not sure what to think.
- I’ve got to admit, it was only while writing this review that I learned the bigoted Irishman was called Mr. Toole, which is a name I find faintly hilarious. Also, despite the whole face-shooting conversion thing, it seems pretty clear from how he grabs Eva at the end of their scene that he’s still secretly an asshole. Which is a good thing, because over-the-top asshole Mr. Toole is my favorite kind of Mr. Toole.
- I’m pretty sure the railroad’s current construction troubles are meant to imply that Hell on Wheels only ever really worked when Bohannon was in charge. This is where it would be helpful if the first season had featured more than about five minutes of railroad-building, but I’m willing to be flexible on my memories of season one if it helps facilitate better storytelling this time around.
- For what it’s worth, tonight’s grade is somewhat provisional, my way of splitting the difference between all the problems of last season and the potential I still think the show has. This episode could look a lot better or a lot worse in retrospect, depending on how things proceed from here.