The first two episodes of AMC’s post-Civil War Western drama Hell on Wheels almost immediately remedies everything that made it likable but ultimately very uneven fare last year. I reviewed that first season knowing the series was not Deadwood and couldn’t be, but given the similarities of timeframe and location, comparisons were inevitable. Though Hell on Wheels‘ primary protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a Confederate vigilante, shares somewhat similar emotional reluctant-hero complexities with Deadwood’s Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), railroad magnate Doc Durant (Colm Meaney) is no Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). There are plenty of character parallels to be drawn, and Deadwood wins almost all of them, but it doesn’t mean Hell on Wheels isn’t good television. It’s just not great television. At least, it wasn’t. But its second season is already looking up. Hit the jump for why you should consider tuning in for another dose of this worthy Western.
My biggest gripe during the first season was lack of development among any of the characters other than Bohannon. We got a snippet of Elam’s (Common) life, and truly the very best part of the show are the interactions between Bohannon and Elam (more on that in a minute). The secondary characters all felt shallow: the mustache-twirler persona of Durant, the liberated Lily (Dominique McElligott), the Reverend Cole’s (Tom Noonan) fall from grace, and the noble Cheyenne, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), who converted to the white man’s ways. In a film these broad strokes might have worked fine, and early in the series it was helpful shorthand in remembering the characters. But as Hell on Wheels ambled on, there was never much more depth to really invest us in the character’s plights.
The exceptions were Bohannon and Elam. It probably has less to do with the writing and more to do with the fantastic chemistry between Anson Mount and Common, but the relationship between these two characters has always been a fantastic driving force in the series. In the upcoming season, some time has passed since we last met our heroes, and they are far flung from one another. But as they start making their way back to common ground, the emotional payoff is enormous — something no one other aspect of the series has yet to offer.
The highlights of Hell on Wheels are its exceptional soundtrack and cinematography, but points have to be deducted for nitpicky things, like the cleanliness of the whores (seriously, have you ever seen such squeaky clean women? We are talking about prostitutes who live in a moving encampment of convicts and men who have no other options in life, and we’re supposed to expect them to be good looking women who just stepped out of the shower?) as well as the straightness and whiteness of everyone’s teeth. Don’t tell me bad teeth on main characters can’t be done – HBO did it in their John Adams miniseries, and it was disgusting and fantastic all at once. That’s the other thing about Hell on Wheels - a much bigger issue. It has never felt sufficiently historically accurate. Many of its storylines, particularly those which focus (as so many in the first season do) on race and gender, seem forcibly progressive, like a white-washed twenty-first century tint poured over much rougher times. An argument can be made, I suppose, that maybe a little feel-good story never hurt anyone. It’s just a question of what this show wants to be. Oftentimes, it doesn’t seem to know.
On to the things Season Two has begun to correct: even in just its first two episodes, everyone’s stories have gotten much more interesting, and even if their depths have not yet been explored, they have been greatly implied. I can’t say much about the new couplings or friendships or work status of the returning cast without spoiling anything (and yes, there are so many unexpected changes it’s best not to have any idea what’s coming), but I will say that they are all pretty satisfactory, narratively speaking. After watching the premiere episode of the new season, I couldn’t wait to watch the next one. It was a compulsion not felt very strongly in the first season.
That having been said, some plots are still much stronger than others, and the show can lag in parts where characters ramble on, seemingly burning up time. The shining stars are still Bohannon and Elam, both of whom deserve more screen time than they get (particularly Elam), but as mentioned, the other stories are finally starting to pick up some pace and hold interests of their own.
Bottom line, Hell on Wheels appears to be getting better and better, and the first two episodes of its new season certainly seem to suggest it’s headed in a more complex and satisfying direction. Still, AMC was right to wedge it in now before the much more competitive fall lineup comes into play. It may not be Deadwood, but it still has plenty of liquor, fightin’, scoundrels, heroes and the beauty and tragedy of the Wild West to be worthy of a watch.
The second season of Hell on Wheels premieres tonight on AMC.