Hell On Wheels Season Premiere Disappoints

Anson Mount  heads  the cast of Hell On Wheels.

Anson Mount heads the cast of Hell On Wheels.

If you’re a fan of that classic American form, the western, you were probably tuned in Saturday night, August 10, for the long-awaited season premier of AMC’s Hell On Wheels. And why wouldn’t you be? The TV landscape for western drama is a sparse as the wasteland the railroad is being built through in the series which is entering its third season.

The first two seasons offered viewers a show which, though not as authentic as the network’s Mad Men, or as brilliantly written as Breaking Bad, still was solid entertainment with memorable characters and the iconic larger than life setting of the Old West.

The third season was delayed because of a change in the series’ principal writer, and when the long wait was finally over, and fans had watched the two-hour premiere, they must have thought the wait was just not worth it.

The new writing team has taken a good show and turned it into a mediocre, plodding, dismal bore. Two major characters have left, and the lead character has lost much of his appeal. The plot line, always the weakest part of the show, has slipped to soap opera idiocy.

The series was built around a strong lead character, Cullen Bohannon, played by Anson Mount as an embittered survivor of the Civil War, a hard man willing to use violence to solve problems, a man of few words, tough, weathered and smart. The new Bohannon in Sunday night’s premiere is a wordy, slick businessman in a three-piece suit, a far cry from the charismatic hero of the first two seasons.

Also sorely missed is the female lead, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), killed off at the end of season two. She has been replaced with a pale woman newspaper reporter whose voiced-over sentimental crap excruciatingly capped off the two dreary hours.

Also mysteriously missing is the fine villain who dueled with Bohannon with palpable evil intent for two seasons. Thor Gunderson, known as “The Swede” (Christopher Heyerdahl) was a worthy opponent, and every drama needs a dark villain to balance out the lead character. It appears the new writers are going to try to transform the former head of the railroad, Thomas Durant (Colm Meany), into the bad guy, but it will be difficult for him to match the evil genius of “The Swede.”

Right from the start, the new season disappointed. In the opening scene, the writers chose to perpetuate the myth that wolves attack people, having Bohannon tussle with a wolf on the snowbound prairie. That was just the start of the downward slide.

The first hour of the premiere was wasted with an assembling-the-cast plot line, an old formula used many times in stories as wide ranging as The Dirty Dozen to The Avengers. To make it worse, the setting was shifted from the wide open spaces of the west, to the grimy streets of New York City, so that our newly loquacious main character could talk his way into a job as the chief railroad engineer.

It hardly seems necessary to get back together a crew of characters that ended last season together. The writers made a mistake by not plunging right into the kind of action that should be at the heart of the series, the challenge and difficulty of building a railroad across the great American wilderness.

The second hour was equally disappointing, with a story so contrived, it begged for a huge rewrite. You know a series is in trouble when the characters are not as smart as the people watching.

In the contorted story, the railroad is forcing a Mormon family off their farm so the railroad can pass through their land. Why? Are they going to run the tracks right through the family’s living room? Couldn’t the railroad pass through their land without their being evicted? It makes no sense.

But, playing for melodrama and a big finish, there’s a murder, committed by the defiant Mormons, setting up a revenge scenario and the lynching of a young Mormon man, all totally unnecessary, a story line that strains reality beyond all bounds.

Disappointing is the one-word summary of the new season and it probably won’t get any better. Writers can either write or they can’t. The premiere showcased the lack of writer talent brought to the series.

It’s all too bad, because Hell On Wheels was just about the only western drama left. While Hollywood and the TV networks churn out tons of cookie-cutter cop shows, lots of zombie and vampire horror, loads of mindless reality shows, and way too many superhero stories, the classic American western languishes, waiting for some visionary to revive it. Unfortunately, it won’t be the folks involved in creating Hell On Wheels.

Review: Hell On Wheels, Season 2 Finale

Anson Mount, the main character in Hell On Wheels

Last night we watched the two-hour Season 2 Finale of Hells On Wheels. We’d gotten hooked on the series, and while its story line is flawed, it’s worth watching. And it’s the only western you can watch. Why are the networks loaded down with cop dramas, but this is the only western to appear since Deadwood? I have to congratulate AMC for simply offering a different genre choice.

Unfortunately, the finale was even more flawed and inauthentic than the regular season episodes. The show has been building up to a dramatic climax, and the issues in play were resolved, but not very satisfactorily.

We finally had resolution on the two love triangles that have been ongoing. One of the triangles involved Eva, Mr. Toole and Ferguson. When Eva went to Ferguson’s house to tell him their affair was over, Mr. Toole caught her there and killed himself right in front of her. That was a surprise. It seems much more likely that he would have killed Ferguson, or Eva, or both of them. I have to think the writers created this outcome because Mr. Toole was a minor character, while Eva and Ferguson are major characters. So we ended up with an unlikely plot line to keep the major players from being taken off the stage. Basically, bad storytelling.

The only time you can kill off a major character is in the season finale, because that actor is leaving the show. And that’s what may have happened to Lily, though I’m not convinced yet she is dead. She was strangled by the evil Swede, the primary villain in the series, but we didn’t see her buried, so maybe the show left room for the miraculous discovery that she is still alive at the beginning of next season. Or maybe she’s gone from the show for good to pursue a movie career. Only season three will answer this question. Killing off Lily was a strong move, the best plot device in the finale. However, the revenge taken by her lover, Bohannon, the series’ main character, was weak. He allowed the Swede to escape death in a cheesy way that the hero should have easily seen coming.

Another weakness was the attack of the Sioux. First of all, the Sioux didn’t attack at night, as shown. It’s not like there was night vision gear back then. You had to attack in daylight to see what you were shooting at. But that’s not even the biggest flaw. Supposedly a few men from the town held off hundreds of Sioux warriors. That just couldn’t happen. If the story were true to life, the Sioux would have killed everyone, not just burned down the town and wiped out a few walk-on characters.

Still, I look forward to season three. Anson Mount as Bohannon has style and charisma, and the other actors are engaging. The show has an effective, evil villain in the Swede and it will be worth tuning in next season to see Bohannon try to exact revenge on him. I will miss Lily, if she is truly dead, because she brought a pluckiness and independent spirit to her role, and she and Bohannon were just beginning their romance and I would like to have seen it grow and develop.

One thing that is disappointing is that the show’s executives decided to bring in Virginia Madsen at the end of the season to play the railroad owner’s wife. Previously, the show had no big name actors. I always suspect that movie stars are brought onto TV shows in an attempt to boost the ratings through their star power. If this was the idea, it failed. Madsen looked like she’s packed on some pounds and wasn’t given much of a pivotal role in the drama. A no-name actress would have been a better choice.

While Hell On Wheels may never come close to the writing in AMC’s other smash shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, it is entertaining and it has created some memorable characters. It just needs to be as true to its time period as Mad Men and as well plotted as Breaking Bad to get up on the level of those shows. But even as it is, it’s better than most of the fare on television, especially the major networks. Good enough that I’ll be right there watching when season three rolls around.