TV Review: Hell on Wheels Seasons 1 & 2

Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is on the trail of vengeance, seeking Union soldiers that were involved in the death of his wife. This leads him into the the complicated culture of the workforce behind the transcontinental railroad.

During the pilot we are also introduced to the stern and questionable Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) the head of the railroads development, Elam Feguson (Common) an ex-slave worker for the railroad, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) the sole survivor of an Indian raid, and The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) a bizarre man with mysterious motifs. These are our key players, just throw in a couple of Irish salesmen, a drunken preacher, a Christian-converted Indian, and a prostitute with strange marks on her chin and we’ve got a show!

Season One 

At first glance “Hell on Wheels” feels like a gimmick, seeing as there aren’t many Western-Television shows out there, not as rare as Zombie-Television shows though. AMC is the network behind this series and they’re the network behind my favorite show: Breaking Bad and another show I am quite fond of – The Walking Dead. So it saddens me to say that most of Hell on Wheels felt like a missed shot.

What the pilot has on display is pretty interesting, plenty enough to attract a viewer to watch episode two. Each character has their own conflicts. Durant in this episode seems like a mystery, with a powerful ending monologue that leaves audiences to wonder if he’s a man to root for or not. Not to mention the beautiful production design that’s on display.

But as the episodes go on, Durant isn’t that mysterious in fact all the main characters start to morph into cartoon characters with their main conflicts sitting quietly on the back-burner while new, less-dire conflicts arise. It begins to feel episodic, you could easily skip some episodes early in the season and still understand what’s going on. In the beginning you’ll fall in love with the characters accents and their quirks, but toward the end of the season Elam’s attitude because annoying and Durant as well with his persistent whining. Even our lead character runs dry with his cowboy act and becomes as stiff as cardboard.

Toward the end of season one things start to get slightly more interesting when a fight scene occurs against some Indians, playing out to a fantastic Mumford and Sons song that is horribly out of place. This fight scene is the highlight of the action in Season one and is put to complete shame in the Season two finale. We wrap Season one up with Bohannon killing an innocent man who he has mistaken for an ex-Union soldier involved with the murder of his wife. He then proceeds to run away.

Final Score: 2/5

Season Two

Everything looks different at the beginning of season two, the whole picture seems to have a darker tint to it. Durant is working with Lily out of a building instead of a train-cart. We start off the season with a storyline that embraces the “western” aspect of the show where Bohannon has become involved with a group of bandits who have been continually robbing incoming trains of the towns payroll.

I was able to breathe a sigh of relief with this episode. It felt like the show was starting to get a firm grip on the style it was going for. Things seemed darker and more violent, and things came together more often than not. Bohannon is soon sucked back into the lifestyle.

Toward the middle of Season two things did feel weaker, the show had introduced to a large slate of characters and showed increasing amounts of difficulty expanding those character’s story arcs, something HBO’s Game of Thrones has seamlessly perfected. The Irish boys are drawn into the mix in various episodes, one in particular involves them chopping up a man and feeding him to pigs (which came out of absolutely no where) it isn’t too much longerbefore one because a persistent drunk and the other becomes insanely obsessed with the preacher’s daughter.

The preacher’s daughter was a character of high intolerance, her voice could make you cringe. The greatest storyline of all the characters had to be the one of The Swede, who takes a dark turn toward savagery that is believable and mysterious. Besides Bohannon, Lilly, Durant and The Swede all the other characters just felt bland. Elam, who can be entertaining at times, has even fallen to a soap opera storyline of building a house to impress a married woman he knocked up.

What really saves Season two is the fantastically shot and choreographed action sequences in the final episodes. Between the preacher’s betrayal train hijack and the shoot out at the town to the epic Season two finale which becomes an all out war.

The conclusion is satisfactory, but I fear the series is permanently damaged from such a disjointed first season. The creators wrote the ending to season two with the fear of cancellation, so it feels like an ending. We will see what season three has to offer, because I have been given plenty enough to want to keep watching.

Final Score: 3/5

In the end, Hell on Wheels feels more like a graphic novel based show rather than a Western. Riddled with unsympathetic characterization, but at times impressive acting. The technical aspects of the show give us plenty of eye candy with amazing production design and plenty of gory violence (if you’re into that). Entertaining action sequences can’t save the long, dull and sustained unimportant segments.