October 6, 2013

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Hell On Wheels”


Under new showrunner John Wirth, the third season of HELL ON WHEELS was on the whole uneven, and tonight’s season finale unfortunately wasn’t a very promising way for the bubble show to end its year.

Wirth’s biggest change to Hell was to largely abandon the show’s original premise, which had Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) going to work on the Union Pacific railroad as it made its way west just so he could accomplish his real goal, which was to murder the former Union soldiers who had killed his wife during the Civil War.  While Bohannan’s past killings became a plot point this season when they were discovered by his foe, on-and-off Union Pacific honcho Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), he was no longer looking to hunt down anyone else.  On the whole this was a good move, freeing Bohannan to be more hero than antihero–not every TV drama protagonist has to be Walter White–although it also lessened the intensity of the show a bit.  Hell On Wheels became more of a conventional, old-fashioned western, not necessarily a bad thing to be.

Other decisions were less effective.  Hell beefed up the roles of preacher Ruth Cole (Kasha Kropinski) and former tribal captive, ex-whore Eva (Robin McLeavy), and added lesbian journalist Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), but none of them compensated for the loss of the show’s leading female character Lily Bell at the end of Season 2.  Durant was a much diminished antagonist for Bohannan this time around, his fortunes shifting seemingly with the writers’ whims in each episode.  (He’s back in control when we leave him at the end of Season 3.)

The worst move, unfortunately telegraphed in the Season 2 finale, was to resurrect psychopath “The Swede” Thor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl) from his apparent death after he’d murdered Lily Bell and Bohannan threw him off a bridge.  Wirth and company were so in love with the idea of The Swede as the show’s Big Bad that they literally took the entire season to bring him back together with Bohannan, with weeks spent following the madman as we waited for him to murder the innocent Mormon family he was supposedly guiding through the wilderness and assume the identity of Mormon Bishop Joseph Dutson.

This turned out to be the central plot point of the season finale, written by Executive Producer Mark Richard and Producer Jami O’Brien, and directed by no less than Neil LeBute.  Bohannan, having been abducted in the last episode by Mormon Aaron Hatch (James Shanklin) for Bohannan’s (justified) hanging of Hatch’s son, found his fate decided by the ersatz Bishop.  There wasn’t a lot of suspense to this, because obviously Bohannan wasn’t going to be hung.  The way out, it developed, was that Bohannan had impregnated Aaron’s daughter Naomi (Siobhan Williams) when he’d slept with her (before hanging her brother), and so Swede/Dutson freed him to marry Naomi.  Apparently he meant this as some kind of mental torture, although considering that Naomi was a gorgeous 18-year old already pretty much in love with Bohannan, it wasn’t exactly a fate worse than death.  The very anticlimactic ending of the season had Bohannan working on the Hatch farm as the railroad drew ever closer, an arrival that will change things quickly, since the surviving son of the couple killed by The Swede is living with Ruth, and will blow the con as soon as he catches sight of The Swede.

Also, Elam Ferguson (Common), may have been killed by a bear.  Probably his body wasn’t quite as lifeless as it looked when last seen, but you never know.  (Eva claimed she saw his spirit pass, for what that’s worth.)  The believably ambivalent relationship between Bohannan and Elam is one of the strongest parts of the show, so here’s hoping the bear didn’t finish the job.

Hell On Wheels is fairly entertaining more often than not, and although it still lacks a strong female lead, Mount, Common and Meaney are all effectively gritty among the men, and the setting is quite well captured (Hell looks considerably better than Revolution, which although technically sci-fi is set in a universe modeled after the Old West).  If it can get rid of The Swede once and for all, and return to the story of the railway–both of which would easy to do at the start of next season–there’d be something to build on.

AMC moved Hell On Wheels to Saturdays this season, and in that context it’s done pretty well, with over 2M total viewers (westerns almost always skew old, so only about 25% of those were under 50).  That’s better than anything else cable has on the night except for some sports and children’s shows (it’s better in total viewers than Low Winter Sun on Sundays and almost as good in 18-49s, despite the giant Breaking Bad lead-in Sun has had), and one would think that if AMC wants to be in the Saturday business, it’s good enough for a renewal.  Airing on Saturdays also helps creatively, since one’s expectations for a Saturday show are considerably lower than in the dazzling realm of cable Sundays.  Hell‘s track is still being laid even after three seasons, but it deserves the chance to keep making its way toward the promised land of the Pacific.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."