October 8, 2012



The 2nd season of HELL ON WHEELS was different, and perhaps somewhat better, than its first.  (Behind the scenes, experienced producer John Shiban was brought on to showrun with series creators Joe and Tony Gayton.)  If the show manages to come back for a 3rd season, it appears that incarnation will be yet another variation on its theme.

The main change under the Shiban regime was that Hell more or less dropped its original premise, which was that protagonist Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) was obsessed with tracking down and killing the soldiers responsible for raping and murdering his wife.  After discovering that one of the men he’d murdered last season had been innocent, he appeared to put that whole situation behind him.  The show still wasn’t entirely sure what do with Bohannan, who started the season as a train robber, came back to the railroad as chief of security, and was alternately a junior partner of and target for assassination by head villain Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney).  However, he was a more straightforward hero throughout, giving the show more of the feel of a traditional western, which seems to have been the aim this season, considering that the finale centered on an old-fashioned Sioux attack on the railroad bridge and the town of Hell On Wheels itself.

The one clear success of the season (until its finale, anyway) was developing the character of Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), a strong, intelligent woman who was able to be independent in that frontier time and place in a way more proper cities wouldn’t have allowed, but who was still a victim of being a 19th century unmarried woman.  Lily was in many ways more of a plot driver this season than Bohannan, and she was certainly far more multi-dimensional, even her schemes coming from a very human place.  In the latter part of the season, pitting her against Durant’s wife Hannah (Virginia Madsen) was particularly interesting, showing the power Hannah had simply by virtue of being married in that society.  As to the decision (SPOILER ALERT) at the conclusion of the season finale to kill Lily, all one can say is that getting rid of your single best and most compelling character is one hell of a risk for a show that wants to be renewed.

Just about all the other major characters were left at least potentially alive in the 2-hour finale, which was in the hands of two teams (Hour 1 written by Co-Executive Producer Mark Richard and Jami O’Brien and directed by Terry McDonough; Hour 2 written and directed by Shiban), but played as a combined whole.  Alas, that included the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), whose character was the worst failure of Shiban and his fellow writers.  The Swede was turned into a out-and-out psychopath, and in the end virtually a supervillain, which they must have thought served their purposes, but made him far less interesting than the Season 1 version of the character, who was unbalanced but comprehensible.  The evil Durants were taken into custody for bilking the railroad, and Thomas was removed from his post (the implication being that Bohannan will be taking over), but one assumes plot twists can always change that as needed.

Other major storylines were less effective.  Former slave Elam Ferguson (Common) spent most of the season pining after pregnant and married Eva (Robin McLeavy) and building a house for her, until her husband conveniently killed himself in the finale.  The attempt to create suspense by having him tempted to kill Bohannan and Lily at various times was never particularly convincing.  Meanwhile, chunks of the early part of the season were spent setting things up for the elimination of Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan), which then developed into a flat triangle between Cole’s daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski), the Indian Joseph (Eddie Spears) and Irish immigrant Sean McGinnes (Ben Esler).

Should Hell On Wheels come back?  It didn’t make much of a case for itself in the ratings; although it held its own when it had Breaking Bad as a lead-in, the numbers collapsed when it had to fend for itself.  Dramatically, it was uneven, as it wavered between simplistic western action-adventure and the kind of darker, more character-based plots we expect from cable dramas these days.  Also, as noted, if it returns next season, it will suffer the sore absence of its most watchable character.  One would think that with Breaking Bad and Mad Men getting ready for their final rounds of episodes, AMC would want to use those shows as companions for newer, more promising projects.  As always, the ultimate choice will depend more than anything else on the strength of the network’s development.  It wouldn’t be a ridiculous decision to bring Hell back (it’s a better show, for example, than BBCAmerica’s somewhat similar, if railroad-less, Copper)–just one with very limited upside.

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."