August 11, 2013



HELL ON WHEELS – Saturday 9PM on AMC

Season 3 brings an upwardly mobile turn for HELL ON WHEELS.  Hero Cullen Bohannon’s (Anson Mount) dark mission of vengeance for the death of his wife during the Civil War, which propelled the action for the show’s first two seasons, is apparently over, and by the end of the season’s first hour, he’s won himself a substantial promotion to Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad.  Although there’s still plenty of sub-Deadwood grit and violence in Hell‘s frontier world, the tone is now pitched more in the direction of forward progress both for Bohannon and the railway.  (The series also underwent one of AMC’s trademark showrunner purges during the off-season, with John Wirth, who’s mostly specialized in science-fiction and fantasy shows like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, V and The Cape, taking over for series creators Joe and Tony Gayton.)

The two-hour season premiere gave a fair picture of the pros and cons of the new approach.  The first hour, written by Executive Producer Mark Richard and directed by David von Ancken, concerned Bohannon’s decision to rouse himself from the torpor that followed last season’s finale and campaign for the Chief Engineer job, with a journey to New York and a renewal of his uneasy friendship with freed slave Elam Ferguson (Common).  The script was sharp both in detailing the post-war racism that accompanied Ferguson even in a liberal northern city (amusingly for fans of cable drama, it seemed to be taking place just a few streets away from BBCAmerica’s Copper), and in establishing Bohannon 2.0, and there was a rare likeable plot thread in the birth of Ferguson’s daughter with Eva (Robin McLeavy).

Hour 2, written by Wirth and directed by Adam Davidson, brought both men back to Omaha, where the railway was continuing its push to the west.  Most of the story revolved around a grim standoff with a Morman householder who refused to accept the railway’s claim of eminent domain, which led to the murder of the Union Pacific sheriff Bohannon had hired as Ferguson’s new boss (by the episode’s end, Ferguson had the job) and the hanging of the Mormon’s teen son for the crime, which he may or may not have actually committed.  None of this was particularly engaging, and there was little subtlety or nuance in the depiction of the Mormons.  The hour also introduced new regular Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), a determined reporter who doesn’t seem remotely like a fair replacement for the deceased Lily Bell as the show’s female lead.  (It was a mistake to have the episode’s last act narrated through Louise’s story about Bohannon and the Mormon’s execution, since her prose was neither good nor convincing as a real 1867 newspaper story.)  We also caught up with villainous Doc Durant (Colm Meaney) who, having been tossed in jail for embezzlement at the end of last season, was freed shortly into this one, and who was already scheming his way back into the Union Pacific’s path, buying up livestock and land, and bribing railroad employees.

It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea to toss out Bohannon’s revenge storyline, which had never been particularly well plotted.  But it won’t mean much if Bohannon himself doesn’t lighten up a bit–even with his promotion, he mostly acts like someone who’s just received a dire medical prognosis, and now that he’s meant to be less bloodthirsty, it threatens to make him seem simply disagreeable.  The early scenes of Bohannon with Louise aren’t particularly promising in this respect, although Mount and Common are always good in their scenes together.  If Hell On Wheels is now going to focus on the progress of the railway, and thus a higher-level view of its strategy, the wealthy and powerful characters will have to be more interesting than they’ve been depicted thus far (the scenes of big-shots plotting to steal land raised uncomfortable memories of this summer’s flop The Lone Ranger), and Meaney will need to be more than a cardboard meanie.

Hell On Wheels probably has little time to make a case for staying alive.  Its ratings were marginal last year (0.6s despite Breaking Bad as a lead-in, dipping to 0.4 once that show’s run was over) and will struggle to stay even that high as a self-starter on little-watched summer Saturdays.  Going for it is the fact that the show isn’t quite like anything else currently on the air, and in Mount and Common, it has two very strong leads.  But its stories and supporting characters, like its railway, will have to develop some momentum and verve as it chugs its way through the season, or else it’s likely to run out of track.


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."