August 3, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Hell On Wheels”


HELL ON WHEELS:  Saturday 9PM on AMC

HELL ON WHEELS has found a cozy spot for itself on Saturday nights, where the older audience available for TV-watching has given it comfortable total viewer numbers, if less impressive 18-49s.  (AMC will be running reruns of Turn after this season’s Hell episodes, which may suggest where that other historical drama will air for its second season.)  The show returned tonight for its 4th season with a rather dark hour, directed by that paragon of cheeriness Neil LaBute, and written by Executive Producer Mark Richard.

The action picked up 4 months after last season’s finale, and after a there-goes-the episodic-budget wintry pre-credits sequence featuring a train crashing underwater outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, when the ice couldn’t hold its weight, we found Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) still virtually imprisoned in the Mormon fort where we left him last season, which is being run by the “Bishop,” who only Bohannon knows is actually the murderous, delusional and seemingly unkillable Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl).  Bohannon has come to have genuine feelings for his enforced wife Naomi (now played by Mackenzie Porter), who gave birth during the episode to his son, and was determined to escape with them.  Meanwhile, though, Bohannon was trapped (at one point literally, when the Swede removed the ladder from the well Bohannon had been digging), which left much of the hour feeling that way as well.

There was little relief in Cheyenne, where misery was the order of the day.  Endlessly scheming Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) found yet another way to save his skin, this time through some financial chicanery involving a rigged auction and the town’s Durant-appointed Mayor Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke), but Eva (Robin McLeavy) was reduced to performing menial chores for the local brothel, and when she was attacked doing that, Mickey switched from helping to molesting her in a matter of seconds.  There’s also a new territorial governor on the way in the person of John Campbell (Jake Weber), who’s bringing his own enforcement unit to town.

It was all quite grim, and the premiere badly missed the presence of Common, whose character Elam was attacked by a bear in the Season 3 finale, and who won’t be making his way back to Hell On Wheels for a bit.  Elam’s interplay with Bohannon has been one of the series’ highlights, and Common’s textured performance may be its best, so he can’t return soon enough.  With the exception of the opening sequence, almost nothing in the premiere was about the progress of the Union Pacific, and as the series concentrates more on the city of Cheyenne, comparisons to Deadwood (which are never to Hell‘s advantage) become more pronounced.  The series is also still short a strong female lead since the decision 2 seasons ago to kill off Dominique McElligott’s character; Naomi will apparently be a major part of the season, but so far she’s just Bohannon’s naive and supportive wife.  The villains Durant and the Swede are also getting tired, even though Meany and Heyerdahl are strong in the roles; when Durant pushed someone up against a wall during the premiere, he seemed to be trying to prove to viewers as well as his victim that he was still someone to be feared.

After 4 seasons and multiple showrunners (currently John Wirth is in charge), Hell On Wheels runs the risk of running out of track.  Tonight’s muffled start wasn’t encouraging, but perhaps the series is just grinding its gears slowly as it picks up speed with new characters and storylines to come.


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."