August 13, 2012




WHERE WE WERE:  Building the transcontinental railroad.  Our antihero, former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, joined the Union Pacific Railroad’s march to the west only because he was tracking down the Union soldiers who murdered his wife during the Civil War, and (mistakenly, it seems) believed the worst of them was working on the railroad.  Once there, he was hired as a foreman by Thomas Durant (Colm Meany), the ruthless builder of the railway, and formed an uneasy comradeship with Elam Ferguson (Common), a former slave.  He helped to rescue the lovely Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), widow of a railway surveyor murdered by Indians.  This being serialized television, he came in contact with many others populating the new town of Hell On Wheels, including the preacher Cole (Tom Noonan), the ambitious Irish brothers Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Ester and Phil Burke), and the Cheyenne Christian Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears).  Bohannon also ran afoul of The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), actually a Norwegian and former accountant who served as the brutal head of security for Durant until he was tarred and feathered at the end of last season.

WHERE WE ARE:  Robbing some of those trains.  Bohannon, his quest to obtain vengeance for his wife at a standstill, has joined a gang of former Confederates who hold up the railroad’s own payroll cars, trying to raise a bankroll for a move to Mexico.  As anyone could have told Bohannon, this was a bad idea, since his new comrades were about as untrustworthy as they come.  When it turned out that Ferguson was guarding the payroll on one of the trains and Bohannon didn’t shoot him, his own days were numbered, and after he threatened one of his own men who was holding a gun on a young wife and mother (presumably echoing what had happened to Bohannon’s wife), Bohannon found himself under arrest and awaiting execution, which it’s safe to say is a fate he’ll escape.

Meanwhile, upward and downward mobility were the orders of the day.  Ferguson, as noted, was taking on security duties, even if Durant wasn’t willing to give a black man official status; however, Ferguson isn’t over his love for Eva (Robin McLeavy), the tattooed former whore who’s now with one of the railroad’s station agents.  Lily has become the trusted partner (in business and otherwise) to Durant.  The McGinnes brothers grabbed the opportunity afforded by the murder of a prostitute to take over The Swede’s old protection business.  On the other hand, The Swede hasn’t recovered from his public humiliation, and is now reduced to cleaning out chamber-pots and burying the dead.  Cole is now a hopeless drunk who lies awake listening to his disciple Joseph have sex with Cole’s daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski).

The 2d season premiere, written by series creators Joe and Tony Gayton and directed by David Von Ancken, was more concerned with getting all the characters in place for the new season than developing stories very compellingly.  The only plot that went anywhere was Bohannon as train robber, and that had the strong whiff of a transition story that will end up feeding him back into the railway’s employ before long.

It seems unlikely that Hell On Wheels will ever be much more than a minor-league Deadwood.  The show has an impressive physical production, and a strong cast, but none of the characters have shown great depth, and certainly the writing isn’t remotely in a league with David Milch’s complex masterwork.  There’s some interesting historical commentary here and there, especially in the character of Ferguson, but mostly the series is a superficial potboiler.  In the ratings, Hell got off to a solid start because it shared the night with AMC’s blockbuster The Walking Dead, but once that show was done, Hell fell sharply to the 0.6-0.8 area, considerably below the numbers for Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  (It skews better with older audiences, as westerns tend to do.)  Airing on Sunday nights that are tightly packed with cable drama is no help, and this season Hell won’t have that Walking Dead lead-in, so unless it can show signs of life, it may quickly 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."