AMC’s Western drama ‘Hell on Wheels’ was one of the most ambitious, if also inconsistent, new TV series to premiere last season. Fortunately, after taking a while to find its footing, the show ended its first season on a decided upswing. By the finale episode, I was fully on board this train. Now it’s back for Season 2, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.
As the first season ended, our antihero protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) had been declared a fugitive for the murder of… honestly, I don’t remember. A bunch of people, I think. In the new premiere, ‘Viva La Mexico’, we find that he’s taken up with a gang of train-robbing outlaws. They keep stealing the railroad’s payroll, which makes the situation in the town of Hell on Wheels rather unstable. The workers are unhappy, and have slowed the railroad’s expansion to a crawl.
The episode spends a lot of time catching us up with the characters. The widow Lily is now the business partner of railroad tycoon Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), and possibly his romantic partner as well. Former slave Elam (Common) is now the line boss in charge of the railroad workers. With disorder creeping into town, he pushes Durant to give him The Swede’s old job, whatever ill-defined position that was (essentially Sheriff without an official badge). Of course, Elam’s color will present a problem keeping order among the racists in town.
As for The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), he’s quite down-and-out since being tarred-and-feathered last season. Humiliated, no one can take his authority seriously. He’s been demoted to cleaning up dead bodies in the street.
Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) is back on the bottle. Too drunk to preach (and thus too drunk to pass the collection plate), he’s falling deeply into debt. Meanwhile, the two Irish brothers have grown very successful as budding real estate moguls.
Bohannon isn’t exactly thrilled about his life of crime. He just wants to collect enough money to escape to Mexico and start a new life. The other former soldiers in his crew are more serious about their business. After Bohannon botches a robbery because he won’t shoot Elam (who’d been assigned by Durant to protect the payroll), they turn on him and allow him to get arrested. The episode ends with Bohannon being hauled off to jail for execution. I have a feeling that he’ll get out of this bind.
In a side story, someone kills one of the prostitutes in Hell on Wheels, which is officially the town’s first murder. Durant doesn’t seem terribly concerned about this. A horrified Lily pays for the girl to have a proper burial and starts snooping around to find out who’s responsible.
All in all, the premiere is a very solid episode. I’m certainly hooked enough to stick with the show for another season. ‘Hell on Wheels’ may not quite be the next ‘Deadwood’, but the series is slowly and surely forging its own interesting identity.