It’s no surprise that Hell on Wheels was one of my favorite new shows of last year. I’ve been severely missing a good true western show since Deadwood ended years ago. The AMC show may not be as vulgar but it is just as violent, dirty, and cynical as the HBO western whose void it is seemingly trying to fill. Last season was a home run in my book. I would go to say it’s AMC’s most consistent show outside of Breaking Bad and while I’ll catch hell for it, especially with comic fans, I think it’s a better show, pound for pound, than The Walking Dead. Don’t get me wrong, I still like The Walking Dead but the front half of last season was a mess and it took a while to recover on the back end. Pacing is that show’s biggest enemy and at times the bad guy seems to win more than not.
Season two of Hell on Wheels does not take any time to get back into the swing of things. They hit the ground running and then power down the road like a damned steam engine. We pick up a little while after the end of season one with our protagonist Cullen Bohannon as an outlaw having killed a man in the finale of season one. It turns out he figured his best course of action was to just roll with the punches and go full on Jesse James. Cullen is now raiding railroad payroll cars trying to steal enough cash to make his way down to Mexico to start fresh. The opening scene of this episode plays out like a stripped down version of the first train robbery in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I greatly appreciated the fact that they didn’t feel the need to draw things out and explain why the characters were where they were at the start of this season. There wasn’t a lot of wasted exposition style dialog and it worked heavily in the show’s favor. If you didn’t watch the first season you probably felt lost as all hell, but I appreciate shows that don’t baby their audience.
The show doesn’t necessarily spell out how long has passed between the finale of season one and this episode but we do get to see how drastically things have changed since Cullen left camp. The Irish McGinnes brothers have risen up to take the place of the Swede who they tarred and feathered in the last season, effectively diminishing his standing to the point where he now is forced to work as a collector of dead bodies because no one wants him doing anything with any more authority. Lawlessness is rampant in the community and nobody has the power to stop it. Railroad boss Durant won’t call in federal help for fear of it sinking his stock prices and the only capable hand who could help is Elam, who can’t be given the job because of the color of his skin. Common plays Elam with a rare sort of authority. He is proud of his ascension from a lowly railroad worker to what amounts to middle management but the scene near the close of the episode where he walks through camp seeing a congregation of dancing white men and a group of his former friends from the cut crew and knows that he truly fits into neither part shows us what sort of man he really is. Elam is a smart man but he also must force himself to be deluded in regard to his importance and the acceptance of those around him in order to continue doing his job.
There is a lot here to like, and I like that there are parallels to Cullen’s predicament at the beginning of the first season here at the climax of the first episode of season two. It speaks to the nature of the character and his arc. We know that he’s not going to end up dead because the show is centered around his character. What we can take away from the fact that he finds himself constantly incarcerated and facing his own demise is what which way his moral compass points.
In short, I can’t wait for next week’s episode. I’m glad this one is back for another season. I wasn’t sure it would make the cut because I don’t imagine it is a cheap show to make. I’ll continue to support it because it is one of the few shows on the air that I will say without argument deserves it.
Sunday saw the mid-season finale of season two of AMC’s The Walking Dead. I am going to state outright that this little analysis is going to have HUGE SPOILERS peppered throughout so if you have no watched the whole of season two up to the mid-season finale I would advise against reading this entry until you have gotten yourself caught up. Or perhaps you realized half-way through that you couldn’t stand the show and just want to read this to see if the rest of the season is worth watching and you don’t care about spoilers. I don’t know you, but I want to warn everyone before I get into everything.
So we’re clear on the spoilers then?
Can I just say that, from a structural standpoint, Walking Dead season two was an unmitigated mess? Here’s what I want to get out of the way. I don’t have a problem with soap-opera level drama. If the acting is up to snuff and the events unfolding are handled in a way that follows the basic tenets of narrative structure, I don’t really have a problem with heightened or manufactured drama. The central conflicts of this season; Shane’s feelings of rejection and his decent into pure id driven savagery, the theme of secrets and their destructive effect on society as presented by Lori’s pregnancy as well as the “walkers in the barn” scenario, the anguish over a missing child and the decision on how much time to spend searching, all of these things are fine concepts to mine in a television show.
So why did these episodes leave such a foul taste in my mouth?
I feel that I should point out that I read the hardcover collections of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead before the season started. That series, for the most part, moves at a breakneck pace that essentially forces the reader to turn the page because things are happening so fast that you don’t have an opportunity to be bored by what is unfolding. The story beats are handled well and the pacing never feels off, with a few exceptions. If there is one thing that they did not translate from page to screen, it is the idea of acceptable pacing.
Walking Dead season two is essentially hobbled by the fact that the drama, as engrossing as it may have been, is stretched so thin in an attempt to pad out the series to fit its episode run that it borders on the edge of making the series a tedious bore. In just about every episode there are perhaps five to ten minutes of simply amazing television. But the rest of the episode is filled with instances of drama being repeated in different scenarios in an effort to fill time. I don’t know how many times Shane and Lori had the same conversation. This goes for Herschel and Rick as well. They keep repeating the same beats on the same element of the story so many times that, I’ll be honest, the episodes tend to run together in terms of identity. There is nothing in any of the episodes that makes them stand out. Usually you can isolate a turning point, or a moment where the story takes a dramatic shift. This season has had those moments, but they become overshadowed by the poor handling of the fallout. Carl’s shooting at the end of the first episode loses its impact when for the next two or three episodes we’re treated to multiple scenes of Herschel explaining how dire the situation is and Rick and Lori obsessing about it. Later in the season we’re subjected to multiple repeats of the same conversation between Rick and Herschel about whether the group will be allowed to stay at the farm. The same reasons presented by both parties seem to be repeated incessantly. It dilutes the effect of the drama as a result.
This technique of repetition smacks of the high school student writing an essay and constantly repeating his points with slightly altered wording in order to pad his paper out to the teacher’s required length. It doesn’t make the paper better, it just makes it longer. That’s the nutshell problem of Walking Dead season two. The key elements of the show that actually worked could have cut the episode count from seven down to four. There are literally HOURS of runtime that amount to nothing more than unnecessary padding. I understand the need to build drama. That is not the issue here. The issue is the technique in which they attempted to foster tension that actually had the opposite effect.
Walking Dead is a good show that is smothered by bad elements. It is easy to understand the desire to stretch the material for television. The producers would have you believe it is because they want to exploit the ability of television to slowly build things over an extended period of time. I have no opposition to that idea. Other shows do it quite well. But you don’t get the sense of wasted dialog and padded narrative structure from shows like Breaking Bad. The mid-season finale ended on an excellent note, which is very smart because if they hadn’t hit a home run in the last few minutes of the episode it is doubtful that most of the audience would return next spring for the second half of the season.
On Sunday evening I, along with every-fucking-body in the world, watched the AMC premiere of The Walking Dead. The small screen adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic hit was everything you would expect out of a TV show helmed by Frank Darabont. It’s like Boardwalk Empire over at HBO. Did anyone expect a show masterminded by Martin mothereffing Scorcese to not knock it out of the park? The same principle applies to The Walking Dead, as it’s a masterful translation, with the finely tuned raw grit that made The Mist so gutwrenching back on display here. The man has a well developed sense of what makes horror scenarios so intense. The zombies themselves here, which are really some top of the line practical effects by the way, aren’t what’s scary. It’s the sense of overwhelming change. The sense of loss. The sense of distrust between the survivors. Darabont slathers on that sort of attention to detail and gives us an unrelenting drama.
The show itself is obviously amazing, but the turnout for the show is what is truly spectacular. It garnered the highest ratings for a cable premiere this year and it’s the best debut AMC has ever had. Don Draper can go suck a veiny zombie dong because The Walking Dead is a certified hit. In the weeks leading up to the event I figured that the comic nerds of the world would tune in, but I wasn’t sure it would find a mainstream audience, what with the fact that the previews that AMC was running for the show didn’t really show off much beyond it being a generic zombie apocalypse drama. But it looks like we’ll be getting a long healthy run for the series and I’m hoping that it will make it long enough to get to the prison arc. If the conclusion to that particular story doesn’t make for some of the best TV on record I’ll eat my hat.
And for those of you wondering, the reason I used the above image is because I wanted to see if anyone noticed the corgi in a lobster costume someone photoshopped in.