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.