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'Hell On Wheels' Arrives for Season Three
August 9, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment

Last we saw boss Cullen Bohannon, he was walking stone-faced through the flames of his sacked town, "Hell On Wheels," the railroad tent city fallen victim to a Sioux raid. It was a scintillating end to a tautly drawn season, with the titular series side-stepping the usual sophomore slump.

This week, to start Season 3, we find him hallucinating, talking to himself, wrapped in pelts. He even has to go one-on-one, Jeremiah Johnson-style, against a hungry wolf.

Since last year's finale, television's only current Western series has had an uneven hiatus. Original creators and writers Joe and Tony Gayton left. The series was renewed anyway, but almost immediately after that, Breaking Bad veteran and showrunner John Shiban also stepped down. It was unclear for a short time whether the series would go on.

Co-Producer John Wirth took over, and the show got slated for Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET on AMC, beginning August 10. According to AMC PR, that's a supposed promotion, the primetime capper for a scheduled all-day run of full-length Westerns.

Being slotted as a nightcap to a day of western reruns seems like a back-handed compliment at best, and the show's Saturday night exile might well be read as grim smoke signal.

The good news is, Hell on Wheels, about the mud and blood camp that lurches west along with the Pacific Union railroad construction, survived. Guys need westerns. So does TV. The bad news is, the first two shows, which premiere together in a two-hour Saturday night special (starting at the special time of 9 ET), are workmanlike, but also are a somewhat forgettable reset for the series as the town, Hell On Wheels, rises from the ashes.

Lead character Bohannon (Anson Mount) returns this year, as does the swindling railroad investor Snidely Whiplash -- actually named Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney), though he's as obviously drawn a villain as Snidely ever was.

But a few other characters are gone. Notably, the addled prophet, Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan), departed via patricide. Bohannon's love interest, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligot), lay dead at the hands of his arch-nemesis, the the hollowed-eye uber-weirdo boogeyman "Swede" (Christopher Heyerdahl, whose character fled these here parts, but is slated to return later this season.) Newcomer and plucky east coast journalist Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin, The Following, left), seems likely to take Lily's place in Bohannon's love life sometime this season.

As for Bohannon, after his winter of discontent, he gathers himself to journey to New York City, along with ex-slave and oft-reluctant ally Elam (Common, with Mount, below). Bohannon persuades the Union Pacific board to give him Durant's job as head of the whole operation, since Durant was jailed for embezzlement at the end of last season. The two plainsmen, Bohannon and Elam, get outfitted in well-appointed suits, and clearly, the barbarians are at the Manhattan gates.

A side story in the second hour finds Bohannon, returned to the Midwest, crossing wits with a Mormon homesteader, his farm in the middle of the railroad's path. That episode also has Bohannon fringing on some dicey sexual territory which, after the premiere is televised, may get some press for its subject matter.

These aren't uninteresting stories, but those used to Hell On Wheels, and its earlier, harder brand of corruption and hubris, might be disappointed. Bohannon's new position has halted his quest for the revenge of the murder of his wife during the Civil War at the hands of Union soldiers, at least for the first couple of episodes. And for now, he's not after The Swede in to avenge Lily, either. Bohannon's inner turmoil was Hell on Wheels' strong suit, along with its dramatic photography and soundtrack.

Whether or not all that can be regained and retained in a third season, with a winnowed cast hammering away at the same iron spikes, isn't certain. Or easy. Given the tepid time slot, one wonders whether AMC thinks it's possible, either.

For a smart rake like Bohannon, though, it shouldn't be much trouble. As he twangs to the Mormon farmer, "Even God can't stop the railroad." We'll see if the Gods of Hell on Wheels – a.k.a., the writers – can keep the thing on track, and chugging towards a fourth season.

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When they killed off Lily... that did it for me. I'm out.
Aug 15, 2013   |  Reply
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