As I hope I was clear when I reviewed HELL ON WHEELS first season, I enjoy the classic Western and even these new-fangled ones wherein the heroes aren’t always as heroic as old Hollywood types would have you believe. Based on circumstances (some of their own creation), these characters don’t always do what’s right, but they inevitably do what’s just for the situations they face. That might mean picking up a gun and putting it to good use. It may mean shooting a man dead in order to stop some greater misdeed from occurring. Whatever the case, HELL ON WHEELS makes great hay in exploring character who, while flawed, have shreds of common decency buried somewhere beneath their dusty exteriors, and they’re all willing to ignore them if it gets them what they need.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
When we last saw Cullen Bohannon (played to subtle perfection by Anson Mount), he was on-the-outs with the forces of justice, and he was no longer calling the shots in the rail town of the show’s name. Elam (Common) had been elevated into a more prominent role by Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), while he and Lily Bell (the lovely Dominique McElligott) pursued their own ‘union’ to see the railroad built. Of course, that doesn’t last long, and Cullen’s eventually reinstated into Durant’s ranks, but Elam doesn’t go quietly into the night.
It’s difficult to review Season 2 without spoiling some of it, and perhaps the best way to do so would be to explain that – as was often the case in the hard times of the Old West – not everyone makes it out alive. Forging a nation is risky business; forging a railroad to help build (and re-build) a nation after the Civil War is an even deadlier undertaking. As such, Season 2 dealt with stories of a more personal nature – Elam trying to find a measure of happiness with the woman in his life, Bohannon and Lily eventually having to take a stand against Durant and his wife (Virginia Madsen, in an underused appearance), the townspeople dealing with more and more racism and bigotry than you can shake a stick at – and the audience is forced to say its goodbye to some of the more noble creations.
Methinks the show was quite probably plagued a bit behind-the-scenes with network suggestions and studio tinkering as creators Joe and Tony Gayton were asked to step down as showrunners for Season 3. (That’s rarely a good thing in the land of TV executives.) Last I’d heard John Shiban was elevated from writer to showrunner, but I believe even he’s left the stage for greener pastures as media reports now that John Wirth has been brought in to manage the property for Season 3.
I mention this because I tend to believe this tinkering was probably causing these stories to feel “less connected” to one another than the Gaytons brought to the small screen in the first season. Who knows? Maybe the show was running over budget, and the easiest way to get it back under control is to eliminate some of the headcount … and there are an amazing number of cast deaths in Season 2. (Don’t forget: I warned you above that there would be some spoilers, but I won’t mention any one specifically.) In the scope of ten short episodes, it’s amazing how the program changed from its central emphasis on Bohannon seeking out the men who destroyed his homestead and killed his wife to essentially being “bottle episodes of the week” about characters facing the deepest, darkest personal crises.
Still, HELL served up some fine moments. It may’ve felt more than a bit uneven at times, but the production and performance quality remained high throughout. I’ll tune in for Season 3, if for no other reason than to see what Cullen’s up to these days.
HELL ON WHEELS: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON is produced by Entertainment One Television, Nomadic Pictures, (gayton)2, Endemol, American Movie Classics (AMC), Endemol Entertainment UK, and H.O.W. Productions. DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One. As for the technical specifications, the show looks and sounds remarkable. And, unlike the first season set, Season 2’s comes saddled up with a fair amount of special features: there’s a “Back with a Vengeance: The Making of Season 2” short, some materials reviewing where Season 1 left off, cast interviews, a set tour with star Anson Mount, and ten short “Inside the Episode” mini-documentaries that profile the show’s production.
RECOMMENDED. As much as I was surprised and fascinated with HELL ON WHEELS first season, I thought most of the second was a bit of a mixed bag. Situations seemed to develop less organically (and with less feeling of authenticity), and the characters felt as if they were being tossed about deliberately by a writing crew instead of by the events and circumstances of the period. The season finale almost smacks of cancellation – fates of the principles were mightily handled out – and I know from following the news reports that AMC dragged their heels for quite some time on a third season renewal. In fact, I’d imagine Season 3 won’t look all that much like the first two seasons given the developments, but perhaps that’s a good thing these days.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One provided me with a DVD copy of HELL ON WHEELS: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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