It’s fair to say that Hell on Wheels is the kind of program that enjoys taking time out to better illustrate precisely what the story is about. Typically, this means characters sitting down to discuss the recurring concepts and themes of the show, as though they were a part of everyday conversation. And as the themes have turned even more toward the notion of morality, sin, and the question of whether or not a person can lead a good life while still occasionally taking the lives of others, the reasoning or justification behind these talks seems thinner than ever before.
Furthermore, such conversations, like the lunchtime chat between Bohannon and Ruth in her new church tent, make it seem as though the episode is talking at the viewer rather than demonstrating just how complicated the morality of Hell on Wheels is through the actions of its characters.
Up until recently, this was a show driven largely by the concept of a man seeking revenge, while tangentially discussing the construction of the transcontinental railroad. And yet, in the first two seasons, the series only occasionally demonstrated how it was about either of these things, as various other subplots and characters sprung up and required tending to, lest they be thought of as too extraneous.
Now, after the great culling of characters and subplots that was the season 2 finale, ‘Blood Moon Rising,’ there came an opportunity – especially with the addition of new showrunner John Wirth – to point the series in a new direction. And while the first half of the two-hour season 3 premiere felt like it was taking a progressive step forward, the second half, ‘Eminent Domain,’ was tantamount to taking two steps back.
Some of the regression was certainly thematic, as the hanging of the Mormon homesteader’s son suggested that while Bohannon may be done with the notion of revenge, revenge was far from done with him. But more troublesome (at least at this point in the season) seems to be the re-introduction of characters whose fate at the end of season 2 felt largely complete, even if it was also ambiguous. For the most part, this has to do with the return of Christopher Heyerdahl as the Swede, after his execution at the hand of Bohannon went somewhat awry and the killer of Lily Bell floated away down a river, his death presumed, but ultimately unconfirmed.
The return of the Swede (Heyerdahl’s terrific performance aside) is mostly problematic, as the character’s inevitable return to Hell on Wheels, which will likely coincide with he and Bohannon once again crossing paths, appears to undermine the progression of the series. Certainly there are elements to his revival that speak to what Wirth described as a story of redemption for the former Johnny Reb. Still, the re-introduction of a character behind such a divisive episode and turn of events lessens whatever lingering emotional impact those events still have – by requiring they be addressed well past the moment they were most effective. Ultimately, if Hell on Wheels won’t move past its own troubled past, how is anyone to expect that Bohannon will?
Furthermore, the notion of setting Thomas Durant up as some sort of adversary for Bohannon in his new position as head of the Union Pacific certainly works better the less we see of Durant and Bohannon in the same room together. Watching the now-broke Durant deny any involvement with the cattle rustlers who took the railroad’s food supply – as his rival swills whiskey next to a dead body – was the same kind of face-off the two occasionally shared during seasons 1 & 2, and the series has yet to decide what these confrontations really mean in terms of the characters’ relationship with one another.
If Durant is to try and foil Bohannon at every turn, it’s hard not to think his machinations might have been more entertaining if they had been conducted from the prison cell we saw him in during ‘Big Bad Wolf.’ At the very least, a prison story featuring Durant might hold more promise than seeing him playfully bicker with a Nebraska landowner about where her hotel and its cascading staircase might fit into his vision.
All in all, there are plenty of new characters like the sadistic and bigoted Major Bendix and journalist Louise Ellison to help color Bohannon’s journey toward redemption, and crowding the field with characters who’ve already had their moment seems like a surefire way of repeating the past this storyline is supposedly eager to leave behind.
Hell on Wheels continues next Saturday with ‘The Game’ @9pm on AMC.