‘Hell on Wheels’ Season 3 Premiere Review

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Anson Mount in Hell on Wheels Big Bad Wolf Hell on Wheels Season 3 Premiere Review

One of the first things you’ll likely notice when Hell on Wheels makes its season 3 premiere (aside from Anson Mount’s more-hirsute-than-usual appearance) is that the series has developed a much-needed sense of levity. That’s not to say AMC’s revenge western has shifted its tone from dark and brooding to complete joviality, but even early on in the two-hour premiere, it’s clear the show and its characters have undergone a slight attitude adjustment.

And if you already have, or are planning on tuning in to the further adventures of Cullen Bohannon and the transcontinental railroad, then you’ve already noticed the series has been moved from its previous spot on the AMC Sunday night lineup to the less crowded Saturday night time slot – a shift that’s great for keeping your DVR from blowing up due to the ridiculous deluge of Sunday night programming, but it’s also one that could be risky and may see the series’ already small audience shrink even further.

If nothing else, these changes, along with new showrunner John Wirth (Falling Skies, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), hint at something of a new direction for Hell on Wheels. For one thing, under Wirth’s leadership, the series is now just a western, having dropped all that gloomy revenge claptrap in favor of telling a tale of redemption and reconstruction – themes that are quite likely even more resonant considering the series’ post-Civil War setting.

Common Hell on Wheels Big Bad Wolf Hell on Wheels Season 3 Premiere Review

At the start, Bohannon is caught in a sort of purgatory – both spiritually and physically. Trapped in the frozen wasteland of what once was the titular town of Hell on Wheels, the shaggy Johnny-Reb-cum-railroad-man has locked himself away in a frozen train car, still rapt by the ramifications of last season’s divisive ending that saw the death of Lily Bell and the apparent escape of her killer, the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), prior to his execution.

Awash in hallucinations of Doc Whitehead (Grainger Hines), and later spurred to action after doing battle with a hungry wolf (continuing TV and movies’ apparent love affair with wild men punching wolves), Bohannon soon finds himself firing up an iced-over locomotive and traveling to Omaha in search of his old frenemy Elam Ferguson (Common), who’s been anxiously awaiting the arrival of his child with Eva (Robin McLeavy).

Frankly, the move to have the premiere consist of the first two episodes of the 10-episode season was the right one for AMC. Sure, they’ve been doing this for the last few seasons of Mad Men, but Matthew Weiner has been treating that occasion as an opportunity to do a true, two-hour episode, typically covering a single, larger story and setting the table for the season to come. ‘Big Bad Wolf’ operates a little differently, as it’s required to inform on the current state of affairs and help to introduce the new predicaments of each character (the ones who’ve survived, anyway) and also to establish the tonal standpoint of the John Wirth era of Hell on Wheels.

In that regard, despite its rather brisk pace, ‘Big Bad Wolf’ manages a great deal of necessary table setting. Some time is spent with Cullen and Elam traveling to New York, so the now redemption-minded Bohannon can convince the powers that be to hire him back on to complete his section of the railroad ahead of his would-be rival Collison Huntington (Tim Guinee – Revolution, Homeland), while the rest of the episode manages to demonstrate the new circumstances of Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant (Colm Meaney), who has been imprisoned since the end of last season, but finds himself a free man before the credits roll.

Anson Mount Hell on Wheels Eminent Domain Hell on Wheels Season 3 Premiere Review

While the first episode sets the table, the second, ‘Eminent Domain,’ is more of a straightforward story that has Bohannon caught between the ideals of a Mormon homesteader fighting for his land and the government’s decree of eminent domain in its quest to build the railroad. The episode introduces journalist Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), who (for this episode anyway) becomes the mouthpiece of the series. She describes Bohannon’s struggles against the Hatch family following the murder of railroad lawman Dick Barlow (Matthew Glave – Argo, The Wedding Singer), which results in the eldest Hatch son being hanged for the crime. It’s both a departure and a return of sorts, as Bohannon’s approach attempts to be one of honor and veracity that leads him back down a familiar and dark path of violence and retribution.

While a dip back into the revenge pool seems imminent, there is a plus side. After two seasons that were, at best, tangentially about building the railroad, it looks as though the series is finally ready to focus more of its energy on the effort that went in to constructing the transcontinental railroad. Admittedly, most of what was on display in these first two episodes felt highly romanticized and a little facile, but for now, the show earns points for the effort.

It’s too soon to tell if these tonal changes brought forth by Wirth will amount to better stories and storytelling on Hell on Wheels, but since the series struggled in the past to strike the right balance between revenge drama and western, reducing its thematic load is the best chance it has at the kind of rich, compelling storytelling this series should be capable of making.

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Hell on Wheels continues next Saturday with ‘Range War’ @9pm on AMC.

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  1. Actually caught this! First Hell on Wheels episode I’ve seen, despite my advocacy for Mr. Mount in another oft-discussed role.

    I only saw the latter half of it… not really sure what to make of it from just that, but the general atmosphere and conflict (re: the “justice” of the oldest son hanging) makes me curious both about the future dynamic between Bohannon and the Mormons, and also to learn more about Bohannon himself through this dynamic.

    For a tunnel vision with only this hour to go on, it was hard to get a true judge of his character besides a hardline businessman who opens up morally if not emotionally (accurate?). But I’m at least mostly intrigued to follow this series more now.

    • Do you mean Batman? After watching safe I could picture it.

      • Yessir

    • In the first episode of season 3,
      Mr Bohannon is much less the force that his character has previously been developed into the first two seasons of Hell On Wheels. Here’s hoping that the writers and persons responsible for producing this series at AMC, get it back on track quickly.

      • I couldn’t agree more. It may be ruined

  2. the first seasons were good.. now that Lily is gone, this show is doomed. this will be the last season for sure.. if they even make it that far.

    • I totally agree. Very disappointed. What they heck was Bohannon doing with that young girl?! I found that disgusting and out of character. Lily was the one redeeming character in the show…and she’s gone.

      • I totally agree, Bohannon was a respected hero type character. Last night he just seemed like a scum.The young girl thing made him look really bad. I ended up turning the tv off about 10 20, and I was a face full viewer the last 2 seasons. He also was an exceptional ass to Fergenson

    • I agree. Lilly made the show as she was a strong heroine. Perhaps the writers will figure out a way to bring her back from the dead. (I keep hoping that she secretely survived).

      I can’t believe the Sweed is alive and coming back – what a devil he is. I keep screaming for Bohannen to kill him – aaahhhh!

  3. The first two hours of season three were a huge disappointment compared to past seasons. Lily’s relationship with Cullen was integral to the show and the new female lead just lacks chemistry with him. These two shows had unnecessary violence…the “almost” rape of the female reporter and the unnecessary hanging of the young man for something his father probably did. They couldn’t be sure he killed the sheriff, so why kill him?

    The change in writers in Season 3, let alone between the first two episodes, was painfully obvious. I LOVED this show in the first two seasons and am not sure I will continue with it in Season 3, but I will give it another chance next Saturday. But please, bring in a more interesting female lead for Cullen. He is a HUNK!!!

    • Well I do not know about the hunk part but I am an older really big western fan, and Cullen as a lead hero charcter had class. I Feel, thanks to the new writers this season, Cullen had no class last night.

    • But slaughtering Indians is okay? It’s a television drama…grow up.

    • Let’s PLEASE don’t turn this into a romantic Western! Keep it raw, exciting, and unpredictable. Don’t bring Durant back a major villain or character; he should be gone as Lily and the Swede. Move on with the creativity.

  4. I, too, was disappointed and don’t know if I will continue watching. There was nothing interesting about it. So sad.

  5. One more comment…Cullen having sex with the young Mormon girl he just met…UNBELIEVABLE!!!! We never saw him with the “whores”. To do that with the young daughter of a family he just met, NEVER.

    The show needs some women writers’ to help balance it…

    • It was the third wife not daughter

    • The whole Mormon storyline was unbelievable. I am not sure what was even up with that. First of all, the Mormons back then often helped the slaves to escape to the North (one of the reasons the Missourians hated them so much) so they definitely did like Blacks, they never would have been caught out on the plains all by themselves because of the persecution they were constantly under, the girl/3rd wife would NEVER have slept with him (I don’t care how hot Cullen is) because that was grounds for excommunication from the church and considered a sin second to murder. Which leads me to my last point, the father shooting the cop and then blaming him son for it is ridiculous. That is equivalent to him killing his son himself, which is shedding innocent blood, and damnation to him in their beliefs. If the writers were looking for some way to show Cullen is the standard for integrity (which was implied by the narrative at the end) they sure picked an awful way of doing that, especially if he is going to treat Blacks the way he does and sleep with that young woman. NOT BELIEVABLE and quite revisionist in historical writing.

  6. Show needs an assertive beauty to play off Bohannon! Soon! I’ll give it some time.

  7. Doesn’t look like the new writers watched season 1 and 2 in order to get to know Cullen’s true character. If they had, the sex scene in the barn with a juvenile would not have made it to the screen but would have been left on the editing floor. His love scene with Lilly was a long time in coming and held as emotionally serious by both characters. It was endearing. Last night’s scene was so out of character for Cullen it did him an injustice.

    • I agree. It seems like John Wirth is trying to make a name for himself by drastically changing the characters. That said, I like where Elam is now more than ever.

    • well I guess nobody knows that that girl is 23 years old ,and no one ever said her age in the show.my little girl is 21 years old and passes for 14 all the time, some of you need to read the other articals on the show before passing judgement.it’s a lot better than these reality shows!

  8. One has to understand that this is more of a historical recount of building the railroad and the hardships that were endured along the way. It was or is not a romance between Bohannon and Lilly. Yes, it was harsh to see an innocent person hang for something he probably did not do, but Bohannan was not going to be bullied by the father, who is a coward and hid behind his son. I hope all continue to watch as I feel it will continue to be interesting. I am sure that there will be some sort of interest written for Bohannon. But as stated by him in the episode no one know how much he suffered.

  9. The guy that played Elams new boss, the one with the huge stache, what else was he in he looks so familiar.

  10. Good of you to review what I feel was a strong start to the season. I teach a college course on the Western genre and my students study Hell on Wheels on a number of levels, including the development of the transcontinental railroad and issues that connect to present (e.g. race relations, Indigenous rights, the effect of technology upon the environment). That the show frames such history and issues within a strong dramatic arc is to its credit.

    Chad Beharriell, MA
    westernsreboot dot com

  11. Great Western, loved it.. Of course a first time viewer of the “Hell On Wheels” on AMC. I take that back, I did watch a few minutes of Season 1. But this time the show clicked for me. I was an Stunt Man, before I went into the Army, in 1968.. so I like Westerns. The show was fascinating, colorful and enjoyable. The characters have realistic and interesting profiles, and I look forward to the following episodes. Nice… thx. AMC

  12. I agree that S1 and S2 Cullen was a man of class. Even though he descended into the depths if despair, we always felt he had a moral compass. S3 Cullen has lost that and i can’t admire him anymore. I am feeling the loss of this once great show!

  13. The big challenge was always going to be filing the void left by Lily. Bohannon cares nothing for bribes, shenanigans, whores, and the like. Integrity, wit, and class. Then he hooks up with the Mormon child in a barn where he is a guest after a couple hours? Are you serious? Thank you Hollywood. .. maybe headlines are what you were after, but fans of the first two seasons have to wonder if this rarified drama of the West has been sullied by savages.

  14. This first episode felt eh. Hopefully it improves

  15. Look, i watched this with my wife and even she said the sex scene wasn’t no big deal. You do realize that this is set almost 150 years ago? Some people got married at like 14, 15 & 16 back then, especially mormons!!! It’s unfair and utterly pointless to judge somebody (ESPECIALLY a FICTIONAL character LOL) through our modern-day eyes.

    Also, this is interesting:

    In the two-hour return of the AMC Western, Cullen Bohannon (Mount), the new chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad, tried to convince a Mormon family to peacefully vacate its land, which his tracks were set to cross. After agreeing to a survey to determine if the tracks could go around the property instead, Bohannon — a widower whose new love interest, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), was killed in the season 2 finale — was invited to spend the night at the family’s home. He ended up in the barn with a daughter (who looked like a teen, but was actually played by a 23-year-old actress, according to Mount).

    “The network almost made us cut that [sex] scene out, and we fought for it to stay in,” Mount says. “I’m not interested in pure, untainted heroes, just like I’m not that interested in strength. I’m interested in weakness, and I’m interested in what makes somebody human. Just because somebody’s had their heart broken doesn’t mean that they don’t get a hard on every now and then. Okay. It’s just realistic. He’s out there alone. The only thing he’s seen is whores, and half of ‘em have syphilis. What’s he gonna do?”

    “The reason the sex is so important in that scene is that he has to hang her brother the next day,” Mount says, “and he doesn’t even question it. He has to get on with the railroad. The law is the law. It makes the killing of that boy much more difficult, but he does it. We also had a scene in that episode in which I was reading to her little sister before she went to bed. We didn’t have room for it, unfortunately, but that’s the kind of stuff that we were trying to set up to make that ending so much more difficult.”

    http://insidetv.ew.com/2013/08/10/hell-on-wheels-season-3-premiere-anson-mount/

  16. why do they need to mess with the formula, the first two seasons were great. the premiere was so boring and every little morsel of titillation they tried to throw at us just felt tacked on for the sake of shock value. it’s not shocking if there isn’t any dramatic build up, it just feels forced.

    this reminds me of when Walking Dead changed the showrunner for season 2 and the show was basically a sad write-off until season 3 begun.

  17. Season three is a reboot. This is the show it should’ve been all along. I enjoyed the first two seasons but it always baffled me that we were subjected to messy, contrived subplots when there is more than enough natural drama attached to the history of the railroad to create plots that feel more organic. We didn’t need the craziness of The Swede, or the love triangle involving Ruth / Joseph / Sean. And while I’ll miss The Swede and Joseph (and hope we see them again in the future, maybe even season four), the direction of the plot in episode one of season three is exactly what the show needed lest it crumble entirely.

    I think it’s brilliant to bring in the reporter to sum up the show in a byline narrative. It’s very “telling,” and not “showing,” but I found it refreshing and necessary. We’re going to see Bohannon evolve as a character, making mistakes and being human (*cough* Mormon girl *cough) all while trying to maintain his integrity, which seems an impossible task for a man with his responsibilities.

    I now understand why the show came to such an abrupt crash at the end of season two. It definitely paved the way for season three. I’m in the minority about Lily Bell: I liked her as a character, but I don’t miss her. She was another contrived, unnecessary subplot. And unless I missed it, we also didn’t see anything in this week’s episode about Bohannon finding the person who killed his wife. The focus is now on building the railroad.

    • The person who left the great comment above said “The focus is now on building the railroad”.

      And that’s exactly how it should be. This is, after all, a HISTORICAL drama. Long live Hell on Wheels!!!! Best dramatic show on TV next to Showtime’s “Homeland”!!!!!

  18. I turned off the television when it showed Cullen molesting that young girl in the barn. The show has been ruined for me. Whoever wrote that scene should be shot.

    • Sorry but did you see the same thing that I did? It was clearly consensual, ‘Kay? Go ahead and don’t watch the rest of the season then, there are plenty of people that will watch it, the people that paid attention where you didn’t.

  19. Not sure if I was watching the same show, but that wasnt a sex scene.
    BUT, considering how young she looked and how old Cullen is starting to look…it was a tad creepy.
    Please no more scenes like that.
    Great show nonetheless!

  20. So let get this straight: Cullen is a man of class? A man we are introduced to when he kills in cold blood another man in a confessional booth. A man who killed an innocent person and went on the run at the end of season 1. A man who participated in the robbing of the train company he once worked for in season 2. A man continually treats Elam like his second class.

    Yep. Cullen has a lot of class.

  21. I’m surprised at the comments referring to Cullen and Lily’s relationship as being integral to the show. To me, their unlikely and barely plausible courtship was irritating and detracted from the gritty feeling of the show.

    Based on the premiere, this season may be the best ever so long as it resists the temptation to insert another dull and out of place romantic interest for Cullen. His scene with the Mormon girl perfectly fit his character as it should be, a hard frontiersman. Lily never made sense as a part of Hell on Wheels, and I hope that the show’s new direction holds its course.

  22. First time watcher. Sorry thisnshow is hog wash. Where in the world of the 1800 does A black man beome sheriff?

    • Yes I noticed a sudden influx of political correctness in the season3 premiere. Seasons 1 and 2 were quite different.

  23. The ever moving town of Hell on Wheels WAS an allegorical location for this world. A place where we struggle for redemption and do battle with the seven deadly sins as represented by various characters. I loved the “Hellbound Train” quality of the show. I liked it better as a religious allegory and I’m waiting to see if the current writers preserve that idea. Seasons 1 and 2 stand alone as a complete piece. We’ll see if Season 3 measures up.

    • After a shaky start Season 3 got rolling. The last two episodes, Fathers and Sins and get behind the Mule were brilliant? Will Bohannon find redemption? Will there be a next season?

  24. Bringing Durant back into season 3 rekindles boredom in villains and feeble attempts to generate excitement and intrigue. Move on with new challenges and build the railroad. There must be plenty of villains to introduce; Don’t rehash.

  25. I finished watching the first episode of the two-hour premier. Loved the first two seasons, but I don’t think I’m going to continue watching it. Bohannon began the first two episodes with many flaws but prevailed through loss of his beloved wife, revenge, and, ultimately, another love interest in Lily Bell. Then you rid the viewers of an extraordinary relationship with two strong characters. Now, he’s a wanderer without any moral fiber. It’s okay for the writers to make him a villain and then a man with humanity and then a villain again. But there should be a limitation in twisting Bohannon’s character. Yes, evil exists. Yes, it’s a rendition of a time in history our country placed little value on human life. But witnessing a rape and then a hanging? Not liking it. The writers’ attempt to shock you when Bohannon slaps that horse and hangs that boy goes against everything I value in a true hero, even a flawed one. Sorry. You lost me.

  26. Season premier was SO disappointing. Loved the first two season. Thought the death of Lilly was sad, but timely. A “historical” drama that re-writes history is a little suspect. I too am tired of the PC and political lessons that are written into scripts at the expense of developing characters and relationships between them and letting the audience decided and debate the implications of the storyline. That is what makes good television.
    And as an aside, the line “Mormons hate the N*****” was completely silly and boarderline offensive, esp.given the time period. Mormons were thrown out of Missouri because of their stance AGAINST slavery. They were staunch abolitionists and had an extermination order written against them by the Govenor of Missori allowing anyone to shoot them on sight. As far as I know there were no long term polygamous sects settled in Nebraska either…Just an example to illustrate the new writes are lazy and don’t do their homework.
    I found the canoodling with the young wife crass but slightly humorous given the circumstance.
    Gave the second episode a chance but felt that “evil American army” vs. “the misunderstood Indian” was another example of the writers telling us how we should feel about a difficult and tumultuous time period in our history before really developing characters that have depth and creating a storyline that generates discussion.
    Common is an under-utilized actor who steal every scene he is in. Hoping his character is developed well but not holding my breath.
    Cullen is all over the place. His character was much more defined the first two seasons.

    • Uhh… Mormons didn’t allow black people to be mormons until like 1978… Naw they were never racist.

      • You mean hold the priesthood. They were “allowed to be Mormons” long before that.

  27. Bohannon would of killed himself after Lily died, his tormented character had no where else to go. To believe he would go back to work for the railroad is ridiculous. 3rd season is irrelevant.

  28. Bohannon would have killed himself after lily died. He was completely broken and sent into bloodlust (which was his only reason for being alive), after his wife died. Then when Lily dies they expect me to believe he’s just gunna keep on workin? Bad writing backed this story into a corner that only breaking character could fix. I prey the day comes soon when writers start putting honest storytelling over shock value.

  29. the show has lost its force and become just one more pc civil rights fantasy. The real West was raw and real. Let Col. Bohannon continue his vendetta against the yankees who murdered his family.