It's not hard to like the idea of AMC's western series, Hell on Wheels. The show has a lot going for it: unrepentant, lone wolf in search of those who killed his wife and child, set against the magnificent backdrop of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, where freed slaves, immigrant workers and former Confederate soldiers all convene. It is the kind of milieu fans of multiple genres can find a heaping helping of what they're looking for. The trouble is, during season 1, the series often came across unsure about just what it wanted to serve.
While the marketing for season 2 insinuates that a wild Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is effectively raising some hell, the show, in its first 10-episode outing, was oddly devoid of much hell raising. It was also devoid of much railroad building. In fact, it was an oddly unstructured set of disparate parts that, despite showing off some flashes of real inspiration, mostly struggled to live up to the material's true potential.
Most of the time the laconic southerner could barely be compelled to express himself beyond a guttural, monosyllabic "yeah." This isn't the fault of Mount, who is doing a pretty remarkable job with the material he's been given; it merely leads one to wonder what he might be able to accomplish if the Gayton brothers infused their scripts with something more akin to subtlety, rather than assuming the audience incapable of following the subtext, or grasping the literal meaning to the various grunts and murmurs of Cullen Bohannon. There are writers who can get away with this. One such writer is named Aaron Sorkin – though he's been criticized for his less-than-subtle scripting on The Newsroom. For its part, Hell on Wheels suffers from a similar verbal malady, but here, the dialogue is far less erudite, and far less preachy; it is merely filler so that no one's motives or line of thought can be questioned. For example, take the scene between the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) and Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), in which he actually compares how far he's fallen to Lily's apparent rise to the top. By doing things like that, the Gaytons' script often loses much of the program's intended drama.
Thankfully, however, in the second season premiere, 'Viva La Mexico,' the various characters of the series have been slightly rewired so that the model they were intended to embody is given chance to breathe and find a less restrictive means to define each individual. The improvements are immediate and most noticeable in Elam Ferguson (Common) and the aforementioned Lily Bell. And while there's evidence that even Bohannon is moving away from being something more than the "good" type of plantation and slave owner, or that he's more than a mission of revenge, he's not there just yet, but Mr. Bohannon appears to be on the right course.
The show wisely picks up after an indeterminate amount of time following last season's finale that saw Bohannon on the run after killing the wrong man. In that time, he's made his way back to Meridian and joined up with a bunch of train robbers led by a loose cannon named Hawkins (Ryan Robbins, or Tector from Falling Skies). Bohannon's plan is get enough money to escape to Mexico and attempt to find some sort of salvation down there, but given his personality, things don't work out too well.
Meanwhile, Elam has managed to alienate himself from those he formerly associated with, and he's even lost Eva (Robin McLeavy) to Mr. Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw) – who managed to not only survive a point-blank gunshot to the face, but also find out that such a thing is just the cure for an unpleasant temperament. There is, however, some concern in the permanence of Mr. Toole's demeanor, as he seems mighty possessive of Eva in the presence of Elam. Elsewhere, Durant (Colm Meaney) seems to have gotten his railroad mostly back in order – despite the pesky train robbers nabbing payroll – and has even managed to see something resembling an actual town spring up in Hell on Wheels. Additionally, his working relationship with Lily appears much improved, though there remains a question of just what their personal relationship entails.
Most of the change, however, is heaped upon the McGinnes brothers, Mickey and Sean (Phil Burke and Ben Esler, respectively). After effectively putting the Swede on a ruinous decline (with a tar and feathering to match), the brothers are now attempting to fill the void of his absence by taking a share of various local business' profits in exchange for some protection. The Swede on the other hand, has been reduced to clearing Hell on Wheels of its dead and other forms of refuse, stopping occasionally to help Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) bury a murdered prostitute and say a few crazy words on her behalf. Cole, in the interim, has lost himself once more to the drink, failing to live up to his preaching duties and will inevitably become a problem for his daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski), who assumes a bottle of "Corn Likker" will sedate him enough that the sounds of her and Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) being intimate won't rouse any sort of suspicion on behalf of her increasingly disturbed father.
Most of this episode is meant to aim the shown in the direction season 2 plans to take Hell on Wheels. It's mostly vague; beyond putting Bohannon in mortal danger once more, 'Viva La Mexico' thankfully wants to leave most of its other characters at the starting gate, and hopefully let those individual stories find their way into the main plotline, as opposed to having everyone jump simultaneously into the pool like they did last season.
Now, the only worry is that, after a respectable setup, the show won't be able to maintain this direction. After all, it would be hard to believe that Cullen Bohannon won't find himself back in Hell on Wheels, punching people and waking up with a chicken in his face before too long. The issue after that will be how the Gaytons plan to prevent the show from merely slipping back into the occasionally laborious front of season 1. Hell on Wheels has all the ingredients to be a pretty great show, and there is more evidence of that here than ever before, but until it figures out how to make all of its storylines (not just Bohannon's) more relevant to the setting, then it will likely continue to wander aimlessly in the wilderness.
Hell on Wheels continues next Sunday with 'Durant, Nebraska' @9pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek of the episode below: