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