TV review: Hell on Wheels

From the August 9, 2012 edition

I love westerns. There’s just something cathartic about watching a good guy — or antihero, in the best versions — squaring off with the man in the black hat. With AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” though, I find it nearly impossible to have any response to any of the stories, characters or themes.

After the first season’s meandering narrative surrounding Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and his supposed quest for revenge, I would have quit “Hell on Wheels” out of frustration, but out of love for the genre I came back to check out the first two episodes of Season 2.

While I was somewhat invested in Cullen seeking out the Union soldiers who killed his wife and son during the Civil War — a classic vengeance theme in westerns — that story quickly fell to the wayside in favor of something with more potential, but little substance. “Hell on Wheels” took a more expansive look at the mobile community building the transcontinental railroad.

There are certainly interesting tales (and themes) to be spun within this concept, especially given the troubled consciousness of our nation post-Civil War, but showrunners Joe and Tony Gayton chose to forgo those larger ideas for a contrived plot that was just to keep characters and stories moving along.

To an extent, Season 2 presses the reset button on events from the first season. All of the characters remain and their stories from last season aren’t forgotten, but Cullen, Elam (Common), Durant (Colm Meaney), the Swede (an awesome and poorly used Christopher Heyerdahl), and the others seem to be setting out in new directions. It’s an improvement only because last season was mostly awful, but the way these characters and their individual stories come together at the end of the second episode again feels awfully contrived.