Hell on Wheels thundered back onto our screens for its second season premiere "Viva La Mexico" this week. The show is back to its familiar Sunday night slot on AMC, a little earlier in the year this time. Hopefully getting it on the air before the fall season gets going on the networks and pairing it with the excellent Breaking Bad will draw some more viewers to the sophomore Western. Certainly Breaking Bad and Hell on Wheels played well together this week with both episodes featuring tense train robbery sequences.
This episode features a lot more of the slowly growing railroad in action than we were used to from the first season, which allows for some impressive visuals. The night time robbery that provides the episode's cold open has some beautiful footage of a train being brought to an unplanned stop; the sparking breaks rends the darkness as the outlaws shatter its peaceful progress.
Colm Meaney has a relatively subdued episode as railroad boss Thomas Durant but I’m sure we’ll see more scenery chewing from him later this season. The formation of a town named after him alongside the first section of the railroad certainly gives him more sets to work with. Meaney does fine with more downbeat material, still circling the widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligot) as she uses his attraction to her to secure her status as a kind of partner in the planning of their railroad.
Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) has a wounded brooding presence that plays well in this episode alongside someone who knew him before he lost his family; guest star Grainger Hines as Doc Whitehead. Their interplay allows us to consider how much Cullen has been changed by his misfortunes, as well as refreshing our memory about his tragic back story. The jump forward in time since the first season finale works well for his character. The always enjoyable interplay between Elam Ferguson (Common) and Bohannon progresses here as Bohannon’s rebel status puts him in direct conflict with Elam, who is ascending the ranks of Durant’s railroad business as an enforcer. The juxtaposition of their authority works well in this episode.
Executive Producer David Von Ancken has hit his stride with defining the show’s look as he directs his fifth episode. The production design delineates well between the grubby Hell on Wheels camp, the emerging town of Durant and the open country ridden by the outlaw band. Von Ancken captures some great footage across the spectrum of settings.
The episode works less well in the thread centred on Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) the daughter of Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan). Cole’s violent act at the end of the first season has left his faith in tatters and therefore the character is somewhat sidelined. Ruth’s attempts to support him are the focus here and I think keeping his character muted and relying on the less well established Ruth made it harder to reconnect with their storyline.
Comparisons to Deadwood inevitably emerge as the episode touches on the growing, fractious community that has formed around the lengthening train line. The murder of a prostitute effectively illustrates the lawlessness of the advancing frontier and the callousness of many of the characters. I’m not sure I completely buy that the McGinnes brothers have ousted The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) as the camp’s protection providers; as he stalks the camp in his new role as bone collector I wonder why he has not exacted revenge on those that tore him down from his position of prominence. Regardless, I am thrilled that Heyerdahl has been promoted to the starring cast and look forward to seeing more of his arresting performance as the season progresses.
It’s nice to have the show back. I am more and more drawn in by the progressing narrative and am on board for wherever the second season goes. What did everyone else think of the second season premiere?