Hell on Wheels Season Premiere Review: All About the Railroad

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After a climactic raid by the Sioux that destroyed the town, found Lily Bell murdered and the Swede miraculously escaping, Hell on Wheels Season 3 had a big task of following up "Blood Moon/Blood Moon Rising" on its return trip.

The exiting of series' creators Joe and Tony Gayton as showrunners made matters difficult for the series, and the possibility of a third season was up in the air.

Luckily, John Wirth, a writer with credits on Falling Skies and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, came aboard the railroad building saga and the promise of new season with a new direction was born from the ashes of a structure that was falling apart.

The Hard Winter

In some ways the premiere felt similar in its focus of a rebirth, rebuilding and moving forward again on a story that began two years ago when Cullen Bohannon started his tale of revenge that inexplicably intertwined with the building of the transcontinental railroad as the backdrop.

Except the path of Bohannon is no longer about killing off the soldiers who murdered his family, and it's not about taking any dark path based off his pain for losing Lily -- a love interest that had been teased before getting yanked out from under viewers right away.

Rather, the railroad race is front and center of a premiere that has its moments, but felt like it was missing some of that initial swagger that came walking out with Bohannon as a gunslinger. At the same time, the dual episodes were long, two hours dragging more so in the first half meant to set everything back up and illustrate where the characters are at since the finale.

Don't get me wrong: the beginning with Bohannon buried underneath furs, a lion's mane of a beard and hair, and the bitter cold of a hard winter was a great transition from the muck and grime of what we've been used to. It was easy to see a long period of time had passed, although Bohannon still can fight a wolf in the snow like a pro.

But his ultimate goal is all about leading the railroad, meeting with pompously powerful men with the money backing the project and pushing Durant out of the way.

Of course, that required looking the part, and the scene of Bohannon and Elam Ferguson (who now has a baby girl) getting tailored suits was humorous from the gentleman's gentleman to "think I dress to the right."

But I couldn't help feel like some of the "Western" themed bravado of raw men out in the wilderness was gone. Sure, Bohannon still carries a gun, and he eventually gets rid of that goofy new hat, but this Bohannon felt vastly different from the one that blew away his enemy in the opening moments of the pilot.

And maybe that's the point, he's moving on, trying to finish what Lily Bell had begun rather than stewing in hate, anger and revenge, something the show has already been so keen to illustrate.

However, isn't that what made his character kind of exciting? You never knew when he was going to throw down with any opponent standing in his way with that southern drawl and attitude that Anson Mount delivers with perfection as the series' star.

That's not to say that isn't still beneath the surface of perhaps a more refined Bohannon, but there's definite changes in relation to his character.

The real benchmark of the premiere revolved less around the reunion of workers and "back in the action" mode, and more about the Mormon family that refuses to move out of the way of the building of the railroad.

It sets a great predicament for Bohannon, who despite his efforts to build around, simply realizes the lack of feasibility for it.

The fact that the new sheriff is blown away by someone in the Mormon family as retaliation for trespassing on the land (something apparently the U.S. government owns) leads to a tragic confrontation in which Bohannon must sentence a boy to be hanged.

And you want Bohannon to make an exception, and you want the cowardly father who said his boy committed the murderous act to step up and say he did it (I mean, c'mon, he had to be the one, right?). Alas, neither the boy nor the father speaks up; one too proud, the other... well, I just don't like him for his choice.

It's a tragic hanging and consequence of Bohannon stepping in line with the rules of his new leadership. That final shot of him staking a spot while on his horse is definitely memorable of him moving forward on a streamlined path of building that railroad.

While it's fine that new character journalist, Louise Ellison, is there to experience the process, her role feels like she's meant as a replacement for Lily. And unfortunately she spends more time being an unnecessary addition with voice over that simply narrates what the viewer already can discern.

It's good to see both the McGinnes brothers back, but they really didn't have much to do besides set up some potential problems for Bohannon after secretly paying off Durant.

And while Durant is fine in his own right as the manipulative man behind the scenes, not having an antagonist like the Swede (love to hate that guy) for Bohannon makes the stakes feel a lot less dramatic. Even someone like the crazy reverend brought a certain intensity and unpredictability for our lead hero to face.

I was disappointed the new sheriff was killed simply as a plot point to put the hanging predicament for Bohannon and also allowing Ferguson to become the new new sheriff. I liked the great mustached sheriff and was bummed that he got stuck with being the killed off character for the episode rather than turning into a real character.

And while I was okay with Lily being killed off in the Hell on Wheels Season 2 finale, I was hoping that her death would be an important catalyst for Bohannon and the story itself when the show returned. Except, there was such a lack of discussion about her (mentioned in passing by the railroad guys and a probing question for Bohannon by Louise) that it felt like an issue completely ignored. You can't simply kill off a main character like that and not deal with the consequences.

I know a lengthy period of time has past on the show. But still. Maybe she will be brought up more in the future.

Overall, "Big Bad Wolf; Eminent Domain" wasn't the blast out of the gates premiere for Hell on Wheels that I was hoping for and while it had its moments, I still am a huge fan of Anson Mount as Bohannon, there was plenty of times where the episode trudged along like it was stuck in the mud that normally encompasses this show. And while it sets up a goal for Bohannon, I'm not too sure about if that change will be the positive transition the show needed.

Of course, it's early enough, and certainly a set up of what's to come, so I'm hoping things pick up steam and chug right along to Hell on Wheels Season 3 glory. Otherwise, viewers might just decide to get off the saddle and find something else.

Big Bad Wolf; Eminent Domain Review

Editor Rating: 3.3 / 5.0
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User Rating:

Rating: 4.2 / 5.0 (106 Votes)

Sean McKenna was a TV Fanatic Staff Writer. He retired in May of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.

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Hell on Wheels Season 3 Episode 1 Quotes

I see why they call this place Hell on Wheels. Rough men, loose women, whiskey, sin and guns.

Louise Ellison

Think I dress to the right.

Elam Ferguson