This train is already starting to take the long way into the station.
It's only been three episodes, but Hell on Wheels really feels like a show that's in search of an identity. Not every television series premieres fully formed, but it almost seems like this one will alternate between underwhelming and compelling episodes. If the series premiere was a scattershot but interesting survey of the main points the show was going to cover, and last week was a more focused look at the main element that will drive the series forward, "A New Birth of Freedoms" is an untimely and ultimately flaccid hour of television that's showing a few too many cracks in the foundation of Hell on Wheels.
It's one thing for Cullen Bohannon, who went through great pains to cajole himself into the foreman job, to just put Elam in charge so he can go run off and look for his Sergeant, since that's the only reason he's staying in Hell on Wheels and he doesn't particularly care about Union Pacific. The problem is that he pretty effortlessly finds Lily Bell (whom The Swede organizes a manhunt to search for), and just kind of hangs out with her after Joseph Black Moon, the Jesus-freak Cheyenne who saved her last week, kind of powders out. There is some time given to the possibility that he's cold to her because she kind of maybe looks like his dead wife. The next morning, he saves her from some marauding ne'er do-wells who say they are a part of the manhunt, but that scene doesn't accomplish anything other than to have her save her for no reason. When, at the end of the episode, Bohannon rides Lily into town, he just kind of turns around and goes back out to follow his Sergeant lead again.
That's about all we get of our main character or the major plot of the series. The rest of the episode is given over to painting the landscape of what the show will cover. Elam Ferguson, whom Bohannon puts in charge while he goes off on his little trip, gets some guff from one of his workers after Elam volunteers all of the black workers to do all of the day's job in light of The Swede basically taking all of the white workers off of the rail to go participate in the search for Lily ("we'll do our work, and theirs"). There isn't much explanation for Elam's decision on that one, except for "this is for us, not them. White people want us to fall...they all want us to fall!" It doesn't really elucidate anything, but Elam has a bit of humbling later on when he tries to make a stand by walking into a brothel that is open only for whites. He gets into it with another rail worker looking for a fight before getting laughed out of the brothel by a prostitue with markings on her chin who lets out word of a backstory that she was kidnapped as a child by Indians and sold to them, but has now worked her way back. Her screen presence alone instantly makes her one of the most interesting characters this show has.
The best parts of the episode, as will probably be the case for the series overall, all involve Reverend Cole and especially "Doc" Durant. Tom Noonan plays the Reverend with cool restraint while Colm Meaney gets to be completely unhinged and boisterous with his schtick. Brevity of word is not something he gives any thought to, and he'll continue to pontificate at length even when he's drinking alone. Meaney has to be having more fun than anyone in the cast, as he gets to wrap his mouth around such verbose dialogue (monologue, really) as "Your look of disdain reminds me of my dear wife back in New York. What Hannah failed to grasp is that, where most men seek the warm glow that only whiskey can provide, I imbibe to fuel the conflagration. There is a fire in my belly that must be fed. Otherwise, we'll never see the Pacific." He has no self-consciousness about talking at length about what his place in history will be (almost as if he has more idea about his future than anyone else around him does), and they way he can drive any point home is pretty great to watch. At the end of "A New Birth of Freedoms," Durant interrupts a sermon by Cole about making peace with the surrounding Indian nations. Durant instead takes over the show, preaching about how the Bible wants them all to always fight against Indians until such time as they can assimilate into white culture, pointing out Joseph Black Moon as an example. Durant is about as fiery as any character can get, certainly one of the most indelible of Meaney's career.
Hell on Wheels certainly has the best of intentions, but it's so hard to get behind it when it has so much trouble accomplishing what it's setting out to do. "A New Birth of Freedoms" just isn't cohesive enough to really expand on the world of the series. It's still early, but so far the show just doesn't seem up to being the sprawling cultural epic that it wants to be. There are a lot of plotlines, but their presentation is too scattershot to make them matter. The best of the three episodes to have aired so far was "Immoral Mathematics," the second, which focused largely on Bohannon and his quest. It probably isn't a coincidence that the finest effort of the show thus far is the one most focused on a single element.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch
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About the Author - Royal Nonesuch
As Senior Media Correspondent (which may be a made-up title), Royal Nonesuch tends to spearhead a lot of film and television content on The Outhouse. He's still a very active participant in the comic book section of the site, though. Nonesuch writes reviews of film, television, and comics, and conducts interviews for the site as well. You can reach out to him on Twitter or with Email.
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