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Episode Review - Hell On Wheels 3.1 and 3.2 "Big Bad Wolf" and "Eminent Domain"

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Hell on Wheels "Big Bad Wolf" and "Eminent Domain"

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Hell On Wheels airs Saturday nights at 10 on AMC.

As per usual, this is not a spoiler-free discussion, what with the summary and all.

In this two-hour premier that is actually two different episodes, we rejoin Mr Bo-Hannon looking like a Cromagnon newly arrived in an iceage, and find that he's been living in the burned out husk of his fancy train car, even though there's no roof and it's approximately sevenhundred below freezing and he's close enough to death that he's hallucinating about his ol' dead pal from the army trying to get him to come visit. Soon thereafter, he's attacked by a wolf and totally dominates it, though it bites his ear, and realizes that he was right all along, he didn't want to die. He steals a frozen guy's pipe, fires up the boiler of the abandoned train still on the tracks, and drives it back to the city where everyone but he went.

Okay. Let's stop here for a minute. If the goal of this--all before the opening credits, by the way, is to show us that Bohannon is still a bada**, then sure, we get that. But it's kind of ridiculous, unless we find out that he was actually a nutbar this whole time from the cold and it didn't happen like this. I mean, the town was attacked by Indians and burned to the ground, sure, and everyone left, sure, but it seems like the train is a rather large chunk of funds to just leave there rotting in the snow while he figures out that he's invested after all.

Bohannon gets back into town and finds Elam and his very pregnant and tired-looking Evie, who's chin-tatts look like they're a different color or drawn on differently or something, and says he's got a job. Evie is all "birthing is no man's business and we need the work", so he goes back. Together, they go to visit Durant who is in the nicest prison I've ever seen in a historical, effectively a hotel room, and Durant accuses him of looking for validation because he's lost his nerve. It looks for a second like that's true, but when he FINALLY gets himself cleaned up and looks like a contemporary human being again, he goes and totally dominates a meeting of the railroad heads, shows them plans and sketches and his still-bleeing wolfbite and walks out head of the railroad--the job they offered him before he decided to fight wolves all winter. And the job Durant wanted to be able to control from prison.

So here we see the dominoes of his decisions falling: Durant gets out of prison specifically to stop Bohannon and generally to get himself back into his previous position as a rich money-skimming leech. Meanwhile, Bohannon gets the gang back together and pretty much everyone is glad to pack up and go.

Into the second episode, we jump forward some; Bohannon is back at work and everything is going as he planned. He has the dorm-cars built for the working men, he has plans for water cars to get them through the upcoming desert, the hookers all like him, he's making 2 miles a day, and so on and so on. There's a new feisty lady--this one a reporter sent out to catch the stories of the railroad for the men back home--but if the writers are meaning for her to take Ms Lily Bell's place in the cast, Bohannon's near-total lack of interest in her is a strange place to start. Still, she seems strong and smart enough to take care of herself, proven (sort of) when she fights off a giant who tries to molest her and will probably be back later, since he really didn't try very hard. Not one person, not even one of the other women, even so much as mentions the huge bruise on her eye the next day, though, and that's irritating. By the end of last season, there was a certain amount of camaraderie building up between the women, and all of that seems to be gone now; everyone but she and Evie are back to being faceless background-fillers.

While this is going on, Elam has found that Bohannon has replaced him as head of Railroad Police without so much as a word about it. The guy who replaces him is cool, though; he talks constantly, he has a crazy mustache, whenever Elam tries to kick up a fuss about the position, he just talks about how to make the perfect cup of coffee. He's likable. So of course he gets belly-shot by the Mormon settler the railroad has no way to go around and therefore has to chase off his land. His death shows us that Evie is now the closest thing they have to a doctor, which is great, but I was hoping for some new characters that were not reprehensible, and now he's dead. Bohannon calls in the Cavalry--literally--to confront the guy, and the settler throws his rebellious son out to take the fall for him.

These scenes of the punishment were some of the best in the episode. Bohannon won't back down--someone has to pay--but he gives the father more than enough time to 'fess up and save his son. He gives the son time to admit that his dad is a controlling monster who would throw him to the wolves (see, parallels) like that, but he won't speak against his dad even with that rebelliousness. He gives the daughter--who he'd been messing around with even though she looks about sixteen and no one seems to mention through the whole thing--a chance to speak up, but she literally turns her back on him at one point and then just cries at another. And so the boy hangs for his father's sins, and Bohannon looks like he just doesn't understand the world at all anymore.

Meanwhile, Durant is trying to buy up land that the railroad will have to go through--using stolen railroad money--so that the rail will then have to pay him for it when they get there, making him rich and important again, and he finds the people out west a little smarter than he expected. We learn, too, in this scene that Sean, who Bohannon has hired to sort out the books, is the one who has been skimming the money for Durant, though he doesn't look happy about it. I'm sure that'll just go swimmingly for both of them.

I feel like this is a strange start to the season, and it feels a little like the switch in show-runners and delay of the season have...tweaked the feeling and pacing of the series already. Durant accuses Bohannon of losing his nerve, and it looks like it's true, and then he immediately shows no more sign of that at all. But he is missing that rock-hard certainty that he had before; maybe that's a natural outgrowth of what happened last time, or maybe they've messed with his character, trying to lighten it and really just sort of taking away the core of who he was. He's just a decisive, but he isn't scary like he was before; he's world-weary and sort of mystified by what people will do, and determined to get the railroad done (for Lily, who died in his home?), but he is being nice to people now, and he smiles more, and it feels like the death of his previous life left him happier than before, which seems out of character just a touch, since we didn't witness the transition. And he's just availing himself of super-religious settlers' daughters when he spent a whole season denying his attraction for a full-grown woman before?

And convenient that all the important characters came back / survived the raid that killed the town, and that none of them had any problem about coming back, even though who previously had problems with him.

On the other hand, we have a lot of drama lined up already.

  • The railroad is at least close to broke, not least because Durant messed up their books so badly to serve himself.
  • Sean is a turncoat and Durant has it out for Bohannon.
  • The other railway knows who he is and has made not-so-veiled threats about his likelyhood to get anything done.
  • The reporter-lady is already making judgement calls in her reports home.
  • That super-tall guy is probably going to be a problem, and since we haven't seen his face very well, I'm thinking he might have something to do with the Swede. Like being the Swede. Though since he was a foot taller than everyone, they should maybe take note of that.
  • The guy who sends them their men doesn't like Bohannon and wants to take advantage of him.
  • The companies that fed the whole enterprise were all Durant's and he's both terminated their contracts with the railroad and set up monopolies so that they have to make new contracts if they want food.
  • The Crazy Preacher's daughter is now the preacher, and she's shown a few signs of being a little out of touch herself.
  • Evie wants Elam to stay alive for their baby (who looks totally white, and so far he doesn't care) and thinks the Rail Road Security job is going to get him killed.
  • The settler is still there with his multiple wives and his traumatized children, and they still need to get him off his land.
  • They're about to run into more Indian land and a freaking desert.

So there's plenty to look forward to this season. It just seems a bit convenient how they set the season up, and I can't get a feel of where Bohannon is emotionally, which was never really a problem before. If they were aiming for ambiguity, they did a good job, but if they didn't do that on purpose, it feels like there's an issue of plot forcing characters around, and that's not how you write a character-filled show like this.

So we'll call this a shaky start at what could be a good new season, if they handle it right. We'll also note here that it could be a disaster, if they don't, and a really bad season could really mess up a show that was going strong before that point.

Still, it's good to see this show back on the air.

What did you think of Hell On Wheels, "Big Bad Wolf" and "Eminent Domain"? Share in the comments below!

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Samantha Tweets, Tumbles, Blogs and isn't sure the reporter is right when she says Bohannon isn't a scoundrel. Did you see him with that young girl? Cuz she did.

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