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Season Review - Hell On Wheels S03

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Hell on Wheels season 3

Rating:
Star3
Star
Star
Star
Star

Hell on Wheels recently finished its third season; it should be back next fall on AMC.

What a weird season this was. I thought, early on, that it felt like Bohannon had lost his edge, but now that I've seen the whole season, I think it's the show that lost its edge. As the season progressed, it went from over-the-top to really quiet and almost passive-aggressive. The tone had already shifted by the time the first episode aired, and by the end, it's basically a different show, a lot of the storylines sort of coming out of left field and several of them left hanging for the next season. Basically, this whole season was a transition season--a space between what the old showrunner wanted the show to be and what the new one does. It's not as bad as some transition seasons*, but it felt throughout like a lot of it was forced, and it ended on a weird note with some new storylines that sort of mess everything up, and it'll be interesting to see if they can save it when they start up next year. Whether next year will continue the transition or not remains to be seen.

Here's the pile of weirdness we got this season:

  • The Swede, somehow, didn't die even though he jumped off the biggest bridge on TV with his hands tied behind his back into water that looked about a foot deep. He somehow infiltrated a traveling Mormon family and then killed the mom and dad, tried to kill the kid, and stole the dad's identity--as an Elder and a Bishop in the religious community they were headed for. Why? Who knows?
  • The same religious community where Bohannon sent the Mormon homesteaders that he had to move off their land because the railroad was cutting straight through it. After boinking the eighteen-year-old daughter who looks about fifteen, even though reckless boinking has never been in his personality before**. And hanging the son for the father's sin of killing the railroad sheriff, who was awesome, when he came to tell the family what he already knew was coming.
  • Mrs Lilly Bell was barely mentioned, except that Bohannon buried her in a field she liked and he won't talk about her; which leaves us with a sort of disconnect from a main storyline of the previous two seasons.
  • Ruth, who was terrible and snotty before, came back humbled and sweet and won me over as the only good person on the show, but fell apart after Mickey had to kill Sean in front of her on her own church floor. Meanwhile, she's probably fallen for Bohannon, and it's entirely unclear whether he even notices, even though a big part of his storyline this season has been her bugging him to be a better man, him going to church even though he's still not religious, and her helping him care for the Mormon kid, who is the key to exposing the Swede, and who he rescued / was rescued by and took on as sort of a surrogate son.
  • A surrogate son that he leaves with Durant and we never see again when he gets kidnapped, and which he doesn't even seem to think of again. A surrogate son who was being raised with Ruth, who he doesn't even think of when the baby-faced daughter he previously bedded shows up pregnant and says it's his. It's good that he wants to step up and 'do the right thing' and all, but doing that requires him to be complicit in his captivity in a way that feels weird for him, throws a big huge wrench into everything previously set up out of nowhere (and so feels forced or too-convenient), and literally derails the whole point of the show up until now: Bohannon getting the railroad where it needs to be.
  • Durant is a slimy jerk the whole time, scheming to take back the running of the railroad and getting it at the end by being a whiny baby more than a smart businessman, since he had nothing to do with Bohannon being taken by the Mormons. He kills a guy and blames it on Sean, who had been spying for him in the least useful way possible, and leading Sean to get on his brother's last nerve--which got him killed. Trying to confess something to Ruth. Who was still mad at him for what happened between them last season, even though that was never mentioned this season until that moment, and even though up until now, he was the one in charge and Mickey was the lackey.
  • Elam and Eva were doing fine at the beginning--he was back on good terms with the other freed men, somehow, even though they ended pretty rough last season, Eva was out of the life and serving as the closest thing the town has to a doctor, they have their baby and even though it's obviously white, he loves her and accepts her and proposes to her mamma. And then Mr Toole's dangerous and ultimately plot-device-y brother shows up and tries to take Eva away; she sends the baby away with him instead, which is dumb, since it's basically like dumping the whole baby storyline, and it serves mostly just to break up one of the few happy couples on the show. For no reason other than to break them up, so far. And then Elam stupidly goes off on his own to get Bohannon after stepping up to take his place in getting the railroad moving on time, and gets attacked and probably killed by a bear. A fake-looking bear. In the middle of nowhere, separated from all the other storylines. With no previous indication that there even were bears.***
  • The Newspaper Lady shows up and seems like she'll be important to the plot, but then mostly gets ignored, and nothing much comes of her reports back home except that people think Bohannon is noble and Bohannon doesn't. She makes friends with Eva, which is great, because the women on this show are too isolated from eachother, and gives her a place to go when Elam kicks her out, but then keeps leaving and basically ditching her. Also, she's a lesbian for no real reason, as it has nothing much to do with the story so far, other than as some titillating gossip that bothers her.
  • The other railroad they're working to meet is trying not very hard to poach Bohannon, and we get a glimpse of other stories happening on their line, a great time to do s spinoff of what's happening there, with different people, but still not much happening there.

So now we're in Cheyenne. The railroad has until 6pm to make General Grant happy and save Bohannon but he's agreed to be a captive son to his knocked-up stranger child-bride and shows no indication of even wanting to go back, which is annoying. The Swede has pledged to make his life a living hell, which is fine, except that there's no reason yet for him to be there, and Bohannon also being there is just happenstance. The only one who can expose the Swede seems to have been forgotten. Durant is back in charge of the railroad. Elam seems to be dead--stupidly. Mrs Palmer is awesome, and seems to be setting up as a competition for Durant, but doesn't have much to do with the rest of the established storylines, and so needs work there. Eva is literally drifting. Durant gives the newspaper lady a whole newspaper of her own, and it'll be interesting to see what comes of that. Mickey is the only brother left, may be a strangler from back in Boston, even though I'm pretty sure those people he killed last season as a fixer were said to be his first, and is now sort of a stalker-y psychopath even though he was the nice and balanced one before. He's also a businessman, and angling to be a business leader and possibly competition for Durant. Ruth wants to leave and is doubting her worthiness. The freedmen aren't happy about Durant. The railroad looks like it'll make it on time. History says there's Indian wars coming but we haven't got that far yet.

And I'm left sort of just wondering what we're supposed to have gotten from this season. The frantic scramble of the first two episodes to get everyone back together even though everyone seems to have changed their personalities a little; the over-the-top melodrama of the middle episodes; the sudden tone shift to these really quiet, semi-passive, internal-drama episodes at the end.

To be honest, it feels like half a season, which isn't great since this is a short-season series and has previously kept to that pattern pretty well. So we're left having to see what happens next, but for me at least, it's more like being manipulated into it than wanting to because I actually want to.

How about you? Were you put off by the last few episodes like I was, or do you have an alternate take? Share in the comments!

Samantha Blogs, Tweets and Tumbles, and is determined to see this railroad to its end.

Notes:

*I'm looking at you, season seven of Supernatural.

**Quite the opposite, actually, which is why it's weird he's suddenly all smooching on the hookers and making passes at the newspaper lady, and being all gentlemanly to Ruth, and bedding very young girls in places that are already dangerous and delicate--not long after the woman he had come to love was strangled in his own home by his mortal enemy because of him.

***If he isn't rescued and saved by those Indian braves he previously met who had nothing to do with the story, I'm one step closer to done.

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