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Is Hell on Wheels Going Off The Rails?

By on December 6, 2011

If like me you tuned into Hell on Wheels‘ first episode hoping for a tale of revenge, lost love and the struggle for survival set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the Civil war then chances are you probably got exactly what you were looking for. The pilot served up an explosive mix of drama, action and stunning and often garish historical detail, all neatly tied together with a simple but effective premise of revenge.

AMC’s gritty new western seemed poised to be the best new thing on TV. However, after this week’s episode, Bread and Circuses, does its future still look as promising?

Much like Doc Durant’s meandering railroad project, the over arching story seems to have stalled somewhere in the wilderness, with workers downing tools in favor of watching Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) and Elam Ferguson (Common) engage in a spot of bare-chested fist fighting. While I’m all in favor of watching Anson Mount and Common strip off and have at it, I can’t help but feel Bread and Circuses was little more than the spectacle alluded to in the episode’s title – there to disguise the fact there was no payroll delivery this week. The distraction may have worked for the characters in the story, but the TV-watching audience is another matter.


Cullen and Elam face off in 'Bread and Circuses'

The chief lethargy centers around the revenge tale itself. Five episodes in and Cullen Bohannan has all but run out of bad guys to kill. The exception is the sergeant and Bolan, an employee of the railroad. Not only has Bohannan failed to kill him, but last week’s episode Jamais Je Ne T’oublierai (Never Will I forget) saw Bohannan rescue him from a fiery death instead.

Lily Bell’s (Dominique McElligott) story also starting out promisingly but quickly petered out. In a genre replete with victims and two-dimensional prostitutes we saw real strength, bravery, resolve and humor in Lily’s character from the outset. Post-rescue Lily is another matter. Her purpose on the show now seems solely connected to her ownership of her dead husband’s maps.

Doc Durant and Lily Bell

Even when it became clear in Bread and Circuses that Durant may eventually get his hands on the maps for a price, I couldn’t help the nagging suspicion that this storyline will be probably be played out over several episodes to come, ala Lily has the maps, Durant wants the maps, Lily is probably going to keep the maps, Durant is going to try really hard to get those maps …

Apart from an occasional passing flirtation with Bohannan, Lily is currently is serving little purpose right now, which following her spectacular debut, is kind of a pity.

One bright note comes in the form of The Swede, played with creepy aplomb by Christopher Heyerdahl. There’s nothing stale or familiar about this character and his morbid backstory, and Heyerdahl’s striking physical presence and chilling delivery make him compelling watching regardless of what else is happening around him.

Chris Heyerdahl as the Swede

Hell on Wheels has all the ingredients to tell a riveting and engaging tale. If nothing else, the first two episodes have conclusively proved that.  However after five episodes, the greater story is clearly languishing and needs to find a way firmly back on track – either by returning to the revenge tale or replacing it with something tangible that audiences can connect with – if it expects to hold onto its viewers for the remainder of its freshman season.

Catch Hell on Wheels Sundays 10/9c on AMC.


  1. Ben

    December 6, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Wow. You are very confused.

    The character Cullen rescued after shooting off his ear is NOT the Sergeant.

    The Sergeant escaped at the start of ep four. Cullen was hunting him and got into a long range gunfight, but the Sergeant shot Cullens horse and fled into the trees.

    The guy who got shot in the ear was Bolan, one of Swede’s men, who earlier imprisoned Cullen in episode two. He is played by Iain Tracy.

    • Jennifer Griffin

      December 6, 2011 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks for clearing that up Ben.

      I’m not sure it makes much difference when it comes to the main points in the article above – which at the risk of repeating myself – is more about the direction, pacing and over-arching storyline this season.

      yours in a general state of confusion, but now a tiny bit less than before,


      • alexmathayes

        December 6, 2011 at 8:18 pm

        I completely disagree with the article. Its correct that the story is moving slow but its moving forward. To be honest, Once upon a time’s story hasn’t progressed at all from episode 1. they show episodes and in each episode the main storyline hasn’t progressed.

        In Hell on Wheel the storyline is progressing slow with each character and I’m sure it will become of the promising shows for AMC. This is not ABC this is AMC with its rich dramas

  2. alexmathayes

    December 6, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    I for one am loving every episode and the way the story is progressing. There are a lot of ways in which the story could turn and we just have to wait and watch. Overall a nice episode and seems to me it will climb up every week slowly but steadily

  3. RogerT

    December 6, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Ben it’s ‘The Swede’ NOT Swede. I for one am in agreement with the main points of the piece. The series has a lot going for it, great cast, great set and lots of potential but it’s going nowhere fast. Some characters seem to have come to a standstill in terms of direction, while others are just repeating the same old same old from the week before. Hell on Wheels needs to start upping its game or its’ going to start hemorrhaging viewers soon.
    I don’t watch “once upon a time” but I think that’s a fairy tale thing right? Probably best not to draw comparisons. Kudos to the author for highlighting some of the issues I’ve had since episode 2.

    • Ben

      December 6, 2011 at 11:47 pm

      ‘it’s the Swede NOT Swede.’

      …I can but laugh.