Hell on Wheels: How the Western Was Won

It was an ambitious and risky endeavor when the pioneers of train travel attempted to completely connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States by rail for the first time. The first Transcontinental Railroad constituted one of the most significant American technological feats of the 19th century. The idea of bringing a Western to television seemed equally as perilous. Now, I’m not going to tell you Hell on Wheels has transformed the TV landscape, but I believe it represents the revival of a genre that was considered all but dead.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the lead character is so badass. He’s like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen wrapped up together in a Southern cigarillo. At its heart, Hell on Wheels is about the struggle of Cullen Bohannon: a former Confederate soldier who journeys to the Union Pacific Railroad's westward construction in search of work, and who's hell bent on avenging the murder of his wife at the hands of Union soldiers. He’s a fractured man, prone to drinking, with a dry demeanor that’s as slow as molasses, but I’ll be damned if I haven't found myself cheering him on every episode. Anson Mount, who embodies the tortured gunslinger to perfection, has been nothing short of brilliant. I know you might be thinking: “Hey Michael, didn’t Bohannon own slaves? How can we root for someone like that?” Good question, hypothetical person! How did HoW transform a slave-owning protagonist into a guy you’d want by your side if things got a little hairy? Easy: It made its villains even worse. The Union soldiers responsible for the death of Bohannon's wife also raped her and burned his son alive. That’s just such a slap in the face of despicability; you can’t help but feel sympathetic toward the guy.

But Bohannon isn’t the only compelling character we've met on this show. On the contrary, Hell on Wheels features a veritable motley of lost souls who are trying to forge their path along with the railroad. There's the corrupt industrialist, the crazy preacher, the black man fighting for respect, the tattooed prostitute, the pretty widow, the pair of Irish, fortune-seeking brothers, the Norwegian enforcer (although everyone calls him the Swede), the converted Indian who's torn between two worlds, and the native Indians who are determined to preserve their land. *deep inhale* Did you get all that?

In Sunday’s season finale, "God of Chaos," several of the story threads that weaved throughout the first season came to a head. The opening scene was a flashback to Bohannon’s tragic homecoming, when he discovered his wife’s hanging body. In case you'd forgotten for a second why he's been so desperately seeking revenge, the scene offered a timely reminder. Hell, it even made me feel like picking up a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson and practicing my best “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech (and I’m Canadian).

To lighten the mood after such an emotional scene, the show checked in on Thomas "Doc" Durant, who was informing the camp's resident prostitutes to spruce up a bit for their celebration of reaching the all important 40-mile mark (that’s when the money train of government subsidies kicked in), and to make themselves as presentable as possible for the potential investors who'd be attending.

I don’t know about you guys, but down the line, I could definitely see Durant becoming a character I love to hate. Think of every Western movie you have ever seen with a power-hungry and corrupt mayor, and then swap “mayor” for “railroad investor.” Durant is a mean-spirited, vindictive SOB who will stop at nothing to see his railroad built. Colm Meany deserves a lot of credit for his sophisticated yet gritty portrayal of Durant; he steals nearly every scene he’s in.

One thread that began to unravel was the Swede’s mission to bring down Bohannon. As the head of Durant’s security team, the Swede never really trusted Bohannon (especially after Durant elevated him to foreman); the Swede has been the sinister yin to Bohannon’s begrudgingly benevolent yang. He pieced together the string of murders Bohannon had committed and sought out the final Union soldier he thought to be on Bohannon's list. The soldier, a sergeant who was discharged before the massacre at Meridian, understandably didn’t want to go back with the Swede (who would want to face the Bohannon-ator?). But the Swede convinced him that no matter how far he ran, Bohannon would track him down (fair point).

As is the case with almost every AMC show, I’ve often heard Hell on Wheels accused of being “slow.” You’ll hear no argument against such claims from me if you’re talking about the slow burn of the relationship between Bohannon and Lily Bell; the recent widow of Durant’s head surveyor and Bohannon have been making eyes at each other all season long. And the less-than-quick pacing has had its charms. Standing in the pair's way has been none other than Thomas Durant. After he and Lily formed something of a partnership to see the construction of the railroad through to the end, he tried to get rid of Bohannon by informing him of the Swede’s plan to bring Federal Marshals to arrest him. But really, Durant doesn’t stand a chance. Lily and Bohannon share a much closer bond. They’ve both been devastated by the horrific loss of loved ones, and are connected by grief in their respective attempts to find a new life.

This unexpected relationship rekindled something in Bohannon’s heart he'd long thought to be dead. So he revisited Reverend Cole, giving Cole another chance to steer him away from the dark path he had been walking. The reverend is not the best person to talk to about these things. Remember this?

Cole, a.k.a. the worst holy man EVER, gave Bohannon some top-notch advice: “Choose hate. It’s so much easier.” This guy should really stop preaching.

As the dance was just getting underway, everybody’s other favorite character had more problems to deal with than just the destruction of Bohannon. The Irish brothers, along with the rest of the shop owners, had finally gotten fed up with the pricey toll for the Swede’s “protection.” And what do you do when you want to send someone a message in the old West? You bust out the tar and feathers and run them out of town! Am I the only one who felt a little sorry for the Swede after this development? In the early episodes of the season he was so menacing, manipulative, scary, and downright creepy.

He went from imposing and authoritative:

To this:

(That humiliating beating definitely downgraded his reputation for being terrifying amongst the camp.)

And finally to this:

Okay, never mind, he’s still scary.

I’m sure the Swede blames Bohannon for everything that's happened to him, and I have an inkling of suspicion that he'll try to hunt Bohannon down until one of them ends up dead. Lots of possibilities for Season 2!

Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed with how Elam Ferguson's (Common) final scenes of the season played out. He was more concerned with making something of himself than he was with settling down and starting a family with Eva. In the end he lost her to Mr. Toole (and really, what purpose was there for the guy even surviving? It just felt like a forced excuse to let Elam continue his new position with Durant). One thing’s for sure, though: Elam is definitely learning how to shoot.

My favorite part of the finale was near the end, when Bohannon was storming around camp, dead-set on his warpath (thanks, preach!). The scene ended with Bohannon strangling the man he thought was responsible for the rape and murder of his wife, only to discover discharge papers after the deed was done. His haunted look skyward conveyed more than words ever could (thanks, preach!).

As all this craziness was going on, there was a still a dance being held (where it seemed Lily and Durant had been spinning around for hours). But as Lily suffered through her three-hour soiree, she kept a vigilant lookout for Bohannon. And sure enough, before he rode out into the great beyond, Bohannon stopped by and shared a remorseful look of longing with her.

Hell on Wheels is a Western in the truest sense of the word. It is a sprawling epic with plenty of guns, knives, arrows, scalping—combined with the subversive wounds left in the Civil War’s wake. For all the disjointed storylines and slow pacing, the fascinating characters more than make up for the bumps along the ride. I’m looking forward to where this show is headed in Season 2, and I think it’s just beginning to pick up steam.


Questions:

... What did you think of the first season?

... How do you think Bohannon and the Swede will work their way back into camp?

... This isn't really on topic, but did any of you catch the Walking Dead promo? What was that 15 seconds of crap about?

Comments (47)
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I loved it, but I can't pinpoint any one reason and say the show is the best out there by any means. Awesome writing, lovely cinematography, brilliant acting... the show was just something I looked forward to each week. I'm assuming it's been renewed and look forward to S2.
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Definitely enjoyed this show more and more as the season went on. Great character development throughout (like lalaforever1989 said) across the "slow burn" of the season. Very much looking forward to how Bohannon will return to "Hell on Wheels" after everything that's gone down!



Great job on another fine article, Michael!
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I think there's several different ways a show can be consider "slow". There is bad slow were the boring storylines and annoying characters with no character development just drag on and on to bore you to death. Then there is good slow were the anticipation and tension will almost sizzle thorough your television screen (computer in my case) all the while keeping the viewer interested for a number of reasons. Whether it's because there are enough interesting characters and storylines to keep you wanting more. I choose to believe that Hell on Wheels is the latter. I was very pleased with the direction this show as taken over the season and i will definitely be back for season two. Though i am curious to see where the show will go after/if Bohannon ever kills everyone he's looking for. I too wondered how in the hell i ended up cheering for this badass former slave owner/ former confederate soilder BUT there's no denying this guy is the bomb! And a super late congrats to you Michael aka Arch_Angel. I've enjoyed reading your comments for a long time and the more competent, hilarious, and witty writers at tv.com the better.
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Nice recap Micheal. You definitely earned your spot into the staff.

About the show, I'm not so enthusiastic. Mainly because I'm not a fan of the genre. But I have to admit that even though I got bored during the first five eps, the second half of the season won me over. Cullen is indeed a complex character : he's a ruthless killer (like everyone at that time you would say) with strong moral values. I particularly liked his growing friendship with Elam.

Bottom line is that's a good show, even for a non-fan of the genre ! (I have to confess that I may have a bad memory of the genre because of Doctor Quinn, medecine woman :( )
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Very good review , Sir !

Anson Mount and Common were absolutely great and Colm Meany is just awesome. Also love the preacher - the actor playing him is boneshaking-good in scary and crazy roles. What is his name again ?
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1st, well done AA. Molsons on me!! I cut my teeth on Gunsmoke, Rawhide and other Chuck Connors types and really love a good western.

I enjoy the slow-burn. After watching the first episode, I dvr'd the rest and ran the marathon last week. This takes away the sting of waiting a week AND the slow pace. Worked well for Lost as well. I like the fact that in this series the real star is the Colt 45 !! Al others are fodder! As it should be with an epic based on something as large in history as the trans-continental RR. I do hope for realism they incorporate the buffalo in season 2 along with the hunters, as they played a HUGE role in the success of the RR and the indian wars.

Again congrats and continued success.
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This is one show that I was watching pretty much just because it was on. But when it got towards the end and I looked back on the season is when I realized how good of a show it is. The cinematography is phenomenal, and Colm Meany was outstanding.



Another great review Arch_Angel. Is there any other scraps laying around on the tv.com floor you can pick up and review?
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I know I'm kind of late to the party, but congrats to Arch_Angel88. Since you are writing for the site now, I hope you can still find time to comment on other shows. Out of the thousands of TV sites out there, I've always found your comments more credible than most TV reviewers out there, this site included. I look forward to reading more of articles. As for the show, I though it started a tad weak, but has gotten better and deserves more recognition.
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One of the things I found interesting in this show were the woman. How they influenced, manipulated, survived in this world. Lilly is obvious, she knows whar she wants and she's gonna get it.

The preachers daughter, when she was first introduced I was shaking my head expecting not much from her, not interested in her. She was never gonna survive here, but she is tough when she needs to, staring down the preacher when he was at his most dangers. I'm not sure about her romance, how that is gonna play out, but I like her Character.

Bohannons wife kind of has the same role as Clint Eastwoods charater in unforgiven. keeping him on a straight path, being his moral compass and when that's gone...... Hell breaks loose.

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Love this show, can't wait for next season, I was really scared it wouldn't get one.
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I loved the cinematography starting with the storm cloud marking his descent. As Bohannon slipped from a more righteous path toward sheer vengeance the scenes became darker and more stark until he exacted his vengeance. The dark train and jet black smoke billowing with bright embers. Cutting back to the dance in between for contrast and illustrating just what he was loosing on this path was beautiful. The visuals for this episode rival top notch movies. Even the ending left me wanting more but in a satisfying way. Great ending to a slow starter.
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Loved the season and am looking forward to season 2
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Mr. Hypothetical person here. its true that the writers make you want to root for Bohannon, but too call it easy because the villains in f the story are worse? Or too say you feel sorry for him? Question than, would you feel sorry for an x-Nazi scientist who feel from grace and had his family raped and killed before being tossed into a concentration camp? You might root for him as he struggles to fight the oppression of the concentration camps but would you really feel sorry for him because he lost his family, or want him by your side if you were given the choice?

p.s. The article is great, keep up the great work.
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I get what you're saying, but I don't think Bohannon can be compared to a Nazi. If he was this evil Southerner who abused and killed the slaves he owned and treated them like subhuman beings, then I could understand your argument. But by all accounts, Bohannon didn't mistreat "his people", and actually gave them their freedom before the war even started. I realize it's hard to sympathize with any slave owner, but the show tries to even that out by making him an honorable man.
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Thanks for the response. I fully understand your argument. I guess its just that I just got back from living in South Africa and meet a lot of Afrikaners who claim to have been misguided by the apartheid regime because apartheid was taught to them as the right thing. Some even turned around and did their best to help out the blacks before apartheid ended. Now they find it hard to get jobs even if they are more qualified but when I talk to some blacks that were on the other side of this "misunderstanding" or mis-education they understand and will be friends and root for their fellow whites to be successful, and believe that the most qualified worker should get the job regardless past they still find it hard to feel sympathy for them even if it was their parents that were the "evil" ones, so i guess I'm a little tainted. But this is not a discussion about race, and the show is great and even if I can't feel sorry for him, I do root for him. Thanks again for responding and for actually giving some justice to this show when it seemed like tv.com had forgotten about it. p.s. still not into The Firm?
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I have to agree with Arch on this one. Yes owning slaves is evil, but Bohannon grew up in a society were (since childhood) he was taught that it was a normal thing to own another human being, thus I don't think you can classify him as evil, just misguided. The fact that he set them free and then offered them wages, does redeem him in a way as well as his relationship with Elam which is really (while they don't say it) the only friendship that seems real in that camp.
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I don't think Cullen & Elam have reached the friendship stage yet. Sure, they Lone Rangered it for a while, but Elam just seems opportunistic to me. He started out as someone who was justifiably pissed about his predicament, but the moment he got his first taste of power and blood, he became no worse than the people he grew up despising. Friendship is a two way street, and Elam hasn't done anything concrete to deserve Cullen's loyalty. It's just that, out of everyone in camp, Elam is the person he can trust the most.
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Another very well written article, Arch; and I'm glad a review was written for Hell on Wheels.

The first season of Hell on Wheels has been a very interesting viewing for me. I don't remember the last time I liked a show, as I do Hell on Wheels, that wasn't necessarily very dramatic, or very funny, or very action-packed. As many of its detractors like to state: HoW is quite slow, and I can't argue against that -- there have been a few moments this season where I felt a little bored of what I was watching. But for the most part, I think both the writing and directing of all these episodes have been really great. It's a little funny to me that one of my criticisms of the show early on was that it focused on too many characters, but I realized as this season ended that I now actually like and appreciate every one of them. All the characters are very complex, and I can't help but feel for every one of these deep and complicated people. As you stated in this article, I actually felt bad for the Swede while he was being tarred and feathered, despite the fact that for most of the season, I thought of him as a bit of a dick.

To be honest, I don't think HoW was as good as my expectations of it were before the season started -- my expectations were so high, though, that it was probably a little unfair. And despite not being one of my, say, ten favorite shows, I have no doubt that I'll be tuning back in for season two.
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Thank you, kind sir. No one on the TV.com staff wanted to review this show, so I jumped at the opportunity to write a season retrospective.

I actually had the exact same criticism of HoW in its early episodes, but like you said, as the season rolled along they all became complex, fleshed out characters.

It will be interesting to see the direction season 2 takes.

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i found that it's always the last tv show of the week to watch - mainly because i know it's going to be a difficult viewing and i have to fully concentrate on it but everytime i actually watch the show i find that 10mins in and i'm hooked.



the direction, acting and cinematography are all excellent - unfortunately it's not a show i could instantly recommend (despite these factors) as it's very heavily genre related and a small majority of people like westerns - this i feel will be it's reason for cancelation at a later point (good job it's on AMC as they can do it justice and keep it going longer than others)



btw excellent review again - like you're writing style (reminds me of comments you make) and please say you'll always be arch_angel88 in the comments - i look for the smiling face everytime i skim them
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After the first episode I had my doubts. But this show has turned out to be a great adventure and very entertaining. I look forward to each episode.
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Was hooked after the very first episode!
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i would definitely watch a second season.
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-Freakin' awesome.

-Bohanan will be away for a while. The Swede however, will be reinstated in his former role as resident douche.

-Tell me about it....and personally, I know zombies are a lot more trendy these days, but H.O.W. is the better show: Acting. Storylines. Characters. You name it. It's better in every way..
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Grew up in the 50's so big fan of the genre. Hell on wheels is GOOD. Mount is GREAT.



Hope it makes it for several more seasons.
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Dammit Arch! Now I am going to have to watch this. I stopped after I fell asleep, (again) during episode 4.But damn you make it sound great. So I am going to watch the season again. And that should be a testament to your review, because to be honest I entirely gave up on this show.
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Haha! If this show puts you to sleep, Mad Men would probably render you comatose.

I'm glad I've convinced you to watch the entire first season, but if you still find yourself dozing off in the finale, it's obviously not for you. And that's fine. The Western genre is not everybody's cup of tea.
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After the first episode, I was on the fence.



The lead character takes time to appreciate as he seems to lack depth.



But by the 7th episode, I was totally hooked.



If it ends after 10 episodes, that's fine. Because it tells a complete story from beginning to end.



The "hell on wheels" moving town has always been the weakest plot point. It's a lame name and not an interesting concept.



So I'm not sure how they continue to connect that to the story of the lead character. The show would be better following his exploits wherever it takes him, rather than being tied down by the railroad pretext.



I'll be thrilled if there's a second season, but the first season stand alone. A wonderful television experience for those of us who loved the Lonesome Dove miniseries and the first season of Deadwood.



A movie might be better than a Second Season.
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Hell on Wheels is more true than lame... google the phrase.
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You make a good point. But I guess I take issue with literally putting "Hell on Wheels" on a sign and having characters refer to it that way. It just sounds lame.



But that's a nitpick, not a review of the show.



As the story continued, the Hell on Wheels concept became less interesting. It's not exactly an original concept.



Like I said before, I'd much rather the story be freed from the "hell on wheels" and be allowed to go where ever the story takes it.
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There are some shows which are decent, quite good, or even brilliant, but still don't manage to engage the audience enough that it would feel really committed to show. To me, this show is one of them. The show is clearly a quality show, but from the very beginning I have felt that if the show ended abruptly, I wouldn't cry over it. I wouldn't be left wondering what was left in the story to tell us. Some shows, like Fringe, captivate the audience from the very beginning with the expectation of exciting things to come. One can always expect things to happen in future episodes that take you by complete surprise. in Hell on Wheels this hasn't really been the case. The episodes are interesting enough, but I've never thought about what might happen in the future, or how the show will end. Every episode has just moved the story a little forward, but never made me wait for major twists in the story.

Not until this last episode. The first nine episodes made me wonder if I'd watch the second season at all. There wasn't really any progress that would point in an interesting direction. But so many things happened in this last episode, that I'm sure to tune in for the next season. Finally there was a moment between Lily and Cullen, and now Bohannon is on the run.
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Congrats on another terrific article Michael. So now that you've made it into the TV.com inner sanctum comes the part where you receive a phone call and say "It's OK, they don't suspect a thing". Then we have to figure out what your secret agenda is. Maybe you'll stage a coup on Tim's monopoly covering all the best shows? Maybe you've made a pact with Taylor to feed all the Tv.com writers to a pack of Velociraptors? Maybe you're the alternate universe version of yourself with dyed hair and a tattoo?



As for Hell on Wheels I watched about half the episodes before I had to abandon ship because it just wasn't gripping me, although I could see the steady improvement in the show. I found Colm Meaney's character/acting forced; and it's a little difficult for me to buy a character played by your countryman Christopher Heyerdahl as a real person after Stargate: Atlantis and Sanctuary. It probably just comes down to taste.
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it's definitely a show you have to stick with for a few episodes before you get hooked...and the only way to do that is if you are already a fan of Westerns and just enjoy watching any show that tries to revive the genre.



That's what I did, and I didn't really love the show until the 6th or 7th episode.
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HAHA! I'm actually a rogue hybrid shapeshifter. I defected to the observers and they renamed me February (honestly, who wants to be named February?), so I de-defected. My infiltration plan to kill Tim Surette and replace him was working to perfection, until YOU outed me! David Robert Jones is sure to put a kill order out on me now . . .
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I am not usually into the Western genre with the exception of a couple films. With that said I really was hoping I would enjoy HoW even though I was on the fence at the start of the season. By the end I agree that the character development and various storylines did find its way into making me crave more. The pacing I thought was almost a bit too purposely leaving an event for next episode (I would keep watching ever if less of that happened) but I thought generally worked well with the plot's progression. I'm curious to how they will solve the "outlaw being tracked down" while continuing the other storylines since I assume Bohannon can't stray away from 'base camp' for too long for a variety of reasons...
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I enjoyed the season it was slowish, but not Rubicon slow or anything. As for Bohannon's bassassery, I think Lily was Just as Badass. She yanked an arrow out of her hand and shoulder, killed a dude through the brain with it. Then Sewed herself up with a pretty freaking massive herringbone needle or something. Would you have the stones to stick that needle in yourself many times to make stitches. Yikes!

As for the preacher man, did ANYONE not know from the casting that he would be a bad guy eventually. I mean really dude is always a bad guy. Robocop 2, Kane for instance.
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I agree 100%. Lily Bell is one tough woman! I think that's part of the reason Bohannon has taken a shine to her. Not only are they connected in their tragic loss of loved ones, but in their badassery as well.

As for Reverend Cole, I, for one, had no idea he would turn out to be so batshit crazy.
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It's very difficult to summarize an entire season in one review. Great job, Michael!

- I thought season one was brilliant and it wasn't slow at all. Character development is an integral (and essential) part of any show, especially a western. The show needed some time to percolate before fully extending itself and it did that to perfection. Full marks to the Gayton brothers!

- The Swede will probably return as a demoted member of Durant's team or simply as just another worker. After his rendition of 'Feather Boy', the rest of the camp would have lost respect for him. I don't think he'll be going after Cullen, because on a couple of occasions, he has proven himself to be a complete coward. Without his posse to back him up, he's basically a walking drumstick.

As for Bohannan, there really isn't any evidence to suggest that he did kill Harper. I don't think he'll be on the run for long. My theory is that he gets caught (or better yet, turns himself in), after which the courts release him since there were no witnesses. Also, Harper was strangled, not shot. The Bohannanator (you call him that too??) likes to shoot people. Everybody knows that. I'm just spitballing here.

- As for the Walking Dead promo, you just answered you're own question :-)

AMC seems to be trying too hard. Like we're going to forget the show or something.
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Thanks! I had to glaze over some of the plot points and tried to focus on what was relevant in terms of the finale. I like your thoughts on how Bohannon will return. Without any witnesses to link him to the crime there's not much evidence to convict him.

Also, in all honesty, I used the Bohannonator line because I read it in one of your posts. I wanted to put *copyright of crazylegs99* beside it, but I didn't think the TV.com editors would have any idea what I was talking about. Please don't sue me!
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Except he told Elam, so that opens a potential conflict because Durant wants Cullen gone and Elam wants to advance.
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Heh heh! I'm glad you used it.

It could be a nice catch phrase for a season two promo.

"The Bohannanator will be back"

Uh..that started to sound lame as I was writing it.
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Great series and an excellent finale. Can't wait for another season!
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First staff member with a "normal" picture; congrats! :P

About Hell on Wheels... If I ever find the time I'm gonna catch up on the first season, so I don't wanna spoil by reading your recap (sry?). I bet you did a good job, though. ;)
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Thanks! I thought most people would be disappointed I don't look much like Larry David, so I'm glad you approve. And definitely watch Hell on Wheels. It's a great show!
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I don't know -- from that picture, if you take away your hair you might look very similar to Larry David.
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You know, now that I think about it we do look kind of similar. We definitely have the same winning smile.
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I'm a huge fan of westerns and really enjoyed the whole season. It will be interesting to see how they reincorporate Bohannon back into camp with what happened in the finale. Now I can begin looking forward to the Hatfields & McCoys a show I have very high hopes for.
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