Hell on Wheels' Season 2 Premiere: The Recline of Western Civilization

Hell on Wheels S02E01: "Viva La Mexico"

Season 1 of AMC's Hell on Wheels ended with protagonist Cullen Bohannon riding free after killing an innocent man, cementing his status as an offical outlaw. He's back around the campfire, along with all his other hellacious friends, and just like a moonlit recline that follows a long journey, they're here to swap tales—however old and told those stories may be. But before we talk about them, I must confess my fandom of the Western genre. I've cried during Lonesome Dove, got lost in the ranges of Louis L'Amour, and gunned down bandits on horseback through PS3's Red Dead Redemption. Hell, I've even walked Tombstone's O.K. Corral. So I'll admit a predisposed kinship with any sort of pop-culture update that involves muddy boots, gravel-throated taunts, studied winces, fast draws, and whores. Anyone who can relate probably doesn't need convincing that Hell on Wheels is a worthwhile destination each week. However, curious newcomers might have felt a little lost during last night's pow-wow, given "Viva La Mexico"'s tendency to remind the already initiated of the previous season's events as an end unto itself. It's what many season openers do, but in trying to accommodate familiar viewers alongside strangers we got a prologue to a cool adventure, rather than the adventure itself. The story was most successful when it stopped acknowledging the past and focused its attention on using the established change in character dynamics to look ahead. Giddy up!

The town of Hell on Wheels has become more established, but with modernization comes crime. If that runaway cart full of dead bodies wasn't a symbolic indicator, then The Swede's update summed things up pretty well to Durant: "Bandits rob your trains, murderers roam your streets, work has slowed to a crawl." Success has spoiled Hell on Wheels—there's wood now instead of tents, but also a chaos that extends past the village limits and along the tracks. A very cool train robbery introduced Cullen and his current pasttime: robbing choo-choos with a band of ex-soldiers. Putting the viewer up close with traditional Western experiences is what Hell on Wheels does well and this lantern-lit scene—complete with awesome old-timey bag masks, creaky floor boards, and luscious pistol shots, was no exception.

But there's a sense Cullen's unpredictable life on the lam is coming to an end, either by his own doing or another's. In this survival-of-the-fittest existence, Elam has now replaced Bohannon as Durant's hired gun, and unbeknownst to his former partner in shooting, has taken on the assignment of protecting these payroll trains. One perk of riding the rails was that Ferguson got to visit his old flame Eva (the prostitute with a permanent goatee), who has taken up a domestic lifestyle with Ol' Bullet-Mouth, Mr. Toole. Elam gave up these settled comforts for riches and respect, but if those knowing glances both shared were any indication, a torrid romance is well on the horizon.

Speaking of working women, the railroad baroness Lily Bell became concerned with her business partner's flippant attitude toward the death of a local whore and paid The Swede, now the town's undertaker and toilet emptier (a.k.a. worst job ever), to give the deceased a proper burial. As is any encounter with the Lurch-like Mr. Gundersen, it was a grim exchange with notes of humor—she asked what would happen to the dead woman, and he stopped short of knowing laughter, responding that she'd "have a whore's burial." In modern times, "no duh" might have just as well have been uttered. Poor The Swede. Couldn't even get his old position back with Mr. Durant because of how the Irish Bros. totally humiliated him via tar and feathers. It says a lot about Christopher Heyerdahl's chops how much sympathy this sunken-eyed wretch commands despite all the hangings the character has overseen.

If Gundersen has any competition though in the Creepy Julliard School of Fine Acting department, Reverend Cole is the man to beat. Since his head-slicing mania of last season, the Rev has improved to the status of meek, bumbling alcoholic. Surprisingly, though, his possibly resentful daughter Ruth is fueling his dependency. What a cool turn—on the one hand she's delaying the obligation of rent by keeping Cole sympathetic to Sean McGinnes, but on the other, what a wicked, wicked thing to do. She is also banging Joseph Black Moon, so good for both of them. Unfortunately, the West has a way of dealing with sneaks who dish out exploitation without the means for self-defense, so Ruth better be careful. In this land of bloody ambition, innocence begs for corruption like a bullseye does an arrow. That true projectile won't stop at just one mark, either. The enterprising Irish Bros. may have found payment in offering security for the whore-tent (don't think it has beams yet), but they've also agreed to commit murder in a time where novice killers don't fare so well, especially ones as nice as Mickey.

Cullen would have a thing or two to say about the price of ending lives, and though he began "Viva La Mexico" on a self-destructive tear, the source of his greatest sadness (dead wife and son) finally brought him back to Honor Land. A moral change was apparent when Bohannon ran into and secretly protected Elam during a robbery. (Sidenote: Cullen's hair is getting bedragizzled. If he doesn't run a comb through that rat's nest soon, dude's going to look like a full Rasta who has been up the mountain and seen Jah). His ethical trajectory continued with the pull of a gun aimed at protecting an innocent son and mom on the train, but instead the gesture landed him en route to incarcerated execution.

Back in the day one of the most marketable skills a person could have was plain "trust." There was no checking out a person's Facebook, so strangers really valued whenever new relationships meant friendly coffee and beans over murder through the eyes. Hell on Wheels is a program worthy of viewer faith, though a slow-grower. Hopefully all the pieces are in place for an explosive second episode. Obviously Cullen Bohannon won't be killed, but his escape from jail isn't guaranteed either. Durant has an interest in keeping him away from Lily, as those two have a lot in common in terms of dead loved ones, plus they shared some of last season's few human moments. Like a renegade outlaw, there's a certain charm in how the show insists on ambling along at its own pace. Hopefully viewers realize this and join the posse, instead of breaking camp and racing off toward a flashier sunset.


– This conversation about scary Native Americans looked like it was from a Wes Anderson film:

– Anson Mount has a surprisingly beautiful voice, as displayed during his rendition of the popular minstrel tune, "Dixie."

– Every once in a while Cullen will pull an "oh shit" face:

– Hopefully the funeral scene with Reverend Cole and The Swede marks a new partnership between two of TV's best creepsters.


– How far will Durant go to keep Lily and Cullen apart?

– Will Elam reconnect with Eva?

– Will Elam's ambition make him the Citizen Kane of former slaves?

– Does Sean stand a chance against Joseph Black Moon?

– Will the Swede return to a position of power?

– Who is your favorite Hell on Wheels character?

– Were you thankful the montage was set to The Dead Weather's "Will There Be Enough Water?" or would you have preferred Rednex's "Cotton Eyed Joe"?

Comments (2)
Aug 15, 2012
Some people find Hell on Wheels slow, but I don't. This show has great characters, especially in the Swede and the Reverend. I've gone from hating the Swede to having a lot of empathy for the guy, and the part is played fantastically by Christopher Heyerdahl (who was completely wasted in True Blood this season). Ruth was a turn up for the books this week 'what kind of lady do you think I am' well Sean definitely doesn't think of you as the sneaky tramp you are. There is a definite air of doom about the relationships of Hell on Wheels, Lily and Joseph and even more so with Eva and Mr Toole. I think Sean may have a very loose moral compass and won't take kindly to being played by Lily.

No mention of Lily sneaking in to Durants cabin? Has she settled for Durant? Or is she playing it safe in a hostile environment? Either way I was disappointed in her a bit for this. Hell on Wheels has a lot of love triangles!!
Aug 16, 2012
Oh yeah good eye - I think Lily went into Mr. Durant's quarters because of their "arrangement." Maybe her version of robbing trains - I agree, fascinating show that gets slept on.

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