A whole episode’s worth of the psyche-busting first six minutes of "Big Bad Wolf" would’ve been completely fine in lieu of tonight’s double-sized season premiere. The opener to the Hell on Wheels' third chapter featured a completely insane Cullen Bohannon living in a gutted train car, scribbling big ideas, hallucinating ghosts, and yelling at wolves in the snow through a mess of facial hair. Apart from being madly entertaining, the sequence acknowledged the devastating effects of last season’s conclusion: Here was a man who'd lost everything he’d worked for, both professionally and personally. The railroad town was torched, vengeance had literally slipped through his hands, and his love was murdered (for the second time in his life); surely Bohannon would require a heap of introspection to get back in the saddle. While "Big Bad Wolf" and "Eminent Domain" explained the return of all HoW’s characters and competently illustrated Cullen’s achievement as new Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific before providing his first obstacle as such, there was a gross lack of character exploration. While still plenty entertaining, the overall result was an unevenly paced premiere that rushed where it could have paused in its hurry to return to business as usual.
So after warding away the ghost of Doc and punching some wolves, Cullen powered up a snowbound train engine and collected Elam from Omaha, Nebraska. Imminently awaiting the birth of his first child, Elam was skeptical as always of Cullen’s offers, considering most people thought Bohannon was dead, or assumed that he was mad (jury's still out on that last one). The mission: Head to New York and claim his official promised title as Head Choo-Choo Honcho, only there was one problem. The senator behind this offer had failed to earn reelection, and so Grizzly Adams had to convince the hoity-toity stuffed shirts of the Credit Mobilier of America that the smelly man beneath nine generations of raccoon pelts could take their train into the future. Baths were had, furs were burned...
Jailbird Durant obviously refused to offer his recommendation, and instead took the opportunity to get inside Cullen’s head. In a rare moment of character examination, Durant deduced that Bohannon fostered doubts about his former protege's ability to take on such a huge responsibility. Aside from being evenly matched opponents, these two also know each other well enough to convey to we viewers their internal strengths and weaknesses. After successfully earning back his position with the railroad via the 1847 equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation (pointing at maps), Bohannon later confirmed Durant’s reading in a heart-to-heart with a Jesus Christ wall-hanging. You can do it, Bohannon! The reintroductions to Psalms (happy to work), Sean (Cullen’s accountant), Mickey (owner of a saloon and whorehouse), and Ruth (church-bringer) felt a little shoehorned in, but this was Bohannon’s episode, so that’s understandable. Another last-minute introduction came in railroad rival Collis Huntington (Timothy Guinee, Revolution) as head of the Central Pacific and a challenger to Bohannon’s progress. Don’t know a lot about this guy, but he sparkled in his few minutes on screen, so that’s a good thing.
The second episode/hour of the premiere, "Eminent Domain," benefitted from the table-setting of the first to deliver a more satisfying, self-contained story. New York Tribune reporter Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin, The Following/The Cape) seems to be a new character to replace the feminine absence of Lily Bell, but also provided a nice narrative structure to the ensuing events. In her best Garrison Keillor, she was all, "And so the sun sets on another muddy day for the folks of Hell on Wheels, where the women are whores, the men are drunks, and the children are non-existent..." Again, not enough here to go by—other than her getting walloped by the weird-ass redhead. We barely saw that guy because I think the show wanted us to think of the Swede, though it totally wasn't him. Yet and still, he WAS very creepy. Seriously, every time that gargantuan appeared on screen it felt like a scene out of a David Lynch film. This show thinks all tall people are weirdos!
Non-tall person Elam dealt with working under chatty new police chief Dick Barlow (Matthew Glave), who was way too likable to survive the episode, while Cullen had his hands full with a stubborn Mormon family. He also had his hands full of ass with the father’s daughter. These Latter-Day Saints were none too pleased about having the railroad built through their land, and generally feisty because of pockets of national resentment toward their faith. Last season was Native Americans, I guess this one’s Latter-Day Saints (with Native Americans probably appearing for good measure, probably).
Down but not out, Durant is already rebuilding his empire by concocting schemes with investors via Credit Mobilier and paying off Sean McGinnes as a spy. Like most of the peripheral threads in this early start, there wasn’t much to this plot aside from a declaration of presence, but a great seed to plant. What this show could be! Intrigue and business double-crossings on one side of the tracks, shoot-outs on the other! Speaking of which, the main story with the homesteader Mormons succeeded as a miniature Western arc. Two opposing forces—the big and small—wanting the same thing. So continues the tug-of-war for Cullen’s soul.
Certainly as a Southerner he can understand the wrongness of losing land at the hands of the government. And yet there are rules to be enforced, and at the end of the day Bohannon has his sights dead set on completing this railroad. The conflict only became personal when shots were fired by the Mormons, and the lovable Dick Barlow found his guts smelling like onion water. At Bohannon's command, an uppity son of the family hung for the crime, even though the dad probably did it and the kid took the fall to protect the family. Oh, historical Mormons!
There you have it: an at times jerky return, but a fun one at that. It looks to be a dense season, what with Cullen in charge. Seems like he has even more work cut out for him, basically running a town and a railroad, dealing with New York, Washington, and the Central Pacific—it's going to take more than gunslinging to handle these new problems.
Not to mention the Swede...
– What did you think of Cullen and Elam’s trip to Copper territory?
– Would you let a dying man hold your newborn baby?
– Is Louise being positioned as a new love interest for Bohannon?
– What new problems of character will Cullen face?
– Is Durant more or less dangerous now?
– Are you excited about the inclusion of Mormons in this season?
– What is your favorite thing about Season 3 so far?