Hell On Wheels Review: "Viva La Mexico" (Episode 2.01)
When Hell on Wheels debuted, it had the privilege of appearing on AMC, a network with quite a pedigree. The show had a premise which, on paper, seemed like other high-quality AMC shows: a man trying to escape his past looks towards his future to make a name for himself and find his fortune. But unlike Don Draper or Walter White, Cullen Bohannan and Hell on Wheels squandered away a promising idea in the first few episodes in much the same way Cullen wasted his hard-earned railroad money at the local bar: as quickly and carelessly as possible.
Hell on Wheels could have easily gone the way of Rubicon, an admission by AMC that the show hadn’t been what they were hoping for, but instead the show was renewed with lilting reviews and middling viewers. The first season of Hell on Wheels had very little forward momentum, besides the occasional fistfight or fear that the train might not be finished in time. “Viva La Mexico” tries to rectify the problems of the first season, and gets a good start at it, but there still remains a mediocrity inherent that is going to take a while to correct.
An unknown amount of time has passed since the finale, but it’s enough to shake things up a bit. Cullen is now part of a group of robbers looting trains with the intent of heading to Mexico for a fresh start. As usual, Duran’s train isn’t progressing the way it should, much to the dismay of the “fair-haired maiden of the West” Lily Bell. Common, I mean Elam, is still a sort of fixer for Duran, yet has lost his girlfriend/only-prostitute-that-will-have-him Eva to the Irishman who consistently berated him. The McGinnes brothers have moved up from the slideshow business to selling real estate and protection, while Gunderson, otherwise known as “The Swede,” has been left carrying the dead bodies out of town after he was tarred-and-feathered and ran out on a rail in the last episode. Reverend Cole is still on the verge of going completely insane and drinking himself into ruin, especially when he is kept up at night by his daughter Ruth sleeping with his Indian protégé Joseph Black Moon.
Cullen is still a hothead, allowing the smallest insult to turn him into a bar-fighting, blood-covered mess. He and his group of thieves hitch onto a train, which just so happens to have Elam on it, leaving Cullen to run away from the riches onboard. After another train robbery goes wrong, he is hit on the back of the head and placed in jail. The man with him is shot, using his last words to basically tell Cullen that he’s next. Considering that we’ve seen Cullen do some unrealistic, superhuman things in the past, such as escaping a similar predicament with the help of a loose nail like an 1800s MacGyver, he’ll surely make it out okay.
Back at the Hell on Wheels camp, a whore is killed, yet as Durant says, horses are more valuable than a whore. Upon hearing this, Lily, apparently the only woman in Hell on Wheels not related to the reverend or a prostitute, pays The Swede for a proper funeral for the unnamed woman. Meanwhile, the McGinnes brothers are now protecting the whorehouse, but Mickey, now with prominent facial hair, must kill the man who killed the whore. An awkward funeral follows for the woman, as The Swede and Reverend Cole, who doesn’t look all that sober, have almost nothing to say about the unknown woman, since they know nothing about her except her occupation.
As this second season starts, it seems like the beginning of an acknowledgement that the show hadn’t originally lived up to its potential. It still doesn’t, but it sets up possible story arcs and doesn’t go as over-the-top as it ended up doing by the end of the first. Granted, Hell on Wheels does have a history of dropping interesting story lines as well. From this first episode, there is the possibility of growth, getting the train on track (excuse the horrible, horrible pun), but also the even better chance of setting up a promising beginning, just to disappoint in the end. So far though, it’s a positive beginning to a show that needs to chance a lot to be successful this coming season.