Hell on Wheels Review: "Big Bad Wolf"/"Eminent Domain" (Episodes 3.01 & 3.02)
Every AMC series that reaches a third season seems to use that time to either course correct or to take the series to new levels. The final episode of the third season of Mad Men introduced the world to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and Breaking Bad created the danger of Gustavo Fring. The Walking Dead expanded its universe to more than just a small group of people and most recently The Killing finally moved past the murder case of Rosie Larsen to great success. But no other AMC show needed change as much as Hell on Wheels.
The end of the second season brought about the deaths of three of the show’s most prominent and most problematic characters: the spiritually misguided Reverend Cole, the Fair Haired Maiden of the West Lily Bell and the just plain weird character known only as The Swede. Regardless of where the third season started, the only certain thing certain was that change was ahead.
In the two-episode season premiere of Hell on Wheels’ third season, “Big Bad Wolf/Eminent Domain,” there are steps taken to move past the errors made in the first two seasons, but some choices are made that seem like they could eventually lead to the same mistakes again.
The most major change is the rise of Cullen Bohannan, who, after spending the winter hallucinating in a train, heads to New York with some good ideas and becomes the chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. The man who once escaped to Hell on Wheels for revenge has now become the boss. His old boss Durant has just left jail and is now working on reclaiming the power from Bohannan, and Bohannan’s partner Elam is once again by his side, yet now he’s a new father. This change of order makes Bohannan—and therefore the show altogether—more interesting. He’s no longer the omniscient worker trying to get by, but rather the head of a huge operation with a past he’s trying to forget.
The community around Hell on Wheels also seems much more restricted, which is a welcome change since past seasons have stretched farther out than the show could keep up with. Many of the minor characters appear, albeit in not as important a capacity.
However there are some new additions to the cast who could either bring new life to the show or lead it back into old habits. In the last two seasons, two of the biggest threats had been the Indians who were fighting for their land and Reverend Cole, whose religious fervor caused many problems. In the second half of the premiere, we are introduced to a Mormon family who have some strange ideals and are also fighting for their land to not be taken away. This new family does seem more restrained than past antagonists, but it’s still too early to tell if the familiarity to past storylines could once again become a problem.
Also with the death of Lily Bell, who had just started up a relationship with Bohnannan before her passing, we now have the introduction of a female journalist who is also very independent, strong and looks quite similar to Miss Bell. Yet her introduction does, for the first time in HoW’s three seasons, actually get in-depth as to what they exactly are doing on the railroad.
To that, the journalist acts as the audience surrogate in an episode that feels like it could have been another pilot for the series, setting up the new, hopefully stronger direction the show wants to take. These first two episodes reestablish Hell on Wheels as a series that isn’t quite as wacky—even if the show does start with ghosts and Bohannan fighting a wolf—and seems to have a much greater focus. Maybe this year Hell on Wheels can finally get it together. With AMC, third season is a charm.