HELL ON WHEELS: SEASON TWO – DVD review

Interest in Westerns seems to come and go in cycles, but our continued interest in the West never really seems to wane. The mythology of the West provides a deep well to draw on for stories that reflect the contradictions of our unique American character. Or for an excuse to show two guys beating the hell out of each other while wearing chaps. In the second season of the AMC series, “Hell On Wheels,” series creators Joe and Tony Gayton, and producer John Shiban continue to tap into that wellspring of archetypal settings and jaw-rattling beatdowns, with entertaining but mixed results.

“Hell On Wheels” is fronted by the former confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), the two-fisted Western man of action, good with a gun and driven by the search for revenge. The Hell of the title is the mobile camptown that follows the building of one half of the Transcontinental Railroad soon after the Civil War. The railroad company is run by the ruthless Durant (Colm Meaney) and the widowed Lily Bell (Dominique McElligot), and the camp is populated by workers like Bohannon’s African-American friend Ferguson (Common), the Irish businessmen brothers Sean and Mickey McGinnes, and the Rev. Cole (Tom Noonan) and his daughter Ruth. There is also the enigmatic Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) but more on him later.

Without question, the show looks terrific, with a real grit and texture to the sets and costumes, and cinematography that beautifully captures both the rich potential of the land the railroad is attempting to tame, and the grimy mess of rough living and rougher personalities. There is a memorable sequence involving an accident on the site of a bridge being built, with a bone-crushing heft to the timbers and machinery, and a nicely timed build-up to the moment of disaster.

In Season Two, the theme of vengeance that powered Bohannon’s character in season one is more or less left behind as he is arrested for robbing the very railroad he used to work for, is freed by Durant at the price of his unwilling loyalty, and once again finds himself driving the railroad forward through dangerous Sioux territory. Ferguson still loves Eva the former prostitute, Durant interrupts a robbery and pays the price, and Ruth and Joseph are still just as boring.

So the series keeps a lot of plates spinning, what with the love triangles and the madness and the racism and the violent hammer murders and all. This is really one over-stuffed chair of a show. The fragmented nature of so much going on results in some underwhelming plot threads, and not all of the characters are given the opportunity to be fully developed, or even interesting. But some of those characters do work, which brings me to the Swede, who in the second season is surely one of the more fascinating characters in recent television.

Actually Norwegian, the “Swede” Thor Gundersen was Durant’s enforcer in season one, until he was run out of town in excruciating, skin-burned-by-hot-tar fashion by the McGinnes brothers. He returns to Hell On Wheels in fine, incipiently demented fashion, and sets in motion a cruel and violent plan to strike back at the hated Bohannon and bring down the railroad and town that nearly killed him. As Gundersen, Christopher Heyerdahl is a vision of obsessive genius, tormenting Bohannon and twisting proceedings around his bony finger with a gaunt, sadistic smirk. Heyerdahl almost effortlessly steals every scene he is in—that bitter, disturbing light in his eye, the distinctive pacing of his line-readings, that creepy accent. His performance is so good and so compelling, he threatens to steal the whole season.

Not that star Anson Mount isn’t in good form as Bohannon, but it does say something about the overall shape and discipline of the show that his thunder as the lead is stolen so easily by a supporting character. “Hell On Wheels” is something of a hot, steam-powered mess at times, and the revisionist realism card is played with a heavy hand. But the genuine thrills, the abrasively authentic look and feel, and the performance of Christopher Heyerdahl are worth the bumpy ride.

Video:
“Hell On Wheels: Season Two” is presented in 16:9 widescreen, with a 1.79:1 aspect ratio. The disc is crisp and highlights the excellent outdoor photography, with no noticeable problems other than some scenes that are darker than necessary. There is an option for English SDH subtitles.

Audio:
The audio track is Dolby Digital, with options for 5.1 or 2.0. Clear sound quality, with nice edge and presence to sound effects like gunshots and hammers to the forehead.

Extras:

  • “Back With A Vengeance: The Making of Season 2” – an enjoyable featurette, with some interesting details about the technical details of making trains from scratch and merging CGI bridges with the real thing
  • “Where Season 1 Left Off” – a quick and dirty catch-up about the main characters
  • “The Cast on Season 2” –thoughts from the actors about their characters futures in the new season
  • “Set Tour with Anson Mount” – a not-bad trip around the set with lead actor Mount, where you get a better view of some of the background detail that fleshes out the town.
  • 10 “Inside the Episode” featurettes

Parting thoughts:
AMC’s “Hell On Wheels: Season Two” continues the bumpy and brutal stories of people working on the building of the Transcontinental Railroad –“Unforgiven” meets “Downton Abbey” and horsewhips it within an inch of its life.

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