Hell on Wheels, which returns Sunday, August 12 (AMC, 9 p.m. Eastern), is currently No. 1 on my list of Not Quite There shows, ahead of The Borgias, Episodes, Boss, and Scandal. I’m drawn to westerns that attempt to do something — anything — fresh. This drama from Joe and Tony Gayton about the building of the transcontinental railroad fits the bill, or tries to. Most critics instantly wrote it off as a Deadwood wannabe, and not without reason. But as the debut season unreeled, Hell on Wheels started to find its own intriguing if still-unsteady voice. I dug the hippie western incongruity of quasi-mythic posturing, modern pop songs, and unabashedly emotional montages (always any episode’s dramatic and aesthetic high point). That the show sometimes seemed to be simultaneously channeling The Outlaw Josey Wales, Buck and the Preacher, Dead Man, and The Last Movie was, for me, at least, more fascinating than annoying. And the characters deepened from week to week, revealing shadings I didn’t expect.
I liked how the railroad baron Thomas “Doc” Durant (Colm Meaney) became less of a one-note blustering mogul once he took the widow of his dead surveyor partner, Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), under his protection; toward the end of the season, he was so smitten with Lily and so painfully aware of his inadequacies as a suitor, that at times he was almost charming. I liked how Lily’s grief and shock gave way to defiance and a clever display of feminine wiles. I appreciated how the show maneuvered the revenge-obsessed ex-plantation overseer Bohannon (Anson Mount) and the ex-slave turned railroad worker Elam Ferguson (Common) into a mutually respectful bond that has yet to become true friendship. The characters might have been two-dimensional to start with, but over time they began to pulse with life.
Best of all were the scenes in which characters removed their public masks to reveal private longing and pain. Elam’s affair with Eva (Robin McLeavy), a former Indian captive turned prostitute, was touching, and the relationship between the alcoholic Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan) and his missionary daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) was devastating. Whatever its flaws (and there were too many to list here), the show had promise and still does.
Too bad the first couple of episodes of season two are good but not revelatory. The show still looks and sounds great, has a mostly capable cast, and delivers flat-out terrific Elam scenes, large-scale action set pieces, and lantern-lit images that reminded of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But the rest is wasted motion — an attempt to undo epiphanies and plot twists that felt decisive, maybe even final, near the end of the show’s first year.
Bohannon, on the run after murdering a man who wasn’t on his hit list after all, hooks up with a band of outlaws and robs money trains bringing long-delayed pay to Durant’s employees. This is only exciting if you don’t know that Bohannon is the show’s lead character and therefore can’t spend too much time orbiting the outskirts of Doc’s camp, much less hightailing it to Mexico as he keeps threatening to do. If Bohannon needs to be right at the center of the action — and if the show is in no hurry to deal with the killing that made him flee at the end of season one — why did they banish him to start with?
The business of The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), the camp’s former head of security, getting tarred and feathered and knocked down to glorified janitor status is nearly as frustrating. At first the character’s humiliation is sad and grimly amusing, thanks mainly to Heyerdahl’s whispery sing-song voice and hangdog face, but like Bohannon’s stint as a train robber, it’s tiresome because you know it’s temporary. A lavish period drama isn’t going to hire an actor as magnetic as Heyerdahl and have him spend the rest of the show’s run sweeping up horse-flops and muttering. Like Bohannon’s train-robbing interlude, it feels like an attempt to run out the dramatic clock for a couple of weeks until the writers can give him an actual story. The show seems to have momentarily shelved its obsession with rival theologies, legends, and fables (arguably its most original aspect) and replaced them with narrative busywork. The major romantic relationships (Eva and Elam; the Doc-Lily-Bohannon triangle) don’t seem to be going anyplace special. Ditto Cole’s drunken self-pitying despair: Noonan conveys psychic anguish so vividly that I watched a couple of his scenes through splayed fingers, but the character’s emotional inertia still feels like a waste of a great actor’s talent, and it’s but one part of a larger failure of vision.
What does Hell on Wheels want to say about this era and its people, either as a representative slice of American history or as period-dressed analogues for social and personal crises that never really went away? Does it have any goal besides satisfying my craving for stories about grubby frontier strivers? By season two, a show needs to be on rails, so to speak, carrying viewers along through compelling personal transformations and tantalizing glimpses of where the whole immense contraption might be headed. Hell on Wheels seems to be puttering around a circular track, with no straightway in sight.