Television

Published on September 9th, 2015 | by Michael

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Hell On Wheels Season 4 DVD

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The plot charted by the writers of Hell on Wheels has been as difficult and treacherous as that attempted by Railway magnate Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) and his motley crew as they try to get the Union Pacific railroad across North America. While each season seems to be well constructed with thought-out story arcs believable character development, the series has never given the impression that it has a clear idea of where it is going (other than towards the Pacific coast, of course).

In the first season, former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) was on a mission of revenge, hunting down and killing the Yankee soldiers who killed his family. His campaign brought him to the Union Pacific and he signed on with the company in order to complete the job. He family thus avenged, he stayed on for reasons neither he nor the writers can really keep straight. The show has rejigged the cast several times, and season four begins with only four of the characters from the first season still in place – Bohannon, Durant, Irish chancer Micky (Phil Burke) and former prostitute Eva (Robin McLeavy). Season three ended with the classic TV ‘Party splitting’, that is the main characters were scattered to the four winds. Bohannon found himself marched down the aisle in a shotgun wedding to Naomi (MacKenzie Porter) and now lives as a prisoner in her Mormon settlement, ruled over by his old nemesis The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl). While attempting to track down his friend, freed slave Elam (the rapper Common) came face to face with a bear, his survival appearing unlikely as the season ended.

Hell On Wheels Elam

You should see the other guy

Season Four begins with Bohannon making the best of his life among the Mormons. The Swede, though a vicious killer, has styled himself as a Mormon Bishop, a man he actually murdered and replaced. Thus to maintain his cover The Swede has an uneasy ‘live and let live’ truce with Bohannon, a man who previous had The Swede hanged. It didn’t take. Back at Cheyenne, the new base of operations for Union Pacific, a powerful troublemaker arrives in the form of John Allen Campbell (Jake Weber), a real figure who became the first Governor of what is now Wyoming. Campbell is determined to bring his own particular brand of law and order to Cheyenne, butting heads with Durant at every conceivable opportunity. He also runs afoul of Mickey who has somehow wrangled the job of interim Mayor of Cheyenne, despite being a pimp, gangster, blaggard and possible actual maniac. In Season three his brother Sean was ‘revealed’ to have been a misogynistic murderer but there are hints littered throughout this series that Mickey is the same, or let Sean take the fall in his place. This sort of immorality is rife throughout Hell on Wheels at its best – there are no clean hands, everyone is guilty and compromised.

Take Bohannon, for instance. He first encountered his wife’s family when they murdered Durant’s chief of police as he attempted to run them off their land. The family’s patriarch Aaron (James Shanklin) offered up his son as the culprit, although it seems more likely that Aaron himself was guilty. During protracted negotiations, Bohannon found the time to knock up Naomi. Then Aaron’s son was hanged, the Mormons were moved on and Bohannon forgot all about Naomi. Now he finds himself married to here and finding in Aaron an unlikely ally against The Swede, whom Aaron does not trust (and whom Bohannon knows is an unrepentant murderer).

Hell On Wheels Swede

The Swede V2.0

The season in the early stages is largely divided between the Mickey/Durant/Campbell turf war in Cheyenne and Bohannon’s struggle to live and survive as a newly anointed Mormon. The stand out episode however Episode 6 ‘Bear Man’ which chronicles what has happened to Elam since the end of the previous series. It transpires that he managed to kill the bear at a great cost, losing an eye and gaining a lot of scars. Common (who presumably was only available for a short time as he was off winning Oscars) is the only member of the cast given a star billing for this episode with the other regulars presumably waiving their rights to be credited as such. Indeed, Common is the only regular featured at all. This episode features very little dialogue at the beginning and after the grievously injured Elam is rescued by Comanche braves, the dialogue is in a Native American dialect. Elam is healed and revered as a man of great strength for killing a bear but his wounds have left him delusional. He believes a white woman the Comanche have taken as a slave is Eva, mother of his child, and fights for her ownership. Eventually he comes across Johnny Two Squaws (Brent Briscoe), a white man known to Elam and Bohannon. Eventually, Elam takes a squaw and the slave with him back towards Cheyenne.

The following episode, ‘Elam Ferguson’, concludes Elam’s four season long story. It’s both a strength and a weakness that Season four kept Bohannon and Elam separate for such long stretches. Their complex relationship has been one of the foundations of the series; Bohannon, an antebellum southern gentleman in the John Carter tradition, owned slaves and fought for the confederates. He is however capable of recognising talent, intelligence and friendship in everyone he comes across, regardless of background, race or gender. Elam is a former slave but an educated man, a loyal friend to Bohannon and a crack shot with a gun, a rarity for black men at the time as most white would not trust them with guns. Bohannon, in point of fact, is the man who taught him. In Season Three, despite the apparent friendship between the two men, Bohannon betrayed his prejudices. ‘You’ll never be my equal’ he tells Elam, though his every action tells otherwise.

Hell On Wheels Bohannon

This long, complicated relationship comes to a tragic end in ‘Elam Ferguson’. As Elam attempts to sell the two women as slaves, it becomes clear to all that he has tipped over into insanity. Despite the pleas of Eva, Bohannon and Elam’s oldest friend, fellow freed slave Psalms (Dohn Norwood), Campbell is determined to put Elam down. Backed into a corner, Bohannon is forced to kill his closest (and possibly only) friend in front of the entire town, breaking down into tears as he buries him. This arc is particularly powerful, especially given the episode ‘Bear Man’ which is such a break from a typical Hell on Wheels episode. It features minimal dialogue, only one familiar face and none of the starring cast of this season. It does a great job of bringing Elam’s arc towards its conclusion. But  I wonder whether this storyline was worth losing such a great character as Elam and Common, who has been a revelation in the role. I also can’t tell if this was something the writers always intended or rather they were forced into in by Common’s other commitments, such as his role in Selma.

The other long running arc of this series sees a face from Bohannon’s past resurface. The charismatic Sydney Snow (Jonathan Scarfe) fought alongside Bohannon in the Civil War but unlike his former CO has a much harder time adjusting to the new world order. Escaping a attempted hanging in Mexico, he shows up in Wyoming seeking gainful employment. This last about 20 minutes before he starts murdering all and sundry but rather than pay for his crimes he wriggles his way out yet again, this time a part of an insane power play Campbell makes against Durant. Campbell issues arrest warrants for many of Durant’s best workers and hires Snow, out of jail, to enforce it. This storyline didn’t work for me, despite Scarfe’s compelling portrayal, because Campbell is a consistently shown to be a canny man and his making a genuine mad dog killer his new lawkeeper makes little narrative sense. Still, Snow makes for an excellent adversary to Bohannon as he acts as his dark reflection, the man Bohannon could have become in the wake of his family’s murder.

The DVD release comes with a generous helping of special features, although there is nothing here out of the ordinary. There is an overview of the season, starring both some of the actors and the showrunners, the sort of thing that probably aired on AMC before the first episode, as well as brief bits about the new characters, There are also short interviews with stars Colm Meaney and Jake Weber, as well as a brief excerpt about Cullen Bohannon which is curiously labelled as an ‘Anson Mount Retrospective’. It is nothing of the sort.

Still, it’s unlikely that you’ll be buying this for  the special features. As a show, Hell on Wheels is as good now as it has ever been, and the one-two punch of ‘Bear Man’ and ‘Elam Ferguson’ is as good a piece of TV as you are likely to see all year.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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