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'Hell on Wheels' Season Premiere Review: Is Cullen a Strong Enough Hero?

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Aug 13, 2012 | 9:39am EDT

Hell on WheelsHell on Wheels might be trying too hard. You can't really blame it — as an AMC series, it's got cohorts like Mad Men and Breaking Bad to live up to: two of the greatest character studies on television. Maybe in television history. These programs instated the complicated, tortured antihero. In the wake of shows like The Sopranos and Dexter, AMC eagerly grabbed at the idea of the tremendously marred central figure, delivering Don Draper and Walter White on a silver platter. We love those guys. And all TV heroes nowadays strive to be those guys, including Hell on Wheels' Cullen Bohannen (Anson Mount). But despite Mount's prowess for performance, the whole ordeal still seems a bit forced.

The second season picks up with Cullen involved with a train robbing troupe. At once, he is made out to be the levelheaded good guy in a world of bad, and the hot-tempered, tortured widow. These two ideals are hardly mutually exclusive; unfortunately, Cullen seems to be tailored entirely differently depending on his scene. Sometimes, he's the sort of guy we can look to to see a bright light in this misty post-Civil War era of arbitrary crime and intolerance. At other times, he's a rogue scoundrel. A sheathed, mysterious warrior who'll snap at the drop of a hat. The show can make both aspects of his character work, but it really needs to build the bridge a bit more sturdily.

On the other side of the cast is Colm Meaney as railroad proprietor Doc Durant. Doc is the pinnacle of pragmatism. He doesn't "hate" anyone, but he recognizes that hate is the state of being in his society, so he embraces it. His aversion toward hiring blacks and sympathizing with prostitutes — both seen in the premiere — are simply out of "good business," not any true prejudices.

Speaking of prejudices, Season 2 does seem to be opening the door toward a more thorough exploration of sexism, feminism, and the female identity. Dominique McElligott represents a forward press for women, standing up for a deceased whore who isn't considered deserving of a proper burial. The ever interesting character of the Swede is asked by Lily to give the murdered woman the simple decency of a humane funeral, which he allows (although apparently without much sympathy for her of his own).

The one thing Hell on Wheels does best is building up the character of its central town. All corners of the village are crumbling, from the drunken priest to the sympathetic but hardly innocent pair of the McGinnes brothers. And as Elam (Common) longs for the love of his estranged Eva, we see that one of the show's strongest characters is weakened by his breaking heart.

Still, the show is on shaky ground. As vivid as this town is, none of the individual members command enough attention to drive the show, even Cullen. Perhaps if Hell on Wheels spends a bit more time substantiating its hero rather than vying for conflicting styles, Season 2 might offer an improvement over its predecessor.

[Photo Credit: AMC]

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