Judge Gordon Sullivan was part of a bicycle team once.
Our reviews of The Heart Of The Peloton (published September 18th, 2010) and Hell on Wheels: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published May 31st, 2012) are also available.
Blood will be spilled. Lives will be lost. Men will be ruined.
Television viewers seem to love Western tropes. Often times that means bringing the past into the present, with shows like Justified and Sons of Anarchy showing us lawmen and outlaws with an old-school flavor. Other times it means projecting a modern view backwards toward the Western past, as in the ever-popular Deadwood. Hell on Wheels obviously falls into the latter camp, showing us a modern take on the building of the Transcontinental railroad with a revenge plot as the starting point. The first season was entertaining but uneven, and Hell on Wheels: The Complete Second Season corrects a lot of those problems to show that Hell on Wheels might be a show with legs.
Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount, Urban Legend: Final Cut) is still riding herd on the inhabitants of Hell on Wheels, the mobile town that follows the building of the Transcontinental railroad being built by Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney, Star Trek: The Next Generation). In this season, it's the Sioux who offer the most complications as the railroad must traverse their lands, and it seems they'll stop at nothing to protect their home.
Revenge is an excellent motivation for a story, giving viewers a hero to root for, obvious bad-guys to loathe, and a clear goal to be reached. It doesn't tend to work as well for serial narratives, though (with Revenge as the exception that proves the rule). Generally speaking, revenge is great for tight, quick stories that are over and done with, whereas television tends to thrive on stories that can be dragged out endlessly. Hell on Wheels wisely pulls back from the revenge focus for the second season, instead offering the development of its full cast of crazy characters.
Here, the Sioux act as the catalyst for most of the development. By giving the series an overarching "bad guy," all the characters have a way to define themselves. I don't want to give too much away, but the machinations of the Sioux allow pretty much all the major characters to re-define themselves in relation to this new threat. That means we get to see more of Durant, Elam, and even the Swede as they all struggle with the relationship between the moving town and the outside threats. The extra pressure on Cullen even shades his relationship with Lily. It's an intelligent direction to take the show in, and offers lots of options moving into Season Three as well.
The first season of the show did well enough that AMC apparently threw a bit more money towards the production. The original production value was fine, with plenty of nice shots of the untrammeled Calgary countryside (standing in for America's west), but the extra budget seems to have provided the show with just an extra bit of polish. No single element stands out as being improved by the budget, and yet everything feels more substantial. Since the shots of the landscape were a big part of the visual appeal of the show, it's good to see the show expanding on this strength.
Season Two of Hell on Wheels looks pretty good on this DVD set. The ten episodes are spread across three discs, so 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers have plenty of room. The dusty look of the West is preserved with fine detail and good color saturation. Black levels are consistent and deep, with no serious compression artifacts to be found. The Dolby 5.1 surround tracks are equally impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the show's frequent action sequences demonstrate a good bit of separation and ambience in the surrounds.
Extras are once again featurette-based. For those who have a hazy memory of Season One, there's a catch-up featurette, as well as a general making-of for the entire second season. Anson Mount provides a set tour, and another featurette interviews the cast to get their thoughts on the direction the show is taking. Finally, there are ten "inside the episode" mini-featurettes for each of this season's episodes.
Hell on Wheels is still no great television. The increased budget makes very clear that the show is not struggling for realism; these are some of the cleanest people in the world, let alone cleanest on the American frontier in the nineteenth century. There are also historical anachronisms galore, and even those who know little about the building of the Transcontinental railroad won't be able to miss some of the glaring historical follies. None of this ruins the show, but I'm left feeling like there's some good, historically-accurate material that the show could mine for even great effect.
Hell on Wheels isn't shaping up to be classic television, but with this second season fans will find that the show has expanded its scope and developed its characters in ways that lay the foundation for further adventures to come. Hopefully budgets will increase and even more attention will be paid to the world of Hell on Wheels, but for now fans can enjoy these ten episodes for the action and romance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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