Season Two was a definite improvement over the first season, but the departure of both Joe and Tony Gayton, the creators, and John Shiban, the show runner, right after the series was renewed for a third season threatened to prematurely end the show. Fortunately, John Wirth, who had previously produced Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, came on board. Since roughly half the cast were killed off in the previous season, he has a tremendous opportunity to move the focus of the show away from a soap opera with three separate love triangles to the actual construction of the railroad.
Moreover, the series was supposed to show the healing process between the north and the south after the Civil War, but it has only paid lip service to that goal. While I enjoy the bromance between Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and Elam Ferguson (Common), the former is a former slave-owner and the latter is a former slave, but that aspect of their friendship has received little attention. The series will start several months after the final episode of Season Two, so Eva (Robin McLeavy) and Elam’s love child will have been born, and they can now be together since the third part of the love triangle conveniently killed himself. As the enforcer of Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), the leading investor in the railroad, Elam had received special dispensation, and was treated as an honorary white man in the camp, but Durant is gone. The black and Irish contingents of laborers had come to a mutual acceptance after teaming up to drive off a group of scabs, but whether that new-found tolerance will survive the birth of a child of mixed-parentage is questionable. Speaking of Durant, he was caught defrauding investors but it seems unlikely that he will remain absent from the show.
Rumors abound that the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl) will return. Given his dramatic escape from a well-deserved hanging at the end of the last season, it would not be a surprise, and he is far too good a character to be wasted.
Having arrived at the railroad searching for the killers of his wife and son, Bohannon soon found himself involved with Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), who had become a widow in the first episode and was Durant’s mistress for much of the show. (Sometimes, I felt that I needed a chart to keep track of the relationships). Since she appears to have been killed by the Swede, most men would be a bit busy grieving, but he is the lead, and the lead requires a romantic interest. Apparently, Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), a feisty young reporter, will supply the necessary love interest.
The first season was very uneven, and while the second season was much more enjoyable, the writers were far from faithful to the historical record, inventing robber gangs and an attack by the Sioux that seemed to be a dress rehearsal for the Little Bighorn. Hopefully, the third season will keep the improved writing but actually follow what is written in the history books and present the construction of the transcontinental railroad as the mind-boggling technical achievement that it was.
The two-hour premiere of Hell on Wheels Season Three is on August 10. Unfortunately, AMC has failed to provide a trailer for Season 3, but this was a standout scene from Season Two.