For a network known for its prestige programming, AMC has gone in some strange directions. Mad Men has had nipple amputations and someone’s foot got run over with a lawn mower that one time. Breaking Bad gave us a decapitated head on a turtle. And maybe craziest of all, they thought Low Winter Sun would succeed. But no other fictional series on AMC has more insanity in it than Hell on Wheels, a show which is entering its fourth season and somehow consistently receives about the same amount of viewers as Mad Men, despite being flat-out nuts.
So what exactly makes Hell on Wheels so insane? In the micro sense, this is a show that ended its third season with Common engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a bear, which led to the demise of them both. These weird sorts of ideas are incredibly commonplace in the world of Hell on Wheels. Common wants to quit the show? OK, well he’s gonna have to fight a bear, because why not?
But in a much larger sense, Hell on Wheels has always been a watered-down western in a post-Deadwood landscape. The things that made Deadwood so successful—the living, breathing community, and the duality of characters—is what Hell on Wheels is seriously lacking. Ultimately this show has many weaknesses and one great strength, whose name is Cullen Bohannon.
Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon has always been at the core of what makes Hell on Wheels work, and in the Season Four premiere “The Elusive Eden,” this is absolutely reinforced. When we last left Bohannon, he chose to marry the Mormon teen he impregnated rather than be murdered. He promised to stay in the Mormon community until his baby is born, and since that was nine months ago, his opportunity at freedom is coming soon. Besides the shadow of his wife’s family looming over him, he also has to deal with the community’s bishop, or as Bohannon knows him, the literally insane Thor Gunderson, who has caused a majority of the craziness Hell on Wheels has presented.
This battle between Bohannon and Gunderson escalated greatly over the past seasons, to a point where these characters figuratively (and in Gunderson’s case, literally) aren’t the same people we started out with. Gunderson’s theory is that people can change, which he is trying to prove as the new bishop. But while he and Bohannon have truly changed, the core of who they are seems to still be intact. Both Bohannon and Gunderson appear to be calm on the surface, but underneath either of them would likely slit the other’s throat at the first sign of weakness.
While the Bohannon and Gunderson conflict grows stronger, the rest of the show only grows weaker. The titular Hell on Wheels camp keeps getting rid of characters and adding new ones to find the right balance that will make the town interesting, but so far it’s been a failing venture. At the beginning of the series, Colm Meaney’s Durant was an integral part of the show, as the puppet master of the town and main antagonist to Bohannon. But at this point, Durant is a character that exists to keep the railroad moving and not much else. In “The Elusive Eden” he realizes the railroad is broke and is desperately trying to find money to keep it going, but it’s not compelling in any way.
As I mentioned, Hell on Wheels has an affinity for killing off characters and messing with the chemistry, so as we start off the fourth season two of the more minor characters that have survived three seasons and their own personal losses are brought together, in what is “The Elusive Eden”’s biggest problem.
I personally have grown tired of rape plots in shows. It’s a tiresome and lazy way to build sympathy for and fear in a character. It’s especially egregious with the character of Eva. In the last three seasons, Eva has gone from being a prostitute to pulling herself up, finding confidence in herself and dedicating herself to what makes her happy by creating her own life and family. In the last few episodes of the previous season, she not only gave her newborn child away, but she also lost her husband Elam in a bear fight, as one sometimes would in the Wild West. As we start off this season, she is now a maid for the prostitutes, desperately trying to stay afloat. But near the end of it, not only is she attacked and presumably raped by a random citizen, when new mayor Mickey McGinnes takes her to a bath to clean her up and take care of her, he also sexually abuses her. We get it—Eva is beaten down and her life is at an all-time low. We don’t need this type of disgusting display after disgusting display to explain that.
“The Elusive Eden” ends with Bohannon and Gunderson going face-to-face, telling of the end of a conflict that has had a long time coming. Bohannon plans on leaving Fort Smith where he has been trapped for the past few months, with Gunderson stating that there’s much more for him here then there is at Hell on Wheels. With this new conflict and some of the troubling stories going on in Hell on Wheels one hopes the show might get stronger and maybe—for once—the crazy guy will be right.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.