For a fan of westerns, there’s no better beginning to a new season of a western series than a train robbery—a classic convention of the genre since at least 1903. So, when Hell on Wheels, season two, started immediately with robbing one of Durant’s trains of a payroll delivery, well, I was on board from the start.
Some time has passed between the end of season one and season two’s “Viva La Mexico.” It’s not too much of a surprise to discover that one of the hooded train robbers is Bohannon. His latest dream to escape from the hell of his war memories is to join a colony of ex-confederates in Mexico. He ends up getting in a pointless bar fight when two former union soldiers make snarky comments about the former confederates (Bohannon’s fellow train robbers) singing southern fighting songs. The goal of the train robbers, or at least of Bohannon, is to bankroll the colony with Durant’s payroll. Maybe once he’s in Mexico he can stop re-fighting the Civil War.
A number of the characters have moved on further down the line from when we last saw them. Durant, Nebraska, where the moving town of Hell on Wheels was located at the end of season one, is now 60 miles to the east of the western edge of the railroad building. Hell on Wheels itself is looking a bit more permanent, with actual wooden structures being built—perhaps because the lack of payroll has led to a definite slowing of the progress of the railroad’s advance. The Swede (he’s from Norway), Mr. Gundersen, has survived his tar and feathering. His hair has even grown back, he tells Durant. However, he’s no longer in charge of camp security. And that’s part of why the camp has descended further into chaos, although Gundersen himself contributed a fair bit to that chaos last season with his extortion and protection rackets (which lead to his being tarred and feathered and ridden out of Hell on Wheels on a rail). For want of a better term, he is now the camp’s Waste Collector, whether that waste is in the form of the contents of chamber pots, trash, or dead bodies.
Lily Bell convinces him (pays him) to see to the proper burial of a prostitute who is murdered, which leads to a darkly comic scene at the graveyard, with the alcoholic Rev. Cole providing the sermon, and the Swede contributing a comically inappropriate prayer. The scene is also a pastiche of the grave robbing scene in the classic horror film Frankenstein (dir. by James Whale), comically inverted (never has a burial seemed so much like grave robbery) here, although filmed in Whale’s style—wide angle lenses, off-kilter camera, and gravestones and crosses pointing in all directions, with the cherry on the cake, so to speak, the Swede’s hat balanced awkwardly, dangling from one of the crosses.
Elam has sort of taken his place with Durant, although Durant will not put him fully in charge of policing the camp. This does lead to Elam being on a train during a robbery, and a mutual recognition between Elam and Bohannon. Bohannon manages to get all the robbers off the train without anyone being killed. This does not endear him to his fellows. His friend, the doctor tells him to get on his horse and ride away because “This is not going to end well.” Bohannon’s world-weary reply: “It seldom does.”
We end with a cliffhanger: captured in the robbery attempt, Bohannon is set for execution. If Hell on Wheels wants to continue its run of classic western motifs, then, surely, a prison break is on the way in episode two.