I am the one true prophet.
Hell on Wheels is an inconsistent show, giving us amazing, stunning episodes, stupid ones, and a majority that fall in the middle—good, solidly entertaining television that doesn’t quite soar to greatness. The Season 5 premiere, Chinatown, falls into that last category. It was effective, smart, introduced the season deftly, but didn’t push any envelopes.
(It is, for all that, a beautiful show, with a wonderful cast, and it does its work very, very well. The Emmys ignore it only, in my opinion, because of a prejudice against genre television. It’s far better than many things that garner nominations.)
Where Chinatown was deft was in establishing a whole new show, keeping only the premise and the main character, and allowing the audience to get used to all of that, before reintroducing anything else familiar. Cullen Bohannon is now in Truckee, working for the Central Pacific, and dealing with an entirely different set of working conditions. While the Union Pacific worked with freed slaves and Irish as laborers, the Central Pacific worked with Chinese immigrants, and so now we have a different cultural ground to explore.
All of this was established very well, at a good pace, and without too much exposition. Then, at the end of the episode, we see that Thomas Durant is still a player, and that the Cheyenne settings familiar from last season will still be with us. It’s like, “This new season, and this virtually new show, are good, and OH HEY here’s the show I came back for.” Well done.
In addition to Durant, many familiar characters who we didn’t see this week remain credited on the AMC website for the current season: Mickey, Eva, Louise, and Psalms.
Hell on Wheels is notable for its visual beauty, and here the scenes of the snowy Sierra Nevada continue that tradition. Episodes opening with water have been a theme for a long time, and Chinatown continues that as well, Cullen’s bare feet in the surf on a beautiful beach depicting his fantasy and longing. Often, water cleanses in these images, as is the case here. The water is a kind of renewal, he’ll have the family he longs for and a new, clean life. Note that, in the fantasy, he speaks in his original accent, which we’ve rarely heard, that of the Mississippi gentleman farmer he once was.
Cullen Bohannon awakens from that fantasy on the opposite side of the race to build the Transcontinental Railroad. (I recommend AMC’s map of the railroad to get a sense of what’s going on.) He’s also still searching for his wife and son, which is pretty much the least interesting part of things so far, although it gives Anson Mount a chance to do his tragic 500 yard stare followed by his very sexy grim determination.
The episode introduces a new villain, in the form of Chang (Byron Mann), some new potential allies (Fong and Tao) and brings back an old villain in new form—Thor Gunderson. The character manages to morph into someone new each season, which must be fun for Christopher Heyerdahl. Bohannon has made this same mistake before, of thinking that because Gunderson is in a powerless position he is not a threat, but he couldn’t exactly just shoot him, so we’ll have to see how it plays out.
When I saw the stagecoach driver, I remarked to Professor Spouse that they found a way to keep black characters on the show, and we both said, “And a black woman, to boot!” Hell on Wheels has always done a great job of providing interesting women characters who aren’t all prostitutes and wives. While other shows (I’m looking at you Deadwood) claim it can’t be done because of “historical accuracy”. Looking at the credits, I see this driver is Stagecoach Mary Fields (played by Amber Chardae Robinson) and she is, in fact, a historical character, although not, in real life, from California.
So, we have wage theft, a slimy and educated pimp, Gunderson as a mad prophet, a traitor working for the Central Pacific, Durant’s shenanigans in Cheyenne, potentially the search for Cullen’s family, the actual work of building the railroad, and who knows what else. Looks like a thrilling final season!