Trapped in this Frozen Ambition: Hell on Wheels S04E01
As far as the television industry goes, the Old West died and was buried somewhere around the time “Gunsmoke” ended its 20-year run in 1975. Except for a few flagbearers (“Lonesome Dove” being an outstanding example) the classic oater has disappeared from the TV landscape. AMC’s series Hell on Wheels stands out as another excellent exception. This epic in series form deals with the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Season 4 began last Saturday with “This Elusive Eden.” Like most season openers this hour deals with resetting the stage from the previous one and showing the dramatic arcs the new one will take. Although premieres are not as good as subsequent episodes should be, this one creates enough drama to justify tuning in regularly.
It’s late 1868 and the Union Pacific Railroad has come all the way to Cheyenne. Durant (Colm Meaney) pushes his luck in having track laid over a frozen river. Disaster strikes and the ice breaks. Faced with this loss of face and money, Durant declares “the railroad is broken” and liquidates the main asset, public lands deeded to the road. At the same time, General (and soon to be President) Ulysses S. Grant sends a new territorial governor to Wyoming, John Campbell (Jake Weber) and instructs him to bring order back to the UP line. He is to be the literal civilizing force for the unruly town as well.
While this is going on, Cullen Bohanan (Anson Mount) labors in Fort Smith for the mysterious Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl). His wife Naomi (Mackenzie Porter) goes into labor. Cullen tells the Swede that he is leaving with his wife and new son. When the Swede has the gates of the fort locked, Cullen tells him to “shoot to kill or I’m coming back to finish this once and for all.”
Like the series as a whole, “This Elusive Eden” contrasts the open vistas and beautiful landscape of the West with the bleakness of the lives many of the characters have escaped. This sharp contrast allows for consideration of whether any of them will achieve their ambitions for new lives or just carry the old ones forward. While it is not clear where Season 4 is headed, the opening episode maintains this tension and the drama that has sustained “Hell on Wheels” so far.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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