Summary : Hell on Wheels, good for the first two years, improves in story structure and scope in its third season. The new blu-ray release looks stunning, even if the extras are merely fluff.
Entertainment One recently released the third season of AMC’s Hell on Wheels on Blu-ray and DVD. The Western, which is set around the building of the first cross-continental railroad after the Civil War, is a look at the various challenges the workers faced. Early seasons featured Indian attacks and North/South and racial tensions. Season three ups the ante with an outbreak of cholera, dangerous, rebellious Mormans, political backstabbing, and the past coming back to haunt the characters. It’s a thrilling, somewhat-fact-based look at a defining time in our nation’s history, done in a style that easily keeps viewers engaged.
A lot happens this season, in character development as well as action. Picking up in the aftermath of the attack that destroyed the railroad settlement, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) has a renewed determination to complete the track. He is distracted by new antagonists, including Union General Ulysses S. Grant (Victor Slezak, Treme), and, of course, Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) hasn’t given up on wrestling back control of the project. Brothers Sean (Ben Esler) and Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke) come into conflict when they choose different sides in the struggle. The romance between Eva (Robin McLeavy) and Elam (Common) is tested when she makes a difficult choice. Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) is forced to face who she is.
All of these people have satisfying stories, and not all make it out alive, which is more surprising than I thought it would be, considering the previous deaths on the show. Hell on Wheels could very well be the gritty, realistic version of A Million Ways to Die in the West, sometimes almost funny in how brutal it can be. The setting is an unforgiving one, and folks didn’t live so long back then because of the types of tribulations these characters face.
More than the first two years, season three feels like a cohesive story. Lots of individual events happen, but almost all of the important ones merge nicely together in the excellent season finale. There is a through line and purpose as the story progresses, and while some things may not feel like they’re going to come back around, when they do, it’s very well done and serves to add greater meaning. Even The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), who has an isolated arc this season that doesn’t intersect with the rest of the cast until the very end, folds in nicely to the existing structure, rather than just being jammed back in where he doesn’t belong. The ending leaves many of the players in completely different places than where they spent most of the year, setting up a great fourth season, too.
Hell On Wheels also starts to address some topics I didn’t expect in this era. New character Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin, The Following), a newspaper reporter, is a lesbian. Now, of course, homosexuality exists in this age. But I didn’t expect to see it not only acknowledged, but most of the characters that find out don’t care, even if Louise suffers potentially serious repercussions back East. Could it be that the adventurous spirit that would lead one out to the frontier would also make one naturally more open-minded? Or is this the show attempting to appeal to modern audiences and dropping the ball on authenticity?
There are a decent amount of extras on this set. One featurette catches fans up on where the show left off, while another looks at this season briefly, without spoilers, for those who might want a taste of what’s to come. Four behind-the-scenes extras, running a little under fifteen minutes combined, give us some insight into various elements, and there are also ten “Inside the Episode” bits for the ten episodes in this set. Unfortunately, all of these are light and fluffy, with nothing very meaningful included.
For this set, Blu-ray is the way to go. Hell on Wheels is a beautifully shot series, with many outdoor scenes and a broad color palette, more so in season three than in the first two years. Both establishing shots and close-ups are highly detailed in high definition, with crisp layers and stunning landscapes. The sound is also better than most television shows, with some really cool effects, as well as solidly built dialogue tracts and mixing. The HD presentation, both audio and visual, is nearly flawless, and really enhances the realism of the show.
Hell on Wheels – The Complete Third Season is available now.
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