AMC’s Western series about the construction of the railroad, Hell On Wheels, is finally releasing its fourth season on Blu-ray and DVD (season five premiered a couple of weeks ago). Picking up four months after the events of season three, not every character shows up in the first episode, and for those that do, many have gone through some changes in circumstance. But as much as some things change, some stay the same, and the paths of several should land them, more or less, right back where we’re used to seeing them, at least for a time.
The biggest question on many fans’ minds is if Elam (Common) survived the bear attack that left him lying, bloody, on the ground. Hell On Wheels has an interesting way of storytelling in that it lets arc progress naturally, which often means characters sit out for episodes at a time, and Elam does not return right away when the season kicks off, though fans will eventually learn his fate.
While some series may contract their principal players for only a certain number of episodes to save budget, it seems like Hell On Wheels limits screen time when the story warrants. For instance, the season premiere has several threads to tug on and explore, but leaves out characters such as Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) and Louise (Jennifer Ferrin), who are still with the show. I kind of dig that the writers don’t squeeze in people when they don’t fit, even if I’d like to know what they’re up to, and eventually it will get back around to them.
The main character whom the entire show revolves around, and thus he has to appear every week, remains Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). Awaiting the birth of his child by Naomi (unfortunately recast as a noticeably older-looking Mackenzie Porter), Bohannon tests the boundaries of his dynamic with The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl), still posing as a Mormon bishop as The Complete Fourth Season begins. While Bohannon’s usual foe, Durant (Colm Meaney), is selfish and despicable, there is something even more magnetic about The Swede, making for some truly excellent scenes between Mount and Heyerdahl as the nemesis they play dance around one another. The struggle that Bohannon goes through is the central thrust of Hell On Wheels.
There are other characters that matter, too, though. Eva (Robin McLeavy) brings the pathos this year, mourning Elam and once more having to pick herself up and start over. This frontier is not kind to a single woman, but Eva is nothing is if not resilient, and finds yet another way to go on and try to build a life for herself and her baby. I mentioned Durant above, and he remains around as an antagonist. But he also has other layers. It is he, of all people, who tries to light a spark in Eva, the writers once again striving for the unexpected, though not so much so that it feels unnatural, as Durant has taken an interest in her before, if only occasionally. I don’t think Durant will be winning over many friends in the near future, but it’s nice to see there’s more than one side to a person, especially when Hell On Wheels has The Swede to be the cold, calculating, evil player.
Entering the fray this year is the new Governor of Wyoming, John Campbell (Jake Weber, Medium). Like General Grant, Campbell is a real person in history, though surely fictionalized enough to ratchet up the drama. Coming into town, he is likely to spur with Durant, Bohannon, and the now-mayor of Cheyenne, Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke). This provides even more drama in an already dangerous place.
I like that the characters on Hell on Wheels often aren’t friends. The Wild West, mainly seen as Cheyenne currently, is a dangerous, unstable place. Alliances are struck, only to be broken and re-formed when convenient. This makes for unpredictable storytelling, keeping the plot engrossing. Conflict is rampant, and that can be even better than the heart-warming uniting of those coming together for a common purpose, which the program only occasionally shows.
The Complete Fourth Season maintains what Hell On Wheels has built, but also gives us some new places to go. With the railroad nearing completion and season five already announced as the last, there are only a limited number of stories left to tell. I’m glad it gets the chance, though, to tell its full tale, especially because this one is so good.
There are a number of bonus features included in this release. Featurettes look at the season as a whole, as well as the new characters and the Cheyenne set. There are also specific focuses on single episodes, and bits on the set with Meaney and Weber, our less-scary villains. It seems like a relatively average amount of bonus material is present, nothing super exciting, but neither is it less than what most of its peers put out. The Blu-ray quality is about what one expects, and one can truly appreciate the setting, details, and soundtrack when experienced in crisp high definition.