This summer, one of television’s most underrated and hidden gems comes to a close after 5 seasons. Hell on Wheels tells the story of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier who takes up work as a foreman and chief engineer during the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1800s. Airing on AMC in the US (the same channel as The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad) and TCM in the UK, Hell on Wheels has never achieved the big audience it deserves. With Season 5, Volume 1 out now on DVD, it’s the perfect time to catch up before it comes to a close this year. And if you are one of the many who haven’t caught up, this review may contain spoilers. You have been warned…
Season 5 picks up where season 4 left off with Bohannon changing his allegiance from the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific, upon the CP developer’s promise to help find missing family. But he must deal with a new rival, the CP’s labor contractor Chang (Byron Mann). As we follow our hero Bohannon, we still keep an eye on the Union Pacific progress led by the cunning Thomas C. Durant (Colm Meaney) who is racing to finish his tracks before his rival Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee). And of course, the shifty Thor ‘The Swede’ Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl) is still maintaining a hidden agenda and generally being a creepy little shit. The whole cast are on brilliant form as ever, and the great Anson Mount continues to make Bohannon one of TV’s best heroes.
As is custom on TV these days, Hell on Wheels’ fifth season has been split into 2 halves over 2 years. This volume contains the first 7 episodes, with the final 7 to air this June in the US. This has been something of an issue for Season 5 Volume 1. These 7 episodes are really acting as a build-up for the final 7. Plotlines grow and questions asked, but few answered. We’re left hanging at the end of this volume which, although understandable, is frustrating. I would’ve preferred Hell on Wheels to go out with one season aired in one go. This splitting just wastes time with a mid-season cliffhanger episode which could’ve been better used for plot development rather than just getting characters into their starting positions for this summer’s final episodes.
Being a historical series, it’s easy to see where the show will go. Showrunner John Wirth stated “the end of the story is written down in history”, but what he didn’t know was “how the story would end for each of our characters”. As such, the railroad plotline has taken something of a backseat in this season to allow for more human drama, particularly between Bohannon and his rivals – Chang and ‘The Swede’. Christopher Heyerdahl brings us another incredible performance as the totally unhinged ‘Swede’ but his character feels like he’s running out of steam. In the early seasons, the Bohannon/Swede rivalry was the best part of the show. Now, it’s beginning to get tedious.
Chang’s antagonising of Bohannon however is interesting, lending a new race aspect to Hell on Wheels. In early seasons, a large part of the show was dedicated to themes of slavery. It still is, but now it’s more focused on the Chinese workers. With new characters Chang, Tao (Tzi Ma) and Fong (Angela Zhou), Hell on Wheels’ fifth season feels fresh. The Chinese iconography and new setting makes this season stand out, which is something the series needed. It has always been a great show, but even showrunner Wirth admits the series has “gone down a lot of blind alleys”, “taken a lot of wrong turns” and “lost its way”. But now, he believes it has “clawed its way back” to what he thinks is going to be a good wrap up for the series. Judging by these 7 episodes, it looks like Hell on Wheels will go out with a bang.
It is difficult to review the first half of a final season without having the remaining episodes with it, but as it stands, Season 5 Volume 1 is engrossing television. It’s a simple case of if you’re a fan, you’ll love it. And if you are a fan and haven’t caught up yet, don’t wait any longer. It’s just as strong as ever, despite minor flaws. And if you’re reading this having not watched any Hell on Wheels, then pick up the first few seasons right now and enjoy the ride.
Season 5 Volume 1 is a brilliant set-up for the final 7 episodes this summer. I will miss you when you end, Hell on Wheels. 4/5.
Hell on Wheels Season 5, Volume 1 at CeX
Get your daily CeX at