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Hell on Wheels, Eps. 3.1-2, “Big Bad Wolf” and “Eminent Domain”: Old enemies and new leaders

Hell on Wheels, Eps. 3.1-2, “Big Bad Wolf” and “Eminent Domain”: Old enemies and new leaders

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Hell on Wheels, Season 3, Episode 1: “Big Bad Wolf”
Written by Mark Richard
Directed by David Von Ancken

Hell on Wheels, Season 3, Episode 2: “Eminent Domain”
Written by John Wirth
Directed by Adam Davidson
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on AMC

It’s no secret- last season’s Hell on Wheels had a lot of issues, mainly the forced relationship between Cullen and Lily Bell (after all, this is not a show conducive to a dewy romance). Fortunately that arc wrapped up in the season two finale and judging by the premiere, season three promises to be one heck of a year.

As “Big Bad Wolf” opens, Cullen (Anson Mount) emerges from a massive snow storm a somewhat new man. He’s not exactly stable but as he arrives in Omaha to collect Elam (Common), who’s living with the heavily pregnant Eva (Robin McLeavy), it’s obvious he’s a man trying to change, even if he’s not sure how to do that. Cullen is a fascinating character because with him, it’s always two steps forward, three steps back. When he’s in a room full of railroad executives he’s all southern charm and smarts; when he’s alone with Elam that ever-present bitterness reappears.

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Based on the first episode, we may finally get more interaction between Cullen and Elam this season. Their strained, barely functioning partnership is one of the most intriguing and enjoyable relationships on the show. For one thing it shows off the incredible chemistry between Mount and Common, two deeply talented actors who wear their characters like a second skin. But the relationship between Cullen and Elam also gives us insight into who Cullen really is. In one of the best scenes of the night, Cullen and Elam are somewhere between a fist fight and Elam learning that he’s now a father when we see Cullen have a quiet moment, surely remembering his own past.

When Cullen admits to an empty church that he may have “bit off more than I can chew” with the railroad, he says it with a small smirk. Its obvious that even though the railroad has caused him to lose a lot and has pushed him to the edge more than once, it’s a challenge that he more than enjoys.

While “Big Bad Wolf” starts off slow and reintroduces us to past characters, like the McGinnes brothers (Ben Esler and Phil Burke) and the recently sprung from jail and scheming Durant (Colm Meaney), “Eminent Domain”, the premiere’s second hour, gives us the grit we’ve come to expect.

The episode shows Cullen coming up against a polygamist family who don’t want the railroad to build through their land. A fairly reasonable request, but this being Hell on Wheels, characters’ reasonableness isn’t something that’s taken very well. What the confrontation does show is Cullen attempting to be a better man. He listens to the family and tries to save their home, but when things turn violent he doesn’t hesitate to do what is right, at least by his standards.

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Hell on Wheels’ greatest accomplishment is its tone and grit. That grime is on full display with “Eminent Domain”. Things are changing. The railroad is growing and becoming more business-oriented and the vicious human nature that marked the first two seasons is now masked by changing landscapes and time. This complexity provides an interesting challenge for the show, one that’s thrilling to watch.

“Eminent Domain” further depicts the tug and pull between who Cullen is and who he wants to be. The final moments of the episode highlight what the moral of the show has always been- every man is responsible for himself and has to answer for his own sins. Judging by the first two episodes ,the third season of Hell on Wheels could possibly be its best.

Tressa Eckermann