Hell on Wheels, Ep. 1.03: “A New Birth of Freedom” doesn’t show enough faith in the viewer

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Hell on Wheels, Season 1, Episode 3, “A New Birth of Freedom”
Written by Tony and Joe Gayton
Directed by Phil Abraham
Airs Sunday 10 PM Est. on AMC

Episode 3 of Hell on Wheels and we are still waiting for this show’s signature. In other words, it is bereft of a true identity. Nearly every character is ‘one note’ and hold onto strikingly predictable arcs.

Hell on Wheels is committing the sin that many middle-of-the-road shows commit, and that is that the writers don’t seem to have enough faith in the actors and directors to tell the story. Instead, we are treated to several scenes that seem to go to painstaking lengths to make the characters’ motivations known. This is never more evident than in the opening scene of “A New Birth of Freedom,” wherein Bohannan broods over a photo he finds in Johnson’s (the former foreman) belongings. There is nothing distinctive in terms of style, and perhaps more importantly, nothing to give we the viewer more insight into Bohannan as a character. So why is this scene there? It is only there to serve the plot. It was a yawning route to make a single plot point, the point being that Bohannan now has a lead as to who killed his wife.

Last week I praised the show, because despite its apparent shortcomings it still had a confident energy it ran with. The lack of character intrigue was replaced with compelling action that drove the show forward. Ironically, we learn more about the characters through their unspoken actions than the long blocks of dialogue we were treated too this week. This goes back to the point referring to the writing, with another example being when the character of Elam (Common) decides to go into the saloon/brothel. Immediate motivations for Elam’s struggle in this episode are established quite early in this episode. As a freed slave, he plans to make a point to the white men of the camp that he is their equal. Before he goes into the brothel he explains this for a second time in the episode. It is these wasted scenes that wear the show down.

Hell on Wheels needs to let its guard down, and let the characters actions speak for themselves. Not every moves needs an explanation. We will understand what is happening on the screen if a character does rather than says. What the show does have in its favor is the fact that it is still only three episodes in, so there is hope that the deeper we get into the season, the more it relaxes and lets the subjects breath a little.

James Merolla

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