The opening minutes of “Hell on Wheels” were simply breathtaking. You saw inside the head of Cullen Bohannon into what he wishes his life could now be, and also what his life now is. He knows very little other than railroad work, but the longing for his wife and his child has never been clearer. He’s evolved over the years, and is ready seemingly to have an essence of stability, of living in the same place with a woman who cares for him.
Yet, around the halfway point of Saturday night’s season 3 premiere, that hope for Cullen’s future was perhaps even further away than it was at the end of season 4. He learned that Naomi had been cast out from the Mormon communities, and in his own words, “she could be anywhere.” While we do not see him giving up, this makes his search ever more difficult as he and the Central Pacific labor force continue to move towards Utah as they meet the Union Pacific.
Much of the episode tonight focused specifically on the new people Cullen has met along the way, and that included a Chinese labor force that was led and manipulated by Chang, a powerful character with a difficult past (did you see these markings on his back?) played by Byron Mann. He is the closest thing that Cullen has now to an adversary; he knows that he holds most of the cards and provides the labor at a far cheaper rate than the railroad would get with non-Chinese workers.
Also of note tonight was the arrival of Tao, an educated man and a prominent member of the work force, and also his son Fong. Fong has shown somewhat of a rebellious side, but that is far from the benefit of his father. We learned through them in part what Chang does to those who do not follow his every word and action.
On the Union Pacific side of things, we had little other than a telegraph attempt and a glimpse at Durant. It’s still important, not just for the message but also for an appearance of Stagecoach Mary, who will help to connect these two worlds this season. Don’t think that we’re going to suddenly about the Union Pacific completely.
Of course, we assume that the moment will be talking about leading out of the episode is the reunion between Cullen and the Swede; it is a far from pleasant one, but the one-time “Bishop” does offer up some opportunity to help Cullen get what he wants a little bit faster. We don’t see them trading pleasantries anytime soon, and that is what makes this exciting.
There was a certain element of the premiere tonight that was exposition-heavy, but that is to be expected when you are introducing everyone from Chang to Tao and the new town of Truckee that Cullen temporarily calls home. There was still a fascinating amount of culture and action present here, and enough to keep us both satisfied and looking ahead towards where the metaphorical railroad that is this story goes next. Grade: A-.
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