The second season of the AMC drama series HELL ON WHEELS takes us back to the post-Civil War era at the dawn of the industrial era. Railroad barons were obsessed with nation-building and the race across the continent in order to secure the future of the United States as a country worthy of competing in the global market. No longer hindered by in-fighting after surviving a bloody civil war that nearly tore the nation apart, it was a time of blossoming freedom and unfettered greed. Yet with the wounds fresh on their bodies and hearts from the recent bloodshed, it was also a time of healing. Everyone wanted to forget the war and move on, but it was a burden everyone bore upon their souls.
So began the tale in the first season of HELL ON WHEELS, where we met our hero, Cullen Bohannon, a Confederate soldier who returned from the war to find his wife and son brutally murdered and his farm burned to the ground. Unable to live with the rage and hatred, Cullen’s quest for revenge drove him to hunt down the ex-soldiers responsible. His vengeance was unforgiving. But his angry rampage was disrupted as he lie in wait for his final target and became embroiled in the lives of those living in a make-shift portable town known as Hell on Wheels where the railroad workers and laborers lived as the Union Pacific Railroad was built through the harsh and hostile territory of the mid-West. Plagued by Indian attacks, hindered by the lack of maps sufficient to show the safe terrain to build upon, and the petty politics of those who chose to live amongst the railroad life, the Union Pacific Railroad was nearly brought to a screeching halt. But as Cullen took up the figurative reins to deal with the various labor and lawlessness problems, the wheels of progress began to move again.
Alas, the fortuitous joint venture between Cullen Bohannon and railroad owner Thomas Durant came to an abrupt end at the end of the first season when Cullen was forced to flee when it is discovered there is a price on his head for murder. Last seen riding out into the horizon, Cullen Bohannon is a wanted man – both from the authorities who would see him hung for his crimes, and from those who appreciated his presence as well as the stability and protection he offered in Hell on Wheels.
In particular, Cullen left behind two people whose lives he irrevocably changed: Lily Bell, a widow whose husband was killed by the Indians and had no where to go — and who caught Cullen’s attention; and Elam Ferguson, a black man seeking to exercise his newfound freedom under the emancipation offered by President Lincoln and who had discovered a valuable ally in Cullen in times of violent trouble. While neither Lily or Elam was overly distraught to see Cullen abandon them, the loss of his presence in their lives left a void that is keenly felt in the beginning of the second season.
The second season of HELL ON WHEELS picks up shortly after Cullen fled to parts unknown. Life in the town of Hell on Wheels has gone from barely tolerable to infinitely worse. Without someone to keep the peace and ensure moral conduct, violence and lawlessness runs rampant; and the one who has the ability to do something about it, railroad owner Thomas Durant, just does not care. His one and only concern is getting his railroad built before his competitors do and to reap the millions in profits he has been guaranteed should he succeed. Everyone may not be actively wondering where Cullen Bohannon has gone to and if he will ever be back, but his absence leaves a gaping hole in the social structure. A man who can command, who can lead, and who can keep everyone from engaging in solely self-interested pursuits is rare. For all his money, Thomas Durant just is not a man that people look up to for leadership. He hides behind his money and allows his ambitions to run roughshod across everyone. Cullen, on the other hand, invokes a sense of admiration as he instills simultaneous fear and duty in those around him.
With a power vacuum obliterating motivation and eroding social order, the town of Hell on Wheels is in desperate need of a savior. Season 2 reintroduces the characters we got to know and love in the first season: Cullen Bohannon, our hero; Thomas Durant, the ruthless railroad baron; Lily Bell, the widow struggling to survive; Elam Ferguson, the former slave seeking a way to better his position; Eva, the prostitute who caught Elam’s eye; the McGinnes brothers (Sean and Mickey) who are always looking for a way to make a quick buck; Mr. Gundersen aka The Swede, former security enforcer for Mr. Durant; Reverend Cole, his daughter Ruth; and Joseph Black Moon, the Indian baptized into Christianity and taken in by the Reverend.
In recent interviews at a special screening of the 2nd season premiere at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills on July 30th, the cast and producers of HELL ON WHEELS previewed what is next for these lost souls and what lies on the horizon this next season:
Anson Mount interview:
Colm Meaney interview:
Christopher Heyerdahl interview:
Dohn Norwood interview:
Philip Burke interview:
Ben Esler interview:
Robin McLeavy interview:
Executive producer John Shiban interview:
Executive producer Jeremy Gold interview:
With filming halfway through the current season, HELL ON WHEELS is blazing towards yet another climatic season finale. The only thing that is guaranteed is an explosively violent end, as the Wild West is not known for being an easy place to live. Life was hard and brutal. It was also merciless in dispensing justice and only those strong enough and wily enough to survive endured.
With more stunning visuals seeking to captivate its audience, HELL ON WHEELS’ second season promises to enthrall all over again. It also offers highly addictive character stories that keep us guessing as to whether there is any hope for the star-crossed lovers, Cullen and Lily, as well as the lovelorn Eva and her destined love, Elam; and whether that cursed railroad will ever be built. By hell or high water, Thomas Durant is determined that it will be — even if he has to make a deal with the devil.
Executive producer, Jeremy Gold, offered his take on the the second season of HELL ON WHEELS noting, “Surviving is definitely a theme and ‘building your empire.’ We’ve sold this show on the promise of nation-building. It’s a show about that. It’s a show about the cost of progress. So I think all our characters are wrestling with the cost of they’re doing.” He concluded with, “It’s a remarkable season. I’m excited for everyone to see it. I’d say hold onto your seat, get ready for Season 3!”
With that in mind, you are invited to take the time to watch this fine series as it returns on Sunday, August 12th at 9:00 p.m. on AMC. HELL ON WHEELS reminds us that life is worth tenaciously fighting for – as life only resembles hell if you let it.
Where to find this article:
Season 2 preview: