If the pilot of “Hell on Wheels” was confusing for the number of started arcs, the second episode was even more so for the sheer number of beats within it that added little to no progress to those arcs. It felt more like a mid-season episode than one of the first of the series. For example, we have an established arc of Colin attempting to gain revenge for what happened to his wife. Yet, we spend most of his beats in the episode watching him break out of the ‘jail’ and running around the camp. Either the writers are trying to set up a massive amount of foreshadowing or were having a hard time figuring out how to logically put him inside the owner’s carriage. If it was the former case then the dialogue in the two beats (in the tent with the former slaves and with the priest) was a little too vague to really push the story forward. You get this “I don’t deserve redemption” moment with the priest that’s maybe trying to set him up as a tragic hero, but his recklessness in exacting his revenge in the first episode has more or less already established his lack of care for his own life.
With the slaves in the “when a man puts chains on you, you have to break free” beat, it’s also hard to determine any kind of arc-pattern. If they’re going for some archetypal script, we could see an arc, related to his new position as foreman in which success is brought to the railroad via Colin’s respect and report with the workers (i.e. he’s not your average ex-slave master, but is indeed a redemptive character). However, this too seems rather too archetypal for AMC.
I was also fairly confused by the storyline of the female character. She had a number of really brief beats that seemed to suggest a dramatic finish to her story-line within the episode. But it built up instead to an anticlimax with the Native America turned white-man-indian-whisperer or whoever that character ends up being.
I have to say that the story-structure did achieve a greater sense of intrigue at the end of the episode than did last week’s pilot. However, I’m tempted to attribute that intrigue more to an interest in how exactly they will achieve progress within the arcs in the plot rather than the arcs themselves.