I try not to set too much stock in the pilot episode of a television series – plenty of great shows have recovered from underwhelming pilots, and I was initially hopeful that Hell on Wheels might be able to do the same. Unfortunately, after this week’s episode, it’s become increasingly clear that Hell on Wheels is a show that is shot, art directed, and staged beautifully, but the ultimate execution of story and characters is the essential part of a successful show, and Hell on Wheels is not executing as well as it should.
My complaints about the pilot episode largely had to do with the lack of original, motivated characters on the show, with the writers generally favoring the usual archetypes, such as the bitter former slave and the tough gunslinger seeking revenge. However, this week the show introduced a new character, whose speech to Cullen Bohannon provided the title of the episode: they call him The Swede. Appearing to be a giant Swedish-accented hybrid of Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, the Swede sees something suspicious in Bohannan as they discuss the murder of the one-handed foreman. When Bohannon is ordered to hang, the Swede delivers a monologue about his former life as a bookkeeper intrigued me; the idea of a villain as a former bookkeeper appealed to me, and though his metaphor of controlling numbers versus people and making things add up was a little heavy handed, the speech itself was the most engaging part of the episode. With the addition of this unexpected backstory, it appeared to me that the Swede might actually be the truly original character that this show is looking for, but by the end of the episode it seemed that he may simply just fulfill the typical role of supervillain, whom Bohannon will presumably clash with multiple times over the course of the season.
Because the Swede makes for such an imposing presence on screen, I found the character arc for Lily, last seen wandering in Native American territory, impossibly dull. This week, we watched her meander through the woods, fall asleep next to a log, and later suture her own wounds, which though a demonstration of how plucky and brave she’s surely going to become only made me think about how much I miss Lost. My greatest frustrated annoyance this week, however, came from the Native Americans searching for her, who deliver their lines about missing the taste of blood in clearly enunciated, and perfectly unaccented English, even when talking among themselves – period details, AMC! Subtitles are your friends.