While Hell on Wheels still feels like a far cry from brilliance, I give its writers and the powers that be at AMC their due — episode two was leagues more cohesive and coherent than the pilot. Its forty four minutes or so were understandably exposition heavy, but for all intents and purposes, the episode was dominated by a new antagonist: The Swede. Durant was reestablished as a driven cut-throat businessman, manipulating the press and even getting his own hands dirty through his disrespect of the dead. Yet, as epitomized by his decision to ultimately hire Cullen as his new foreman, everything he does can be justified by his understanding of right and wrong. You may not like him or agree with his methods, but he deserves some degree of respect for being willing to adapt with higher interests in mind. By contrast, The Swede is just a yes-man: a mercenary who seems all too pleased to work out the problems from his own past on stand-ins at present. As someone who actually interacts with the commoners and residents of Hell on Wheels, it would appear as though Cullen has finally met his match. Both men are murderers, but Cullen is glamorized, even amusingly returning for his hat as he escapes from his makeshift prison cell. Ultimately, both men now report directly to Durant, so it will be interesting to see how egos (and pistols) collide in the coming episodes.
The opening titles are reminiscent of “viewer discretion advised” warnings for other shows, accompanied by ominous music. Even if only subconsciously, we’re told to expect the level of quality and intensity that usually accompanies those shows. With desaturated color and soft focus, it’s clearly not shot in a realistic fashion. Our protagonist is introduced by assassinating a man in a church confessional, in the eyes of God, seen leaving from behind as though he’s going into the light. This is clearly going to be a series of exaggerated tales, both in content and style.