With each new episode of Hell on Wheels, I find myself captivated by the teaser and sucked in by the opening credits, only to become incredibly disappointed by the remainder of the episode. This was more evident than ever in the third episode, “A New Birth of Freedom”. The teaser, focused solely on Cullen Bohannon and orchestrated without a single real line of dialogue, features our protagonist rummaging through the belongings of the deceased foreman whom he has replaced and discovering a photograph of the men responsible for the death of his wife. Although the likelihood of finding a photo identifying each of the men is hardly believable, the atmosphere and structure of the sequence more than make up for this highly implausible coincidence. Hell on Wheels looks so much better during any scene that unfolds in the dark, and the flickering light and shadows inside the tent, combined with the gray hued flashbacks, created an atmosphere that for the first time actually intrigued me and drew me in to the story. Bohannon focuses on the name Sgt. Harper as bits of his thousand piece revenge puzzle begin to fall into place, and the darkness of the sequence and the quick cuts between the murders Bohannon has committed and the names on the picture made this teaser feel like the kind of gritty, brooding western that I want this show so badly to be.
However, after the music and smoke and fire landscapes of the opening credits faded away, once again Hell on Wheels lost me. The show is shot gorgeously and the art direction is flawless, but the actual content of the plot leaves so much to be desired. The last shots of the episode, where Lily and Bohannon are shown on horseback in a wide panoramic view of the horizon, was evocative of old John Ford westerns like Stagecoach, and it’s scenes like this that continue to give me false hope in the show. There was another scene this week which particularly stood out in terms of cinematography. When Bohannon comes across Joseph tending to Lily Bell, he takes a moment to remove the remainder of the arrow from her wound, drinking continuously from his flask as he does so (also: how about cleaning the wound with that flask instead, Bohannon?). The scene is shot in a more interesting way than the rest of the episode, with the camera angled throughout the sequence to show Lily’s feverish perspective. I’m far more engaged with the camerawork and the landscapes and the period details than with anything the writers have presented (Colm Meaney’s perfectly bombastic Shakespearean speeches notwithstanding), and if the plot was able to bring something more interesting to the table, I would have been sold on Hell on Wheels weeks ago.