DVD Review: Hell on Wheel Season 4

Starring: Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Jake Weber

hell-on-wheels 2Some men are driven; others are steam-driven. But the iron horse is a harsh mistress, and at the start of Season 4 of Hell on Wheels the railroad is stuck on the wrong side of an impenetrable hill of shale and its demonic owner Durant is rapidly running out of cash. And to make matters worse Cheyenne suddenly finds itself saddled with a new provisional governor, John Campbell (Jake Weber), who starts dispensing some much-needed summary justice on the hairy-chinned locals.

Our hero Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) rides slap bang into the middle of this power struggle between Durant and Campbell when he returns to town with a Mormon wife and newborn, but he’s sufficiently Mormonized not to instantly strap on his six-shooter and take sides. This standoff between railroad owner and governor has more than a hint of the cat and mouse between Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen and ruthless businessman George Hearst in the final season of Deadwood, but thankfully it’s not nearly so slow-burning. Instead, an early crisis is precipitated when Campbell appoints an erstwhile army buddy of Bohannon’s, the grinning sociopath Sydney Snow (a brilliant performance by Jonathan Scarfe) as US Marshall. With Snow stalking around town looking for trouble, the season inevitably builds to a showdown in classic western fashion.

Meanwhile, Campbell shows that he’s more than just a hollow hat by getting his flirt on with feisty newspaper proprietor Louise Ellison (Jennifer Ferrin), who reveals that she has a bit of a kinky side beneath her cool, collected exterior. Once again, in a series when the men tend to mumble through their whiskers and grovel about in mud, it’s the strong female characters like Ellison who really stand out by comparison. Likewise, Sister Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) has a dramatic and surprising storyline this season, including some enthralling insights into her blood-soaked childhood as the daughter of a slaver-murdering vicar.

This season balances soap-like personal complications and sudden punctuations of hell-on-wheels 1outlaw violence with its usual ease, while also boldly ringing the changes in ways which suggest that Season 5 is going to be very different from anything we’ve seen before. And even when there are occasional lulls, there’s always Colm Meaney charismatic, high-energy performance as Durant to hold the show together and keep it pressing on towards the next horizon. 8/10

EXTRAS
A set of brief but slickly made featurettes, adding up to approx 12 mins, with ruminations of the season’s themes, thumbsketches of new characters and a tour of the Cheyenne set in the company of Anson Mount (being very talkative and showbiz unlike his character. ~ A further hour’s worth of short featurettes with the cast and producers talking about the characters and their aspirations, and with some nice behind the scenes footage (including a chapel-burning scene). 8/10

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