Just as quickly as Hell on Wheels delivered an episode that eased some concerns and fixed certain issues, “A New Birth of Freedom” has arrived to bring all of those issues back twofold. It’s becoming evident that one of the show’s biggest flaws is its lack of truly compelling characters. Last week’s “Immoral Mathematics” flourished because it spent the majority of its time with two of the few characters with any real substance – Cullen Bohannon and the Swede. This week, they’re both put on the backburner. Swede is missing completely save for a few minor scenes, and Cullen spends the majority of his time in the episode with the weakest link of the series – Lily Bell (played by Dominique McElligott.)
Bell is the shining example of the increasingly apparent problem with many of the characters of Hell on Wheels. She’s suffered from both a plot and character standpoint – spending the first two episodes running around aimlessly from a group of Cheyenne tribesmen who are after her for the same maps that Durant has been chasing after. For the entirety of her time on the show, Bell has been one thing – a damsel in distress – whose only value has been the precious cargo she’s carrying around. Given that we know almost nothing about her, both her plot thread and her existence on the show hasn’t held any sort of emotional weight or felt the slightest bit compelling.
This problem extends far beyond just the Lily Bell character. Whether we’re talking about a reverend trying to promote peace in troubled times, a former Cheyenne turned Christian struggling with identity, or two Irish brothers trying to make it out West, all suffer from the same two fundamental problems – their stories lack a compelling narrative and their characters fail to be anything more than one-note.
That Thomas Durant, despite his over-the-top, almost cartoonish demeanor, is a standout because, at the very least, he has some life in him, speaks volumes of the trouble this show is having with its supporting players. “A New Birth of Freedom” spends quite a bit of time with them, and in turn ends up being one of the most uneventful hours of a television drama I’ve seen in quite some time.
These issues are made all the worse when coupled with the air of familiarity that has hurt the show since day one – an aspect that grows all the more troublesome as we move along and the show continually fails to break free of it. Cullen’s shootout and subsequent rescue of Lily Bell – a scene that should have been a standout this episode – was undercut by being so reminiscent of other, better scenes from previous works in the genre.
The promise that “Immortal Mathematics” made – that Hell on Wheels was gaining its footing – has been disappointingly broken here. Everything that was strong about that chapter – its urgency, narrative focus, and exploration of chaos and control, is all but nonexistent in “A New Birth of Freedom.” Three episodes in, Hell on Wheels has proven itself wildly inconsistent in its quality from week to week, and the show’s future success, now more than ever, is anyone’s guess.