‘Hell on Wheels’: ‘Immoral Mathematics’ review

Functioning more as the latter half of a double-length introduction to the show than an episode in its own right, the second instalment of Hell on Wheels completes the business begun in last week’s uneven but entertaining opener of bringing the principal characters to the titular mobile encampment, and then proceeds to tangle them together in the narrative.

It also serves to replace the loathsome foreman Daniel Johnson with someone even less appealing: Thor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl), better known as ‘the Swede’.

Resembling Sky Sports’ rugby pundit Will Greenwood dressed up as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and with an accent so ludicrous that even Arthur Bostrom would turn his moustache up at it, the man brought in to act as unofficial lawman in Hell on Wheels initially comes across as comical … until one sees the blank, dead stare in his eyes and ‘Beauty’ – his revolver.

Men who give pet names to motorcars are a bit suspect; men who give pet names to weapons are dangerous. Gundersen, like a poorly-assembled piece of IKEA furniture, has more than one screw loose.

‘They call me “the Swede”,’ he informs Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) when the former Confederate soldier is hauled before him, accused of murdering Johnson. ‘I’m Norwegian, but no matter. We’re all Americans now’ – and as if to prove his naturalised credentials, he chains up Bohannon in a converted railroad coach with the intention of hanging him as soon as the gallows are free, and proceeds to tax the happy-go-lucky McGinnes brothers (Ben Esler and Phil Burke) two dollars a week to keep their slideshow in the prime location ‘between the liquor and the whores’. What could be more American than that?

Elsewhere, a wounded and hallucinating Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott) is being pursued through a wilderness that looks more Scottish than Nebraskan (the show is actually filmed in Canada) with her late husband’s surveying maps in one hand and an arrowhead embedded in her chest. Her ingenious method of extracting the latter – a solution no man would ever be able to come up with  – is this episode’s only really bloody moment, although it’s run close in the grisliness stakes by Doc Durrant (Colm Meaney) upon arrival at the site of the Cheyenne massacre.

Disgusted by the diffidence of the Chicago Tribune reporter, who has respectfully photographed only one of the bodies, the pitiless entrepreneur drags all the other corpses out of the cart and starts embedding arrows in them like candles in a birthday cake.

‘I want an unblinking look at the horror perpetuated here,’ he booms to the horrified journo, before offering a $100 reward for the man who finds Lily alive. Despite – or perhaps because of – his blustering, over-the-top manner, and declamatory way of delivering the frequently preposterous lines the writers give him (‘How do you get your trousers on over those big balls of yours?’), Durrant is the most compelling protagonist in Hell on Wheels so far, with only the Swede coming close to matching him.

Yes, Bohannon’s character has developed along with his southern accent since episode one, and Common’s Elam Ferguson combines period grit with modern sensitivity, but neither of these good guys is as substantial or enjoyable (yet) as their iniquitous counterparts.

With the programme’s premise and the majority of the characters introduced in its predecessor, Immoral Mathematics can afford to relax, taking a focussed, less scattergun approach to finishing this protracted prologue and getting on with the business of storytelling – and it’s all the better for it.

Hell on Wheels isn’t anywhere near full tilt just yet, but it’s certainly picking up steam.

Aired at 9pm on Sunday 27th May 2012 on TCM.

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