Hell On Wheels Season 3 Review

Hell On Wheels Season 3 Packshot
Title: Hell On Wheels: Season 3
Genre: Western/Drama
Starring: Anson Mount,
Colm Meaney,
Phil Burke,
Robin McLeavy
Certificate: US: Not Rated
UK: 15
Picture: 16:9 (1.78:1)
Audio Format: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Runtime: 10 Episodes,
6 Hours 52 mins
Extras: Featurettes,
Look Back at Season 2
Studio: Entertainment One
Release Date: USA: July 15 2014
UK: August 18 2014
See If You Like: Deadwood,
Sons of Anarchy

Since the sad departure of HBO’s Deadwood, TV screens across the globe were lacking an effective and enthralling western series, that is until Hell On Wheels made it’s debut, impressed audiences everywhere with it’s unique story, breakneck pace, and commitment to solid action, acting, and storytelling, and now, after what seems like an eternity, Hell On Wheels returns with its third season; a season which could quite possibly be the best we’ve seen so far.

After the devastating effects of the season two finale (which not only saw major character deaths, but left both the inhabitants of the town, and the town itself, torn to pieces) we pick up the tale of the infamous railroad race a few months down the line; after Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount, Non-Stop) finally decides to piece himself back together, and take control of the railroad, petitioning the board to let him oversee development of the Union Pacific Railroad, and winning.

And therein lies the crux of this season’s plot; with Bohannon now in charge, Durant (Colm Meaney, Law Abiding Citzen) isn’t happy. He still thinks it’s his railroad, and he’ll do anything he can to reassert his power, and regain control; meaning the two men are constantly butting heads, and despite both wanting to see the railroad completed, and beat the Central Pacific Railroad company, they’ll try to win little battles over one another, and have no trouble affecting progress in order to achieve their own ends; amidst a backdrop of events which includes a cholera outbreak, periodic raids, Indian attacks, Mormon unpleasantries, and an impending Range-War, as well as a couple of kidnappings, food shortages, and potential workers’ strikes.

We also see a number of new characters introduced this season; including a presidential candidate who fought against Bohannon in the recent Civil War (General Ulysses Grant, portrayed by Bride Wars’ Victor Slezak), a female news reporter (Jennifer Ferrin, Sex and the City 2) investigating the conditions at Hell on Wheels and the way in which the railroad operates, a number of high-ranking railroad board members, and even a US senator (Wayne Duvall, Lincoln); all of whom have their own character arcs, just like the returning characters of Elam Ferguson (Common, Now You See Me), Eva (Robin McLeavy, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Mickey (Phil Burke, This Is 40), his brother Sean (Ben Esler, The Pacific), Psalms (Dohn Norwood, Bruce Almighty), and the man whose return was always up in the air, The Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2).

Anson Mount once again carries the season as the strong silent type with Cullen, having a range of new problems to deal with in taking charge of the railroad (including feeding watering and sheltering the men, dealing with obviously soft board members, rubbing up against a conspiring Durant, and even having to negotiate with various hostile parties along the way to the finish line), and he once again delivers an easily watchable performance, delivering something just a little different this time around; as he’s still a quiet man of action, and follows his own rigid moral code, but Bohannon’s actually calming down this season, and it’s interesting to see him play up the generally gruff man’s softer side.

Meaney is the same as ever as Durant (corrupt, conniving, and excellent at appearing the political prick his character is), and while many characters haven’t changed they also have a lot to deal with (Sean and Mickey, for example, are the same people they always were, yet new ventures, deals, and unavoidable accidents place an entirely new strain on their already tense relationship), but Eva and Mr Ferguson have a truly tough time of it during season 3; getting to really showcase their acting abilities with a full range of emotions from being joyously happy, to rage-fuelled, and indescribably sad; as the couple (who already have a hard time of it, being as he’s a black man in America, in 1867, and she’s a white woman, ex-whore, who’s been marked up by the Indian tribe she used to belong to) begin by rejoining the railroad town of Hell On Wheels (where Elam is given a very good job as head of railroad police), and welcoming a new baby into the world, but quickly find other influences have desires to take their undeniably white baby, and end up with a number of huge relationship strains, near death experiences, and both get put through the ringer in their own way; proving Common and Robin McLeavy are both solid actors (her more so).

Most of the new characters aren’t given enough screen time to adequately grow as real people, but all serve their purpose and are acted by more than capable individuals, as really, while they do serve a purpose, the crux of the tale revolves around the people we’ve already invested in for two years, and with season three we’re treated to having every one of our old favourites begin an entirely new journey, ensuring the show still seems as fresh as ever, the characters continue to grow and realistically evolve, and that while some elements may be a touch predictable, you’re never sure exactly where the show is going to go; the writing is so good, and the trails the writers introduce are so intense, that you become fully drawn into every single episode, and don’t even realise (with the often seemingly stand-alone nature of many episodes) that a range of obstacles and barriers are being setup to blockade Bohannon’s progress, and provide a hugely entertaining, and gut-bustingly gripping final two episodes to the series.

The budget was obviously upped considerably for Season three as well as where while Hell On Wheels has always looked good (despite the odd cheap looking explosion) its always been a fairly localised show, with any excursions away from the main encampment comprising of generic, steady-cammed woodlands, yet season three brings us not only the spectacular set dressings we’ve grown accustomed to (taking them, and the costuming to a whole new level during a number of instances), but many more locations (including a couple of permanent towns, a fort, a range, and an Indian settlement), and upping the ante considerably where outdoor shoots are concerned; using a number of fly-by cams and other effects to enhance several horse-riding sequences and gunfights.

Hell on Wheels Season 3 (Photo by: Chris Large/AMC)
Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon

Season three once more retains the breakneck pace it began with (so much so that certain individual episodes have enough backbone to be fleshed out into full-grown movies), and the writing here is actually better than ever; it may have been nice to take a little more time with certain issues (the cholera for example), and there is a little bit of repetition to be found (with the seesaw of power constantly tipping between Cullen and Durant), but we cover so much ground every episode, and stumble upon a huge range of problems which could affect real characters like these, and the progress of the railroad, that it’s a joy to watch every fast-paced second of this expedition.

So with strong acting, solid writing, and a swollen budget delivering tense action, a full range of emotions, and exploring an always fascinating period of history, there’s really nothing to dislike about Hell On Wheels Season 3; a fantastic show, which reaches all new heights, remains gripping with every single episode, and will having you yearning for season four as soon as its finished.


In terms of picture quality, the video presentation of the Hell On Wheels Season 3 DVD is very strong; whilst a consistent picture would be nigh-on-impossible to attain across ten episodes of extremely varying locales, lighting, and filming methods, any dips of quality are extremely slight and negligible, and for the most part the image remains impressively strong; inspiring a decent level of depth, with solid fine detail, and a slightly warm but consistent and intentional palette leading to glowing, but still inherently natural looking skintones. Black levels are more than acceptable, and thankfully there are very few noticeable anomalies, or issues, with the video, meaning the image quality should be more than adequate for any fan of the show.


Likewise the 5.1 surround sound audio track accompanying Hell On Wheels Season 3 is suitably strong when needs be, containing consistently clear dialogue, excellent fidelity, and an effect use of the bass when needs be, all accompanying a plethora of perfect sound effects which utilise the surround channels well and combine to create a solid audio experience which is far more robust than you’d expect with many TV shows.


In terms of special Features the Hell On Wheels Season 3 DVD is also loaded up, though many of the bonus materials on offer do have an exceedingly promotional EPK feel to them; including the brief Look at Season 3 (a bit of spoiler free promo), Where Season 2 Left Off (a handy reminder, given the length of time since Season 2 was released, though stupidly included on only the final disc).

We also have a number of short ‘behind the scenes’ segments (all taken from AMC.com) for each episode, which while containing cast and crew interviews, and a small amount of behind the scenes footage, serve as little more than extended trailers for each individual episode, providing no production details, no anecdotes, and nothing more than promotional talk of character motivations and what’s coming up on Hell On Wheels; creating a somewhat substantial, though content lacking group of extras which are acceptable, though far from extensive.

The Bottom Line:

Whilst the DVD maybe slightly lacking in terms of special features, the show itself is far from lacking; telling the tale of the brutal quest to build the American railroads through the eyes of some excellently acted, well fleshed out characters, and gripping story arcs which combine to make Hell On Wheels Season 3 the best season to date. Coupled with great picture, and a powerful soundtrack, there’s really nothing to quaff about with this release; a fantastic third chapter to a fantastic show, which is well worth the money.

Matt Wheeldon@TheMattWheeldon.

Hell on Wheels Season 3 DVD ratings

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Matt Wheeldon is the Founder, and Editor in Chief of Good Film Guide. He still refers to the cinema as "the pictures", and has what some would describe as a misguided appreciation for Waterworld.