|Title:||Hell On Wheels: The Complete Fourth Season|
|Certificate:||US: Not Rated
|Audio Format:||Dolby Digital 5.1|
8 Hours 53 mins
|Release Date:||USA: Aug 11 2015
UK: Aug 17 2015
|See If You Like:||Deadwood,
Sons of Anarchy
Tell ’em Bohannon’s comin’, and Hell’s comin’ with him…
Previous season review: Hell On Wheels: The Complete Third Season DVD Review.
Despite still flying under the radar for the most part (at least as far as UK audiences are concerned), AMC’s western/drama series Hell On Wheels has continued to grow in quality; with the fourth season being Hell On Wheels‘ best season yet.
Work on the railroad is largely stalled this season, as everyone and their dog tries to find a way over, round, through, or under a nearby mountain. Obviously though, there’s one man who can and will get the job done at any cost; a man who’s not even with the railroad at the start of the season (having spent the past few months residing at the local Mormon settlement); Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount, Non-Stop).
Bohannon, no longer equal to railroad boss Mr Durant (Colm Meany, The Commitments), has to start again from the ground-up; going through a number of jobs this season, none of which seem to fit the character perfectly anymore. He’s a simple rock-shoveler, a chief engineer, a lawman, an outlaw, a mediator, finance man, gunslinger, and even family man though, one thing hasn’t changed, he’s still the heart, the soul, and the clear figurehead of Hell On Wheels – a character who’s unflappable morals keep him engaging, entertaining and, above all, exciting to watch.
Anson Mount’s performance does much the same, and he’s as likeable as ever playing the stoic man-of-action, man’s-man, ladies’ favourite, and man-of-few-words Cullen Bohannon. Season 4 also gives him the chance to show much more emotion than we’re used to (all handled well, usually quietly, and not to the detriment of the character’s manly nature at all), and while Anson may not be the best at expressing gut-wrenching emotion, it’s great to see the character go to new places.
Yet, while Bohannon is a key player in regards to just about everything happening in the season, he’s actually more of a supporting star than anything (a figurehead to prop-up the action, as Max was in Mad Max: Fury Road – clearly Imperator Furiosa’s film, which simply bought Max along for the ride), as Season 4 has a number of large and small arcs taking place throughout it’s 13 episode run, focussing on specific characters and events, which aren’t Bohannon-centric at all.
As the series is largely stalled in one location (the newly formed and expanding city of Cheyenne) it’s become very similar in nature to the sadly finished FX show Sons of Anarchy; where, from their happy small-town base, a gang of hoodlums who’re happy to go outside the law to further their cause and protect one another, have their equilibrium rocked by the arrival of a new, morally questionable (often state-employed) enemy. Season 4‘s new villainous figurehead taking the form of the town’s new governor, John Campbell (Jake Weber, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead); a man not averse to hanging someone simply to make a statement on arrival, muscling in on local businesses, employing murderers, and taking over the town by any semi-legal, quasi-legal, and sometimes outright illegal means he deems fit.
Needless to say these actions put the new governor at odds with Bohannon on a number of occasions but, while the governor’s arrival and disruption of Cheyenne’s peace form a key arc across the whole season, it’s really Campbell and Durant’s frictious relationship which forms the crux of the matter; the comedy, the drama, and the excitement and tension as they continually vie for power in the new railroad hub; giving us a fun battle of one-upmanship to enjoy as the series progresses (albeit one with an increasingly dangerous edge).
Other characters have their own arcs; Mickey (Phil Burke, This Is 40) comes up against some stiff opposition in the casino racket; Eva (Robin McLeavy, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) struggles to find her way in Cheyenne, and some old faces return with varying degrees of impact, while Bohannon rubs up against an old war-buddy who causes a stir in the town. The best mini-arc however, revolves around an emotional toil taken by the quiet, respected, and well-loved preacher Ruth; a small but pivotal plot which gives Fame‘s Kasha Kropinski far more to do than previous seasons, and proves she’s actually a hugely talented actress.
One of the best things about Season 4 though, is how it rectifies a big Season 3 gripe (rushing through potentially interesting plots too quickly) by allowing time for each of these mini-arcs to play out naturally, and fully resonate with viewers; Ruth’s main plot lasts a good three episodes, another former big player is given two full episodes to resolve some issues fans had left over from Season 3; and this time factor not only gives us more of a chance to take in what’s happening, but makes each emotional payoff/conclusion that much more weighted, and heartfelt.
It’s not all whiskey and whores however, as this otherwise fantastic season finds itself bookended by the season’s biggest pitfalls; one of which saw AMC (looking to open with a dash of excitement) choosing to CG animate a railroad accident which ends up looking so poor it’s utterly laughable (to the point you’d question its place in a Sharknado outing).
The biggest problem with Hell On Wheels Season 4 however, comes in the form of its entire final episode; a season finale which not only feels forced, rushed, and flat-out dull in places (especially given the emotional toll the preceding episodes have had), but completely out of place with the rest of the season; an episode which has no organic flow, but feels like it was cooked-up at a shareholders’ meeting, solely to drum up business for Season 5. Using a filler episode packed with needless exposition and next to no payoff is not the way to close a season (any viewer would be best serving stopping at the end of episode 12 – a natural concluding point – and saving the finale to use as the first episode of Season 5).
However, overall, with continually strong acting, the addition of exciting new characters (Weber’s Governor may be a fairly clichéd character, but proves to be an excellent addition to the show; as does the fun but volatile outlaw Sydney Snow – played by the largely unknown Jonathan Scarfe), and consistently strong writing (which is even better here than previous seasons), there are very few hinderances to Season 4‘s success.
Thankfully now taking the time to dwell on larger events, allow them to process, and achieving the maximum emotional impact, Hell On Wheels is better than ever. Old favourites return, exciting new characters join the Cheyenne melting pot, and excellent writing allows Season 4 to be more story-based than ever before (but don’t worry, it stills builds to a good old-fashioned shootout, as any western should).
Similar to the Hell On Wheels Season 3 DVD release, the picture quality here is very strong (astoundingly so for a DVD only release). Fine detail is consistently strong, textures are well represented, blacks are plenty deep enough, and fleshtones remain stable and naturalistic throughout. Obviously there are going to be minor inconsistencies across a 13 episode series, though what little dips there are prove both minor, and negligible. Another strong Hell On Wheels release from Entertainment One.
Please note images are promotional stills provided by AMC, and do not accurately represent the image quality on the DVD itself.
Again the 5.1 surround sound audio track accompanying Hell On Wheels Season 4 is suitably strong. Rear channels are well utilised when needs be (during explosions, crowd-heavy scenes, and obviously shootouts), bass is weighty and well utilised, dialogue is well anchored and always perfectly intelligible, and the entire mix is perfectly prioritised. Season 4 also does a fantastic job of utilising silence; as while the music, effects, and dialogue all sound excellent, several of this season’s more emotional moments strip the mix back to the bare bones, leaving nothing but silence (or possibly extremely muted ambient effects), and it works brilliantly.
As with previous seasons there are a number of bonus materials included with this release, though sadly they’re all EPK based; including the brief Look at Season 4 (a spoiler free promo), a short look at this season’s new characters, a set-tour of Cheyenne (hosted by Anson Mount and Art Director Bill Ives), and two fun-but-brief “on the set” featurettes (one with Colm Meany, the other Jake Weber).
Other special features include an exceedingly brief retrospective with Anson Mount discussing how the events of the season have affected Bohannon (a more in-depth version of the same could’ve been far more worthwhile), and a series of short-but-interesting making-of featurettes residing under the name ‘Inside Hell On Wheels‘; which combine behind the scenes footage, interviews, and clips from the show to give us a look at each episode, and an hour of decent content which makes the extras package more than acceptable overall.
The Bottom Line:
Hell On Wheels fans will be pleased to know eOne have brought the show to DVD once more with excellent video and audio quality, as well as a plethora of special features (even if they are a little too EPK heavy). Fans should also be pleased to know the show just keeps on getting better; building on the successes of Season 3 to bring us the most gripping and exciting season of Hell On Wheels so far.
Lighter on action, but heavier on story and emotion, Hell On Wheels Season 4 continues the adventures of our railroad’s favourite characters while introducing some brilliant new additions. The writing’s better than ever, the acting and set dressing are great, and despite a disappointingly poor season finale it’s more than worth taking the journey to get there.
Now boarding… Hell On Wheels Season 4 is one train ride you won’t want to miss.
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