'Hell on Wheels' review: Old West drama

Elam Ferguson in a scene from " Hell

Elam Ferguson in a scene from " Hell On Wheels." (Credit: AMC)

THE SHOW "Hell on Wheels"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC (second-season premiere)

WHAT SUNDAY'S ABOUT Under that broad Nebraska sky -- which seems to be glowering and dark, even when the sun is out -- the transcontinental railroad continues to push further west. But progress has slowed. Indians remain a threat, and suddenly there's a new one -- Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), who has taken up with a band of desperadoes intent on robbing every train that rolls by with the railroad workers' payroll onboard.

Bohannon is on the run after killing an innocent man (in the first-season finale) he believed had killed his wife.

"I can prove I'm innocent," the man said. Bohannon strangled him anyway, only to pry proof of his innocence from his cold dead grip. Meanwhile, Elam Ferguson (Common) is the new muscle appointed by Durant (Colm Meaney) to guard the payroll, while "The Swede" Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl) has a new (and unsavory) role.

MY SAY Despite good numbers for its first season, "Hell on Wheels" never caught a buzz, and there's a reason for that: It can be surprisingly listless. The series bumbles around in the dark (real and figurative), seeking some larger meaning that always seems to elude its grasp. It's moody, bleak and dour, and you begin to wonder if there's any "there" there on those windswept plains.

Yes, former Confederate soldier Bohannon -- propelled by a tragedy too deep for words (which is OK, because he's a man of few words) -- is still fighting his own personal Civil War. You also may begin to wonder, however, whether he's lost all moral authority after last season's closing episode. Bohannon's not only impetuous. He's (even worse) apparently stupid. But Mount's performance still seems exactly right.

He's the Man with No Name -- that classic Western archetype as sturdy and durable as a lonesome pine or majestic butte. I just wish he wasn't as expressive as either.

BOTTOM LINE Where is this headed? Who knows? But it's heading there slowly.

Nevertheless, the cast -- Common, Meaney, Heyerdahl and Mount -- is good, while the Old West still feels especially beautiful and perilous.

GRADE B-

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