Hell on Wheels Season 5 Premiere Review: Chinatown

Hell on Wheels season 5 is back on AMC, and

This review contains some Hell on Wheels season 5 premiere spoilers.

The Hell on Wheels season 5 premiere opens with Cullen hallucinating about his wife and child. The longing is palpable as he strolls along the river’s bank while the scene plays out his mind’s eye. Within a few frames, viewers are greeted by the harsh reality of scaling the side of a mountain before reaching the top.

The overall theme of this chapter is compare and contrast, or better yet, bittersweet. Cullen has left behind everyone and everything familiar in Cheyenne.  His wife Naomi left him because he couldn’t or didn’t know how to be the type of husband she desired, Mormonism aside. She and their son William haven’t fared too well in the month since Cullen last saw them. Brigham Young has cast them out of all Mormon settlements to fend for themselves because he disapproves of their marriage. Bohannon and Huntington are competing with Thomas Durant to clear and level mountains as they race to outdo each other.

Back on solid ground, and on horseback, Cullen introduces viewers to Truckee, California, and a handful of new characters. An additional snake slithering in the Bohannon’s garden is John Strobridge, a contemptuous racist if there ever was one. Last season viewers dealt with Campbell, but this time around we’ll have more villains to root for their comeuppance.

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Enter the well-coiffed, mysterious Mr. Chang, who seizes every opportunity to brag about his past royal connections. I’m intrigued by the thick welts covering his back. Perhaps it will only be a few episodes to discover who inflicted such punishment and why. Chang is in charge of the Chinese immigrant railroad workers, an opium dealer and a pimp.

This is the first time I recall a television show exploring the story of the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad. It couldn’t have come a better time, as this is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of their integral involvement.

The camerawork feels different somehow in this first episode, or perhaps I’m reading too much into the alternating views of particular scenes. Whatever the case, I enjoyed it.

Where does Cullen get his gall when confronting Mr. Chang about fair compensation for the Chinese workers? At different past intervals, I’ve wondered if Bohannon has a white savior complex. Cullen can’t seem to help himself when it comes to those on the bottom of the social/ethnic ladder.

Fictional retelling of historical events can sometimes leave me unsettled. This was the case with the white folks having dinner while casually mocking and discussing the treatment of Chinese workers. The Irish, who were paid three dollars a day versus one dollar a day for the Chinese, weren’t subjected to a similar scrutiny.

I’m curious to see what will unfold for the exiled Mormon workers, and if they’ll make a valuable contribution to the building of the railroad. What’s The Swede plotting in Truckee after having been defrocked in Fort Smith? I suspect his hidden stash of rifles in an out-of-the-way barn will come to no good.

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Unlike in Cheyenne, there’s a three-way power play in Truckee between Collis Huntington, Cullen and Mr. Chang. Collis needs loyalty, Cullen wants fair treatment and respect for the workers, and Chang is determined to keep a vise grip on the workers with an assortment of drugs and gangland brute force.

The Swede accuses Cullen of being ‘the devil’, however there’s another candidate who no one’s paying attention to and probably trusts. Durant has a double-agent in Huntington’s office. He should be watched closely before he slips out of town with stagecoach driver Mary Fields.

I think we’re off to a good start to season five. What do you think after the first episode? Please feel free to comment below.


3.5 out of 5