AMC's western drama Hell on Wheels' move to another locale this season is audacious. Leaving Cheyenne, Wyoming for Truckee, California also provides more story enhancers, like past season 5 of The Walking Dead leaving Atlanta, Georgia for Alexandria, Virginia.
Usually a different story location refreshes a TV series. Take the action thriller 24, beginning at the Los Angeles location of CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit), then having the story locale move to Washington D.C. in season 7, to New York City for the series finale season 8 in 2010, to a foreign film shoot in London for a twelve-episode miniseries in 2014. As for Hell on Wheels' recent airing of the second episode of the new season titled, "Mei Mei," it's so far so good.
Change of locale brings also an obvious change of new characters. Sure, as main protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), while foreman-chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad at the mobile camp called Hell on Wheels, previous season 4 did not lack fresh characters. For then, Bohannon had both the Provisional Governor of Cheyenne John Campbell and the outlaw Sidney Snow to deal with. Yet, in Sidney Snow's case, he died in season 4's episode 11 from two gunshot wounds suffered in the previous episode by Hell on Wheels town Reverend Ruth Cole. Now in brand new season 5, while working in a similar role at the Central Pacific Railroad, only this time also as a stakeholder (a small percentage ownership), Cullen Bohannon has to deal with new antagonists besides also competitor and former ally Thomas 'Doc' Durant (Colm Meaney) of the Union Pacific Railroad. For it is as they say: nature abhors a vacuum.
Enter Collis Huntington (Tim Guinee), tycoon of the Central Pacific Railroad that employs 15,000 men, among whom are also a contingent of Mormons and Chinese at Truckee, California, and the man who personally sought Bohannon to be second in command in past season 4 finale. Then there's Chang, played by Chinese American Actor Byron Mann, a powerful and influential businessman of Truckee's Chinatown who provides the Chinese labor and also prostitution. And there's James Strobridge (Reg Rogers), a construction superintendent under Cullen Bohannon, who admonishes Bohannon who being also a stakeholder, for refusing to sit behind a desk as he shares the risks alongside the Chinese workers. The murderous Thor Gundersen since season 1, also known as The Swede, who tried to reinvent himself as the Mormon Bishop Joseph Dutson in past season 3 episode 6, is now among the Mormon workers as Brother Thor. Which of course finally, Bohannon does meet his elusive adversary The Swede at the end of season 5's episode 1.
While Cullen Bohannon is always wary of The Swede, he now has to be wary of Chang, since he finds out Chang has also been skimming off the hard earned wages of the Chinese workers. Bohannon learns about this from a young Chinese railroad worker named Fong in season 5's episode 1 titled, "Chinatown," whom Bohannon also employs as his interpreter. Bohannon confronts Chang, to which Chang later replies, "Well, the Chinese workers are contracted through my company Mr. Bohannon, for a negotiated price. How we then compensate those workers is Chinese business." Followed by Chang being left with a warning as Bohannon says, "If you don't want me back in here regular, pay the workers what they're owed."
The mission of the Central Pacific Railroad is simple enough, to cut a path through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, onward through the Nevada desert, then on to Utah. Yet the execution would be formidable, which is where Cullen Bohannon comes in. For his plan is to switch worker sites, employing the Chinese workers for the mechanized rock removal from a tunnel shaft working double shifts, while employing the more numerous Mormon workers for snow removal east of the tunnel.
Cullen Bohannon, ex-Confederate calvary captain, whom General Ulysses S. Grant, former commander of all Union forces during the latter part of the Civil War, had sought to complete the Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne in season 3 episode 6, to further signify the uniting of a once divided nation, is basically alone now.
Gone is the departed Elam Ferguson, ex-slave turned chief of police at Hell on Wheels in Cheyenne and former associate and friend, played by the multi-talented actor, singer and songwriter known as Common. Which incidentally, it's now known specifically why Common had left the show, though he then gave a general reason that acting had heavily encroached upon his music. Yet, he left to miraculously and simultaneously to do both. The result of which, was not only having an acting role in the film Selma, but also having teamed with fellow musician- singer and songwriter John Legend to craft the theme song for the 2014 film titled, "Glory," which won a 2015 Oscar for Best Original Song. And what a magnificently moving, haunting and soaring piece of musical achievement, with heartfelt congratulations to them both.
Gone also is Ruth Cole, a previous potential love interest, whom Bohannon had finally confessed his love to her shortly before she departed. And gone also is his Mormon wife Naomi Bohannon along with his baby son, whom both had miraculously escaped the smallpox outbreak at Fort Smith in the previous season, but whose whereabouts are currently unknown. Which was the main reason Bohannon signed on for the Central Pacific Railroad, taking Collis Huntington at his word to use the company's resources to help find his wife and child.
And yet, Bohannon is not totally alone, as the first two episodes of season 5 now hint at the forging of new friendships. The young Chinese interpreter and railroad worker named Fong, comes to Bohannon's aid just after the Sacramento locomotive secured to a sled snaps a brake. Fong countermands Bohannon's previous orders, yet has the men secure a heavy chain to the sled, and tie the other end to a tree for a slow descent, a plan that gains Bohannon's respect.
Later, Bohannon visits Fong in a tent to start the next day's work, yet finds the Chinese worker bleeding from a wound. While trying to give prompt aid, Fong angrily fends off, yet Bohannon persists, succeeding to tear off Fong's shirt just enough to partially see Fong's breasts. Now shocked to find out that Fong is a young woman, played by Angela Zhou, she says, "Please don't say about this. They kill me." Then after leaving the tent, Bohannon tells Strobridge that Fong is a sick list.
Next, Fong disobeys orders to stay in the tent. Then later, she sees Bohannon in danger involving the locomotive sled which afterwards has them both almost tumbling off a mountain precipice. Trying to haul Fong up by a rope, now dangling on the other end, she cuts the rope to save Bohannon's life. Only later, Bohannon finds Fong alive, whose fall was cushioned by a deep pocket of snow. Another Chinese worker named Tao, father of Fong, played by Tzi Ma, now also respects Bohannon, both for finding his daughter and for keeping her secret whose real name is Mei.
The August/September 2014 issue of Cowboys & Indians has a cover story about Anson Mount, standing with arms akimbo, with that I'm all business Bohannon look. For on page 109 the actor says, "Here's the deal. These days, whenever a male role comes up, they immediately start looking at Australians. It's like, we don't have any men left over here." And also, that he's grateful that casting directors Amanda Mackey Johnson and Cathy Sandrich both pushed to have an American, hopefully a Southern American. It's something I've long noticed and had written about, especially about British actors, in a previous Jan 2015 Huffpost blog. Then also in the July/August 2015 issue of The Atlantic, there's a similar article by Terrence Rafferty on page 96, titled, "The Decline of the American Actor." Anyways to Mr. Anson Mount, glad you made it.