Two of AMC's regular series have returned within the past 24 hours: the electric Breaking Bad and the surprisingly mundane Hell on Wheels. [I shouldn't have to say this but: OMG! SPOILERS BELOW!]
The latter continues to befuddle me, as its writers continue to seem to be every bit as lost in the wilderness as Bohannon (Anson Mount) was in the opening of the new season. Not only did this season essentially begin with a complete reboot of the camp that bears the show's name, thus creating a gulf between the new season and much of what had gone before, in complete contradiction of what has been the hallmark of modern TV (i.e. you have to watch from the beginning to really "get it"), but said reboot carried with it the same middling performances and hardly exciting "plot twists" that have dogged the series since its beginning.
Most concerning is the appearance of Jennifer Ferrin as Louise Ellison, intrepid reporter. Firstly, it's clear that Ferrin has arrived to replace Dominique McElligott, who was killed off at the end of last season in a rather stilted attempt at a "shock ending". She's also playing the role of the "assertive woman", which HoW has had a distinct lack of other than occasional outbursts by Eva (Robin McLeavy.) But the role is so obvious that it detracts from Ferrin's presence as anything other than a device. It's as if the new showrunner, John Shiban, told his writers: "Create somebody that 21st century women can identify with!" (murmuring from the writers' room) "Aha! The new Lois Lane paradign! Perfect!" (silence) "What? It works for Superman!" Yeah, see, because it's always a good idea to base your characters on archetypes created to modernize an extremely limited concept like Superman that has never and will never translate well to any medium other than comics (and not even very well in that one.) Ellison, as a character, seems completely out of place because, well, she is. Most newspapers of that era didn't employ journalists looking to tell the "true story of the West" or much of anything else. They were scandal rags that concerned themselves solely with local news and local politics, except on the East Coast, where they engaged in national politics and always with a pretty significant slant to one side or the other. Furthermore, no newspaper would have sent a woman to a railroad camp. They would have found some aspiring (male) novelist to create fanciful tales for a few weeks that would snare readers interested in fiction and that would be the end of it. She makes no sense from an historical viewpoint and, even given creative license, she makes no sense from a dramatic standpoint, either, because she's too obvious. If you're going to present your semi-ethical characters with dilemmas that even raise the hairs on their necks, the last thing you need is to emphasize that subtlety (which then kinds of loses its nature) with the acerbic reporter pointing out that "frontier justice" is a complete misnomer. No shit, lady. We kinda got that from the director's endless shots of Anson Mount's grim-yet-determined face.
In addition to that, the rest of the cast has returned still doing the same old, not really interesting things as before. Durant (Colm Meaney) is paying off politicians in his dastardly attempt to reclaim the railroad. Ferguson (Common) is still feeling like Bohannon's hired hand and constantly asserting that he isn't. Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) is still the moral center of a camp named after Hell by being the only "godly" person there. And on and on. Why am I still watching? I can't say for certain. I think it's mostly because I like gritty Westerns and this aspires to be that and also because this period of history in that section of the country is OVERFLOWING with story potential, almost none of which the show has effectively mined since its inception. Of course, most of said material has to be propelled by interesting characters and very few of those on the show (Eva, most notably) have been that. When the plots stop being transparent and the actors stop speaking in platitudes, perhaps we'll get somewhere. But as long as this is Gunsmoke with a little dirt on it, we really won't. I thought the departure of the Gayton brothers as showrunners would improve things and this event was probably part of the reason for the semi-reboot, but that transformation was second verse, same as the first.
Contrast this, of course, with the return of The Heisenberg Show and it looks even worse. The second half of season 5 promises to be some of the most explosive (perhaps literally...) material in the show's history and that's saying a lot, because they have to wrap up more depth and complexity in 8 episodes than you can find in most of AMC's other offerings combined. The premiere did not disappoint. We all expected Hank to dive back into the case and probably could have even predicted their confrontation in his garage (which was an excellent scene; Dean Norris deserves great credit for his performance there) but combining that with the return of Walt's cancer and the actual fulfillment of his promise to Skyler to step away from the business sets up some interesting paths as we walk toward the M60 stashed in Future Walt's trunk.
And, as usual, almost nothing in the show's repertoire is better than watching Jesse (Aaron Paul) wrestle with the consequences, internal and external, of his past actions. As much as Walt is on the road to self-destruction (if he can get to the end before the cancer does), based on the bad things he's done in the past, Jesse is in lockstep beside him mostly because of the good things he's doing now in an effort to assuage his own guilt. Paul's performance, as he subtly winces every time Walt puts a fatherly hand on his arm to give him the "Just forget it all!" advice, is the best of the show, by far. My one slightly down note about the first episode was the scene with Saul (Bob Odenkirk) who is unfortunately in the situation where the usual shyster routine doesn't fit the circumstances, so he doesn't have as much material to work with. OTOH, it has to be said for those of us in the Detroit area, that despite the tragic circumstances of Drew Sharp's death in the show, I can't hide the little smile I get every time they refer to killing someone of that name... Also, who could possibly not appreciate one of the trademark BB musical montages set to Primus? Killer.
If Hell on Wheels had even one character as interesting as Walt or Jesse or Hank or Saul, there would be something to build on. Shiban says that the show is going to be "about work; about the building of the railroad" and that's great, as long as you're willing to do it with real characters and not the artificial constructs like Ellison. Breaking Bad, meanwhile, has me waiting with bated breath like no show since The Wire.