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'Hell on Wheels' returns

Are we suffering from such an embarrassment of riches on TV these days that no one notices when a show that’s merely excellent returns for a new season?  Did the return of the best show on the air, “Breaking Bad,” completely overshadow everything else this weekend?  Because “Hell on Wheels” started its third season, and I only found out because a long-forgotten DVR program fired up and recorded it for me.

HOW is a splendid, gritty Western, an admittedly threadbare genre since “Deadwood” abruptly departed.  Actually, HOW might only be one Ian McShane-level performance short of true greatness.  The main character, a Rebel soldier turned muscle-for-hire (and now chief engineer) on a transcontinental railroad project, is equal parts menacing and sympathetic, a man watching the railroad devour his soul.  “Hell on Wheels” is literally the name of the mobile rail construction town where the show is set, but it also feels like a metaphor for how so many of these characters know the railroad is both a necessity, and damnation.  As protagonist Cullen Bohannon put it during the third-season premiere, he’s prayed over a lot of graves along the side of that railroad, and filled more than his share of them.

It’s a rough, occasionally downright vicious show that sometimes does terrible things to appealing cast members.  It has a few things to say about salvation, along with all those ruminations on damnation.  And it’s interesting to watch its rough-edged heroes become legends in spite of themselves.  They can see the pages of history turning before their eyes, and sometimes they can’t get out of the way before a chapter slams shut and crushes them.  It feels like the network only grudgingly awarded “Hell on Wheels” this third season.  I hope they make the most of it.

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